It is indisputable that physical activity has a plethora of health benefits. These advantages are well-understood and range from reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers, to protecting against the development of debilitating mental health problems such as depression. Despite the clear link between physical exercise and positive health outcomes, nearly 1 in 3 Australians adults are insufficiently active and spend far too much time engaging in sedentary behaviour.
This gap between what we know is good for our health and our actual behaviours can be explained by considering the multi-faceted and complex determinants of health and health-related behaviours. In order to experience these health advantages, it’s not just a simple case of increasing our levels of exercise. Health behaviours are the result of a complex interaction between socioeconomic, environmental, individual and biological factors. For example, those living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas are less likely to engage in adequate levels of physical activity, as well as those living in rural and remote areas. You might also have a negative attitude towards exercise as a result of your upbringing and exposure to sports you didn’t enjoy, and therefore are reluctant to engage in exercise as an adult. There are often many factors at play which shape our activity levels, and it is difficult to pin-point one particular area in which we can address to change our health habits.
Whilst changing our deeply ingrained habits and behaviours might be difficult because of these factors, one thing that is relatively simple and clear is the recommended amount of physical activity we should be doing. The Australian Guidelines on physical activity recommend the following in relation to exercise for adults aged 18 – 64:
- Adults partake in as much exercise as possible, and be physically active on most, if not all, days of the week.
- Doing any physical activity is better than none at all.
- Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, every week.
- Engage in strength training activities at least twice per week.
If you are walking three times a week and attending the gym for a weights sessions at least twice a week, it seems as though you are meeting these guidelines. Notably, however, the more exercise you do the better chance you have of experiencing the health benefits associated with physical activity. I also find that the more you start exercising, the more you want to increase your activity levels because of the enjoyment you derive from the experience.
If you aren’t quite meeting these guidelines, or you are wanting to increase your levels of physical activity because you know it will improve your mental and physical health, there are some things you can do to assist you with this.
How you can increase your physical activity
Firstly, acknowledging the complex factors that influence health behaviours can help remove the guilt many people might feel associated with not doing enough physical activity. We shouldn’t berate ourselves and call ourselves lazy for not doing exercise, as this will diminish confidence and self-efficacy. Instead of putting ourselves down, we should be kind and understanding of why we don’t do enough exercise. This will give us the space to be able to explore ways in which you can increase your levels of physical activity, as opposed to reinforcing negative thoughts that cause low mood and repetition of maladaptive behaviour. This reduction in negative criticism and increase in positive mind-states like optimism and kindness has been shown to promote confidence and overall happiness levels. This type of mental environment is far more fostering of personal growth and development than one that is critical, constantly comparing and overly negative.
2. Increase your incidental exercise
Now that you’ve improved your mindset and perception of yourself, you’re going to be in a better position to make long-lasting change to your exercise behaviours. One of the ways to do this in a manner that will not significantly impact your life is so increase your incidental exercise. This type of exercise is the accumulation of small amounts of physical activity you do throughout the day, often without thinking about it. This can include walking to work, taking the stairs instead the elevator, walking to the printer in the office every time you print something (as opposed to waiting until everything is printed before grabbing it), and so on. For me, I began parking a 20 minute walk from my office which has allowed me save on the expensive parking fees as well as increasing my daily steps. It is a perfect time for me to listen to a thought-provoking podcast or some new music and it has actually become something I look forward to each day. It certainly hasn’t been a burdensome change in my life and it’s something I highly recommend.
3. Try anything and find something you love
I’ll admit it, I’m a runner. Before you roll your eyes at me and dismiss me as a lunatic let me assure you I completely understand why you’d have this opinion. I used to despise running and I was terrible at it. I know right, how can you be “bad” at something so fucking simple of which you barely have to think about? Well that was me, and I used to avoid it like I avoided doing my tax return (g’day ATO x). But I persevered through the suffering and now it’s one of my most enjoyable forms of exercise. I genuinely look forward to searching for an upbeat soundcloud mix and going for a run at the beach with the sun bearing down on me. Based on my experience, my advice is to try anything, maybe even a few times in different contexts, and keep trying until you land something that works for you. It could be pole-dancing, rock-climbing, walking whilst listening to a podcast, playing tennis, yoga, HIIT or tabata workouts, or even doing the beep test in your background (only for the true sociopaths of the world). Whatever it is, I am certain you can find some form of exercise that you will eventually love.
4. Become mindful of how you feel after exercise
One of the reasons I developed a love for running was because I became aware of how it made me feel during and after. I paid particular attention to the endorphins pulsing through me after I had run a few kilometres, and I realised how good I felt afterwards. Even if I was in a hideously negative mood, a run could change the trajectory of my whole day from a bad day to a great one. To become mindful of your feelings and the direct impact your behaviours are having on your mood is one of the most empowering and significant realisations you can have. Most of us meander through life never truly understanding what makes us feel good overall. We reach for the chocolate bar or the television remote because we think that’s what makes us happy. But we never think about what might be causing our sore stomach or lethargic mood. We often don’t see the link between doing no exercise and feeling tired or grumpy. The more we increase our awareness of the impact of sedentary behaviour on our lives, the more we can be motivated get moving.
5. Reduce your sitting time
The Australian Government also provide guidelines on sedentary behaviour, namely:
- Minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting.
- Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.
This ties in closely with increasing your incidental exercise, however it’s worth including as a stand-alone point because it’s important to acknowledge the impact that our sedentary behaviour has on our health. Sitting down for extended periods of time increases your risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, and can also have a detrimental impact on your mental health. Not only is reducing your sedentary time important, it can also be relatively easy to implement changes. This can include behaviours such as using a stand-up desk at work, utilising your free-time to walk the dog as opposed to playing COD (apparently i’m expecting 15 year old boys to be reading these articles..), or simply just standing up every 30 minutes and stretching. You might have a sign above your desk reminding you to take regular breaks, or position your printer further away to force yourself to stand up more regularly. Becoming aware of how much you spend sitting or laying down and recognising when you should implement breaks is an important step to changing your behaviour.
Realise the importance of exercise
Whilst there are many complex factors that explain why a lot of us aren’t getting enough exercise, ultimately we need to acknowledge that we should all be trying to do more. The health benefits, both physical and mental, are clear and categorical. In order to reduce our risk of developing cardiovascular disease, some cancers, diabetes, and reduce our risk of developing depression, we need to focus on increasing our levels of physical activity. In order to do this, I argue that we need to develop a self-compassionate and mindful approach to our behaviour. To adopt a positive and kind voice in your head as opposed to a critical and negative one will help to boost self confidence and provide motivation to improve behaviours. Moreover, having a deeper awareness of how you feel before, during and after exercise can influence future behaviours and assist in the formation of healthy habits. For me, nothing motivates me to move my body more than remembering how good it makes me feel and how much it impacts my life in a positive way. Even if you only increase your exercise in small amounts, it is better than nothing and will provide the impetus for motivation to engage in further exercise