The Benefits of Exercise and How to Fit it In Your Schedule
Physical activity benefits your physical and mental health in so many ways, it should be an important part of your lifestyle. There is so much research to support the case for exercise, yet so many of us don’t do it. Physical activity is not just for weight loss or to change how you look. It makes people healthier and prevents, improves or delays many chronic health conditions. So if we know exercise is good for us, helping us to live longer and healthier lives, why don’t we don’t all do it regularly?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as, “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work. Both moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity improve health.”
Most evidence suggests that the type of exercise done is far less important than whether to be active at all. About half of adult Americans don't meet one of the most oft-cited guidelines, which calls for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (a fast-walking pace) most days of the week. This doesn’t have to be done in 30-minute increments, you can accumulate that total in bouts of 10 to 15 minutes. About a quarter of American adults say they don’t take the time for any physical activity at all.
Research suggests that the long-term health benefits are not motivating enough to change individuals’ daily habits. Despite that fact, I still want to review some of those amazing physical and mental changes and improvements you can make to your life by getting in regular physical activity.
Just A Few of The Benefits of Physical Activity
Reduce Risk of Some Cancers – Exercise has many effects on the body like the lowering of sex hormones, preventing high blood levels of insulin, reducing inflammation, and managing weight. All these outcomes have been associated with the lower risk of specific cancers and other chronic diseases. While some evidence is observational, more and more evidence is showing that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risk of several types of cancer.
Prevent or Manage Diabetes – Physical activity can lower your blood sugar levels and help your insulin work better. This can cut down your risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. If you already have one of those diseases, exercise can help you manage it.
Improve Heart Health – Cardiovascular exercise trains your heart to beat slower and stronger, so it needs less oxygen to function well; your arteries get springier, so they push your blood along better; and your levels of "good" HDL cholesterol go up. This helps lower your risk of heart diseases. Regular exercise can also lower your blood pressure and triglyceride levels (“bad” cholesterol).
Increase Brain Health & Mood Boosting – Studies have found that exercise can reduce the symptoms of depression, and it changes the brain in ways like antidepressant medications. Physical activity may delay the slide of cognitive decline into dementia, and even once that process has started, exercise can improve certain aspects of thinking.
Improved Quality of Life – Physical activity can provide immediate rewards to your current quality of life. Regular exercise can increase your energy, help you sleep better, boost your immune system and lower your stress level.
How to Make Physical Activity A Part of Your Life
We know it is a good thing, but how do we fit in exercise in our otherwise mostly sedentary busy lives? Plus, exercise is not easy. It is supposed to feel challenging while you do it sometimes, that is how you get stronger, and it eventually feels easier (as you get stronger). Here are several suggestions on how to incorporate more exercise into your life. Some require knowing yourself and what would or would not work for you. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, try different things until you find what is right for you.
Plan a Balanced Routine – a good exercise routine will contain some cardiovascular activity, strength conditioning and stretching.
- When starting out with cardiovascular activity like walking, running or the elliptical, shoot for 20-30 minutes at a pace where you could carry on a conversation if you had to but couldn’t sing a song. If you can sing, you aren’t going fast enough. For heart health, the American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week. According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), moderate intensity means your heart rate should be between 50% - 70% of your maximum heart rate. An approximate way to calculate your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220.
- Strength conditioning should be done at least twice a week. Start with working each major muscle group with a weight that you can lift for 10-12 repetitions with the last reps being very difficult. Don’t work the same muscle group on consecutive days and be sure to warm up with a 5-minute walk or other dynamic activity prior to strength training.
- Stretching should be done after each workout. Static stretches for each major muscle group should be held for 10-30 seconds.
Fit in Exercise in Creative Ways – It can be difficult to fit in (and stick with) a balanced exercise routine with a busy life of kids, work and/or school. Don’t let that stop you! Less structured physical activity counts too. Find activities to do with your family so you get a workout and spend time with your loved ones. Have family bike rides or basketball games. Explore different parks each weekend and take a hike. Don’t have an hour or more to commit to the gym? Find a trainer that does a 30-minute workout session. Or do 10 minutes of walking at different times throughout your day.
Make Exercise Fun – There are so many things to do that can give you the benefits of exercise that you shouldn’t feel like you are stuck doing something you absolutely hate. Try different types of physical activity to find what you enjoy most. Hiking, dancing, swimming and exercise classes are just a few ways to get your movement in. Find what you like best and don’t be afraid to keep trying new things to mix it up.
Enlist a Walking/Running/Workout Class Buddy - Having someone with you can help make exercising more fun and it can also help you to be more likely to stick with it. You will be less likely to skip that workout class if your friend is there waiting for you. Or maybe you have a weekly lunch with a friend that you can start walking before or after.
Focus on The Immediate Perks of Exercise as well as The Future Benefits – Research shows we don’t always stick to things we don’t see instant (or near instant) results from. Health and fitness have many long-term benefits that possibly aren’t seen for years or at all. Getting physical activity may prevent many diseases from ever forming, but sometimes that thought isn’t going to motivate a workout. Focus on the outcomes received from exercise in the present day. For example, the feeling of accomplishment after a run or dance class or doing something you couldn’t have done a month ago. The feeling of happiness on and after a bike ride with your kids. The endorphins making you happy after a tough workout. Look out for the ways physical activity makes your current life better to get you moving and the long-term benefits will come.
Don’t be intimidated by all the information, gym equipment or all the different ways to exercise! It can be as simple as adding a walk to your day. Regular trips to the gym are great, but don't worry if you can't find a large chunk of time to exercise every day. Any amount of activity is better than nothing. To reap the benefits of exercise, when you can’t get in a full workout, get more active throughout your day — take the stairs instead of the elevator or rev up your household chores. Consistency, not perfection, is key!
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