PENNSYLVANIA: The US Department of Health and Human Services just released a new edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. That sound you hear is Americans collectively sighing.
The guidelines recommend that all adults do at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity at an intensity that elevates the heart rate.
Older adults should add balance exercises. And with the exception of women who are pregnant or nursing, adults should lift weights using all major muscle groups at least twice a week.
The guidelines also recommend that school-aged children and adolescents be active for 180 minutes per week. Preschoolers should be active throughout the day.
Right now you might be thinking, who has time for all this exercise?
EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS
Let’s be honest. Physical activity guidelines can be tough. Maintaining a physically active lifestyle isn’t easy. Life is messy and often gets way of even the best intentions.
The good news is that fitting in big blocks of time for exercise is not necessary to get health benefits. Physical activity don't require to occur in bouts of 10 consecutive minutes or more to be valid.
All activity counts. So that climb up and down the stairs at work every day counts toward your goal (as long as you’re raising your heart rate).
Physical activity isn’t all or nothing. Every little bit comes with health benefits.
HOW TO TACKLE EXERCISE GOALS?
People often feel hopeless about changing their lifestyle dramatically. One way to tackle a large goal is to break it down into smaller pieces.
Consider a marathon runner. No new runner starts off running 42km; each one has to build up to it. They break monstrous goals into smaller pieces that increase steadily over many months.
By tracking your progress, using incrementally more challenging goals, and celebrating milestones of achievement, you can move yourself closer to reaching the big goal.
The first goal you set should be a pretty easy goal – so easy you should be thinking, “Oh, come on! That is too easy!”
Say, for example, you get about 30 minutes of exercise per week. Could you increase to 35 minutes per week for the next three weeks? Once you’ve nailed 35 minutes for 2 to 3 weeks, bump it up to 40 minutes.
The idea here is that you are building slowly, getting used to each step before moving onto the next step. Each step is also enhancing your physical fitness and conditioning so the next step won’t feel much more difficult than the one before.
From a time management perspective, sneaking in an extra five minutes here and there is also far easier than finding time blocks of 30 to 60 minutes.
Come up with a goal that is “Oh, come on!” easy and then go from there. You can track your progress with wearable devices, smartphone apps or good old-fashioned pen and paper. However you track your progress, it is important to have a plan that you can track and keep trying to raise the bar for yourself – ever so gently.
THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR HEALTH
The experts call physical activity the “best buy” in public health.
Experts has concluded that exercise increases our lifespans, prevents that sneaky annual weight gain and reduces the risk of almost every chronic disease: Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many cancers.
No other single behaviour can do as much good for your health. By investing some time into exercise now, you get to cash in later.
Of course, we don’t always make decisions in our long-term self-interest. We are wired more toward immediate rewards, and many health benefits of physical activity take years to appear. Some may be hard to notice at all, like preventing heart disease.
Fortunately, exercise has many immediate benefits. One of the biggest is the “feel good” effect afterwards. People consistently feel more focused, less stressed and more energised after physical activity.
In fact, studies now show that regular physical activity can actually reduce anxiety and depression – with effects equal to antidepressant medication or psychotherapy. We are all just one workout away from feeling better than we do right now.
One word of caution: Be careful not to push too hard too soon. Exercising hard can feel unpleasant. Most people don’t repeat activities that feel unpleasant.
Find something you enjoy and keep it fun if you want that behaviour change to stick.
David E Conroy is professor of Kinesiology and Human Development, Pennsylvania State University and adjunct professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University. Sherry Pagoto is professor of Allied Health Sciences at University of Connecticut. A version of this commentary first appeared on The Conversation.