BY EVA NORLYK-HERRIOTT
Forget the treadmill! Take up some form of exercise that you love—whether it’s ultimate frisbee or roller blading or bungee jumping.
For many of us, exercise is like flossing teeth. You know it’s good for you; it’s just hard to get around to doing it. Despite our best intentions, only one in three of us engages regularly in physical activity at a moderate level and one in four of us doesn’t get any exercise at all.
And it’s no wonder. Over the past hundred years, we’ve done our darndest to engineer physical activity out of our lives. We have online shopping, drive-up windows, remote controls, and gadgets to heed every beck and call. Yes, the living is easy.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. As the growing obesity epidemic forces us to realize, physical movement is essential to health. Simply put, most of the major body systems depend on movement to function properly. This is the case not only for the cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal systems, it is equally true for the lymphatic, endocrine, digestive, and respiratory systems. A predominantly sedentary lifestyle causes our bodies to function at suboptimal levels, in turn affecting us physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The list of ailments that can be eliminated or reduced with exercise is nearly endless. Physical activity can lower the risk of the top age-related diseases: heart disease, some cancer, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, and so on. It helps you lose weight, slows aging, and makes you live longer. Exercise is also one of the best documented natural means of improving mental and emotional well-being. It relieves fatigue, depression and anxiety, sleep problems, lack of vitality, and so on. It is a simple equation: regular physical activity improves health; lack of activity undermines it.
We’ve heard all of this before, yet only one in four of us gets enough physical activity. What gives?
We all know the answer: There’s just not enough time! But then again, do we ever not find time for things that are important to us, whether it’s watching our favorite TV show or spending time with friends? For most of us, lack of time isn’t the real reason we don’t exercise. It’s lack of motivation.
And no wonder. The word “exercise” generally conjures up associations of sweaty discomfort, huff and puff drudgery, and “no-fun” exertion. For most people, our past experience with exercise hasn’t been all that great. It’s almost like we have become conditioned to dislike exercise.
According to Jay Kimiecik, professor of health promotion at Miami University in Ohio and author of The Intrinsic Exerciser: Discovering the Joy of Exercise, we all have a built-in desire to move. Look at children at play—running, jumping, frolicking—their sheer joy of movement is evident. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, for most of us, that inherent instinct got squashed; we lost touch with the simple joy of movement.
So take a moment to look at your own exercise demons. What was the turning point for you? Embarrassment in P.E. class? Negative experiences from trying to force yourself to exercise? Failing at a program despite your best intentions? Other common stumbling blocks are the sheer discomfort that physical activity creates when you first start out, or the frustration of not seeing results right away.
Once you develop more awareness of the past experiences that have shaped your attitude, you can patiently begin to “reprogram” yourself to develop more positive feelings about physical activity. According to Kimiecik, people who exercise regularly are motivated from the “inside out,” by the way exercise makes them feel, not from the “outside in.” The more you find ways to connect with physical movement in a positive way, the more it will add a richness to your life that will naturally make you want to do it.
Here are some ways to get started.
A Mind-body Exploration
In our performance-driven culture, exercise has become about accomplishment—tight abs and buns of steel, perfect pecs and bulging biceps. In a typical work-out scenario, the mind is whipping the body into compliance, at best weakening the mind-body connection and at worst reinforcing harmful physical, mental, and emotional patterns.
In contrast, in most “exercise” traditions of the East, such as yoga, tai chi, and the martial arts, physical and mental fitness are inseparable. Exercise activities are an end in themselves, a means to strengthen and calm the mind, while deepening the connection with the body.
Exercise done mindfully provides entirely different results than walking three miles on a treadmill while watching Larry King Live. Whatever type of exercise you do, focus on making the experience as pleasant as possible. Notice what is happening in your body, and make this time an opportunity to connect more deeply with it. As you become more alert to your body’s sensations and signals, you will be amazed at how much you will learn.
Make It Fun
To recapture the joy of movement, pick an activity you enjoy, such as dancing, walking, cycling, gardening, or swimming. Cleaning your house counts, too! Or try some new activities until you find something that really works for you. Don’t go too far too fast and avoid exerting yourself.
Notice the Difference
Keep a journal about how you feel before, during, and after you exercise, or simply make a mental note of it. A good workout will leave you feeling more energized, alert, and relaxed. You may also feel more confident and balanced, and you may find that challenges that seemed stressful before now appear more manageable. Paying attention to what you’re getting out of exercising now, rather than in some distant future, will make it more inherently motivating.
You only need 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day to reap benefits in terms of more energy, greater vitality, and improved health and well-being. And it doesn’t have to come in one big block of time—you can simply accumulate it throughout the day. Your daily routine provides ample opportunities for being more physically active. All it takes is attention, and a slight change of habits.
Park further away from the entrance to the supermarket or your office, take the stairs at work to use the bathroom on a different floor, go for a walk when you chat on the phone with a friend, and so on. Consider using a pedometer to keep track of how many steps you take and aim to build up to 6,000 to 10,000 steps a day.
Become a Morning Exerciser
If you can, do some exercise first thing in the morning. Statistically, people are more likely to stick with a fitness program if they exercise before the day begins and they get busy with other things.
Remember that it takes times to change habits, so keep at it, and when you backslide, simply begin again next day. The most difficult part is getting started and making exercise a routine. Research shows that once you persevere past the six-month point, you are likely to stay active and fit for life.
Once you become hooked on exercise, the benefits are their own reward. It becomes easier to keep your weight down, you feel better, have more energy and vitality, and more zest for life. You might just find that your exercise routine has become as important to you as watching your favorite TV show.
Eva Norlyk-Herriott, Ph.D., LMT, RYT-200, is a writer and bodyworker specializing in therapeutic yoga and massage. Reach her at (641) 470-2737 or Fairfieldyoga@yahoo.com
“If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.”
—Report from the National Institute on Aging