How exercise helps
The dusty tennis shoes. The gym membership that mostly exercises your wallet. The jump rope coiled at the back of the closet. Lots of us have proof that it can be tough to stick with exercising. Pump up your resolve by considering that exercise can:
- prevent heart disease and high blood pressure
- lower your risk for stroke, osteoporosis, colon cancer and diabetes
- improve your sleep
- increase your energy
- decrease some kinds of pain
- boost your immune system
- help with weight management
Exercise matters for your mood too. Millions of people have found it:
- decreases stress, anger and tension
- reduces anxiety and depression
- offers a greater sense of well-being
It's not clear exactly how exercise boosts mood, but experts say it:
- relieves pent-up muscle tension
- stimulates feel-good hormones
- burns off stress hormones
- increases blood flow to the brain
Sweating: the details
Sure, lots of us would rather serve cookies than tennis balls and would rather channel-surf than surf. But some tips can make exercising easier. For one, you don't have to join a glitzy gym: Lots of city recreation departments, senior centers, and YMCAs have great equipment and fun classes (salsa dancing, anyone?) at reasonable rates. Also, find out if you can hit the track at your local high school.
How much exercise do you need?
For your overall health, the American Heart Association recommends
- at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (think walking or a leisurely bike ride) five days a week PLUS strength training twice a week.
- at least 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like jogging or a challenging bike ride) three days a week PLUS strength training twice a week.
The Centers for Disease Control offers more detailed guidelines.
A little twist on the rules: Though 20 or 30-minute sessions may be ideal for health and mood, experts say that you can get plenty of benefit from exercising in just 10-minute spurts too.
For your mood, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise or a combination of aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening three to five days a week. Some research shows that even lower levels of activity may offer mental health benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Before starting to exercise it might be a good idea to check with your doctor if you haven't been active in awhile. Also, you'll likely need to build up slowly. The first week you might try walking on two days for 15 minutes each. Then you can gradually increase the number of days and minutes per session over a few weeks.
Ready, set, don't go until you gently warm up your body. Starting slowly gives your muscles and joints a chance to loosen, which prevents injuries. Around five or 10 minutes of warm-up usually is enough.
Go, but as you work out, remember moderation. Don't push yourself to the point of pain, dizziness or shortness of breath.
Cool down by moving more slowly for around five or 10 minutes to bring your heart rate and body temperature back to normal.
Stretch to relax the muscles you've taxed. Don't force past the point of tension and don't bounce.
Drink water before, during and after a workout. If you wait until you're thirsty, you're already getting dehydrated.
Squeezing in some exercise
No time for a major workout? Just break your exercise into 10-minute chunks and break up some blah parts of your day, too. Try:
- really running errands: Walk a bit faster or further in the parking lot when you stop at the store.
- playing: Race the kids. Shoot some hoops. Remember, you don't have to be good to get fit.
- scrubbing: Instead of a few wipes here and there, clean energetically for 10 minutes
- dancing: Pull down the shades and let loose; if it's fun, you're more likely to do it
- watching TV: Yes, watching TV--while walking in place, doing leg lifts or punching the air
Staying strong when your resolve sags
There probably are more obstacles to working out than calories in a Boston cream pie. The trick is to keep going anyway. Try these tips:
Keep a record
Write down why you want to exercise, some realistic goals and your achievements. Seeing on paper what you hope for and what you've accomplished can boost motivation. You can print a weekly tracker to track your progress.
Put it in your calendar
Schedule physical activity as you would any important appointment-and keep it.
Make it fun
You're much more likely to stick with something you enjoy. If you're finding your routine a drag, try something new.
Find a friend
Working out with a partner can banish boredom. Plus, it's sometimes harder to break a commitment to someone else than to ourselves.
Figure it out
Think about what's really stopping you and then find alternatives that address those problems. Maybe you're too tired at the end of the day: Try working out in the morning instead. Maybe you're intimidated by the beefy set at the gym: Consider working out at home. (Lots of exercise routines are available online, including some free workouts.)
If you drop the ball, pick it up
It would be a shame to give up entirely just because you missed a few days--or even a few weeks. Remember to acknowledge yourself for any steps forward, no matter how small.
Yes, sticking to your goals is its own reward, but a little gift is pretty good too.
Reviewed by Edmund O. Acevedo, PhD, professor and chair of the Health and Human Performance Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and editor of The Psychobiology of Physical Activity.