Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well–being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it doesn’t take hours of pumping weights in a gym or running mile after mile to achieve those results.
By focusing on activities you enjoy and tailoring a regular mild to moderate exercise routine to your needs, you can experience the health benefits of exercise and improve your own life by:
- Easing stress and anxiety. A twenty-minute bike ride won’t sweep away all of life’s troubles, but exercising regularly helps you take charge of anxiety and reduce stress. Aerobic exercise releases hormones that relieve stress and promote a sense of well-being.
- Lifting your mood. Exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. Exercise also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good.
- Sharpening brainpower. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.
- Improving self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful.
- Boosting energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise a day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized.
Despite all the life-changing benefits, many of us still think of exercise as a chore, either something that we don’t have time for, or something that’s only suitable for the young or the athletic.
There are many commonly-held myths about exercise that make it seem more arduous and painful than it has to be. Overcoming obstacles to exercise starts with separating fact from fiction.
Why we don’t exercise
“I don’t have enough time to exercise.”
Even short low-impact intervals of exercise can act as a powerful tool to supercharge your health. If you have time for a 15-minute walk with the dog, your body will thank you in many ways.
“Exercise is too difficult and painful.”
Consider “no pain, no gain” the old fashioned way of thinking about exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to hurt to be incredibly effective. You don’t have to push yourself to the limit to get results. You can build your strength and fitness by walking, swimming, even playing golf or cleaning the house.
“I’m too tired to exercise.”
Regular exercise is a powerful pick-me-up that can significantly reduce fatigue and make you feel much more energetic. If you’re feeling tired, try taking a brisk walk or dancing to your favorite music and see how much better you feel afterwards.
“I’m too old to start exercising,” “I'm too fat,” or “My health isn’t good enough.”
It’s never too late to start building your strength and physical fitness, even if you’re a senior or a self-confessed couch potato who has never exercised before. And exercise is a proven treatment for many diseases—from diabetes to arthritis. Very few health or weight problems make exercise out of the question, so talk to your doctor about a safe routine for you.
“I’m not athletic.”
Do you hide your head when the tennis ball approaches? Are you stumped at the difference between a foul ball and a free throw? Join the ranks. Don’t worry if you’re not sporty or ultra-coordinated. Instead, find an activity like walking, jogging, or yoga that makes you feel good to be in your body.
“Exercise is boring.”
Sure, pounding on a treadmill for an hour may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But not all exercise has to be boring; just about everyone can find a physical activity they enjoy. Try playing ping-pong (table tennis) or activity-based video games with your kids. So-called “exergames” that are played standing up and moving around—simulating dancing, skateboarding, soccer, or tennis, for example—can burn at least as many calories as walking on a treadmill; some substantially more. Once you build up your confidence, try getting away from the TV screen and playing the real thing outside.
To reap the benefits of exercise, you don’t need to devote hours out your busy day, train at the gym, sweat buckets, or run mile after monotonous mile. You can reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Two 15-minute exercise sessions can also work just as well.
If that still seems intimidating, don’t despair. Even just a few minutes of physical activity are better than none at all. If you don’t have time for 15 or 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body tells you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, for example, that’s okay, too. Start with 5- or 10-minute sessions and slowly increase your time. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, so eventually you’ll feel ready for a little more. The key is to commit to do some moderate physical activity—however little—on most days. As exercising becomes habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try different types of activities. If you keep at it, the benefits of exercise will begin to pay off.
Moderate exercise means two things:
- That you breathe a little heavier than normal, but are not out of breath. For example, you should be able to chat with your walking partner, but not easily sing a song.
- That your body feels warmer as you move, but not overheated or very sweaty.
Do I need different types of exercise?
While any kind of exercise offers tremendous health benefits, different types of exercise focus more on certain aspects of your health. You can concentrate on one type of exercise or mix them up to add variety to your workouts and broaden the health benefits.
- Aerobic activities like running, cycling, and swimming strengthen your heart and increase your endurance.
- Strength training like weight lifting or resistance training builds muscle and bone mass, improves balance and prevents falls. It’s one of the best counters to frailty in old age.
- Flexibility exercises like stretching and yoga help prevent injury, enhance range of motion, reduce stiffness, and limit aches and pains.
If you're not ready to commit to a structured exercise program, think about physical activity as a lifestyle choice rather than a single task to check off your to-do list. Look at your daily routine and consider ways to sneak in activity here and there. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day.
- In and around your home. Clean the house, wash the car, tend to the yard and garden, mow the lawn with a push mower, sweep the sidewalk or patio with a broom.
- At work and on the go. Look for ways to walk or cycle more. For example, bike or walk to an appointment rather than drive, banish all elevators and use the stairs, briskly walk to the bus stop then get off one stop early, park at the back of the lot and walk into the store or office, take a vigorous walk during your coffee break. Walk while you’re talking on your cell phone.
- With friends or family. Walk or jog around the soccer field during your kid’s practice, make a neighborhood bike ride part of weekend routine, play tag with your children in the yard or play exercise video games. Walk the dog together as a family, or if you don’t have your own dog, volunteer to walk a dog from a shelter. Organize an office bowling team, take a class in martial arts, dance, or yoga with a friend or spouse.
"Couchersizing" during TV time builds quads, calves, and grip strength, and protects mobility.
Try "couchersizing," staying on or near your couch and exercising during commercial breaks.
Sit to stand
Go from sitting to standing to sitting again, 10 times in a row. Rest for a minute, then repeat.
Works the quadriceps in the front of the thigh and gluteal muscles in the buttocks, which helps protect your ability to get up from a chair, out of a car, or off a bathroom seat.
Sit on the edge of a couch with your feet flat on the floor. With one leg, keeping your heel on the floor, lift and point the toes toward the ceiling, so that you feel a stretch in your calf muscle. Hold for 30 seconds, then do the same with the other leg, three times per leg.
Keeping your calves optimally flexible can keep your walking stride longer, reduce your risk of tripping over your toes, and reduce your risk for common foot injuries.
Stand on one leg
Holding on to the back of a chair for stability, lift one heel toward your buttocks. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds, three times per leg. To improve your balance on unsteady surfaces, try this with shoes off on a balled-up beach towel.
Balance gets better if you practice it, which can decrease the risk of falling.
Shoulder blade squeeze
Pinch your shoulder blades together, but not up (don't shrug). Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat 10 times.
Helps prevent a rounded, shoulders-forward posture that can develop from many years of sitting, especially at a computer.
While seated upright, hold a ball (the size of a basketball) over your lap with both hands, then squeeze the ball as if you're trying to deflate it. Hold for a few seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times, rest, then do another set of 10 repetitions. You can also improve your grip strength by squeezing a small rubber ball in one hand.
Keeping your grip strong makes it possible to turn a door knob, open a jar, and grasp a gallon of milk.
Adapted with permission from Harvard Health Letter: December 2013, a newsletter published by Harvard Health Publications.
Exercise doesn’t need to be an all or nothing commitment. If you haven’t exercised before or you’ve tried an exercise program in the past and been unable to stick with it, it’s important not to set unrealistic goals. Committing to exercise for an hour a day in a gym may be too challenging at first, whereas committing to 10 minutes just three or four times a week is more manageable. Once these short windows of activity become a habit and you start experiencing the benefits, it’s easier to progress to the next level.
Tips for getting started in an exercise program
- Focus on activities you enjoy. If you hate jogging, you won’t be able to maintain a jogging program no matter how good it is for you. On the other hand, if you love to swim, dance, or play tennis you’ll find it easier to sick with an exercise program that’s built around those activities.
- Take it slow. Start with an activity you feel comfortable doing, go at your own pace, and keep your expectations realistic. For example, training for a marathon when you’ve never run before may be a bit daunting, but you could give yourself the goal of participating in an upcoming 5k walk for charity.
- Focus on short-term goals, such as improving your mood and energy levels and reducing stress, rather than goals such as weight loss or increased muscle size, as these can take longer to achieve.
- Make exercise a priority. If you have trouble fitting exercise into your schedule, consider it an important appointment with yourself and mark it on your daily agenda. Commit to an exercise schedule for at least 3 or 4 weeks so that it becomes habit, and force yourself to stick with it. Even the busiest amongst us can find a 10-minute slot to pace up and down an office staircase or take the dog for a walk.
- Go easy on yourself. Do you feel bad about your body? Instead of being your own worst critic, try a new way of thinking about your body. No matter what your weight, age, or fitness level, there are others like you with the same goal of exercising more. Try surrounding yourself with people in your shoes. Take a class with others of a similar fitness level. Accomplishing even the smallest fitness goals will help you gain body confidence.
- Expect ups and downs. Don’t be discouraged if you skip a few days or even a few weeks. It happens. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.
Safety tips for beginning exercisers
If you’ve never exercised before, or it’s been a significant amount of time since you’ve attempted any strenuous physical activity, keep in mind the following general health precautions:
- Get medical clearance. If you have special health issues such as an existing heart condition or high blood pressure, talk with your doctor or health practitioner and let him or her know your plans.
- Stretch. No matter what form of exercise you choose, you’ll benefit from adding stretching exercises to gain flexibility and range of motion. Stretching gently to warm up and cool down is the best form of injury-prevention for new exercisers.
- Drink plenty of water. Your body performs best when it’s properly hydrated. Failing to drink enough water when you are exerting yourself over a prolonged period of time, especially in hot conditions, can be dangerous.
You are more likely to exercise if you find enjoyable, convenient activities. Give some thought to your likes and dislikes, and remember that preferences can change over time.
Pair an activity you enjoy with your exercise
There are numerous activities that qualify as exercise. The trick is to find something you enjoy that forces you to be active. Pairing exercise with another activity makes it easier and more fun. Simple examples include:
- Take a dance or yoga class.
- Blast some favorite music and dance with your kids.
- Make a deal with yourself to watch your favorite TV shows while on the treadmill or stationary bike.
- Workout with a buddy, and afterwards enjoy coffee or a movie.
- Enjoy outdoor activities such as golf, playing Frisbee, or even yard work or gardening.
Make exercise a social activity
Exercise can be a fun time to socialize with friends and working out with others can help keep you motivated. For those who enjoy company but dislike competition, a running club, water aerobics, or dance class may be the perfect thing. Others may find that a little healthy competition keeps the workout fun and exciting. You might seek out tennis partners, join an adult soccer league, find a regular pickup basketball game, or join a volleyball team.
For many, a workout partner can be a great motivator. For example, if you won’t get out of bed to swim yourself, but you would never cancel on a friend, find a swim buddy.
No matter how much you enjoy an exercise routine, you may find that you eventually lose interest in it. That’s the time to shake things up and try something new, add other activities to your exercise program, or alter the way you pursue the exercises that have worked so far.
Set yourself goals and rewards
Rewarding yourself for reaching an exercise goal is one of the best ways to stay motivated. Set an achievable goal regarding your participation and effort, not necessarily how much weight you can lift, miles you can bike, or pounds you can lose lost. If you stumble in your efforts, regroup and begin again. Reward yourself when you reach your goals—a new pair of shoes, a dinner out, whatever works to motivate you.
Other ways to keep your exercise program going
- Be consistent. Make your workouts habitual by exercising at the same time every day, if possible. Eventually you will get to the point where you feel worse if you don’t exercise. That dull, sluggish feeling fitness buffs get when they don’t work out is a strong incentive to get up and go.
- Record your progress. Try keeping an exercise journal of your workouts. In a matter of months, it will be fun to look back at where you began. Keeping a log also holds you accountable to your routine.
- Keep it interesting. Think of your exercise session as time dedicated to you. Enjoy that time by listening to music, chatting with friends, and varying locations. Exercise around natural beauty, new neighborhoods, and special parks.
- Spread the word. Talking to others about your fitness routines will help keep motivation strong and hold you accountable to your exercise program. You’ll be delighted and inspired hearing ways your friends and colleagues stay active and on track.
- Get inspired. Read a health and fitness magazine or visit an exercise website and get inspired with photos of people being active. Sometimes reading about and looking at images of people who are healthy and fit can motivate you to move your body.
Getting back on track
Even the most dedicated exercisers sometimes go astray. Almost anything can knock you off track: a bad cold, an out of town trip, or a stretch of bad weather. That’s why it’s important to learn how to reclaim your routine. When you’ve missed workout sessions, evaluate your current level of fitness and goals accordingly. If you’ve been away from your routine for two weeks or more, don’t expect to start where you left off. Cut your workout in half for the first few days to give your body time to readjust.
The bigger challenge may come in getting yourself back in an exercise frame of mind. Try to keep confidence in yourself when you relapse. Instead of expending energy on feeling guilty and defeated, focus on what it’ll take to get started again. Once you resume your program, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it will begin to feel natural. Here are a few tricks you might try to rekindle your motivation:
- Imagine yourself exercising. Recall the aspects of exercise you enjoy most.
- Come up with a tantalizing reward to give yourself when you meet your first goal after resuming your program.
- Line up walking partners for your next few outings.
- If completing your whole exercise routine seems overwhelming, mentally divide it into smaller chunks, and give yourself the option of stopping at the end of each one. However, when you reach a checkpoint, encourage yourself to move on to the next one instead of quitting.
- Rather than focus on why you don’t want to exercise, concentrate on how good you feel when you’ve finished a workout.
Adapted with permission from Exercise: A Program You Can Live With, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publications.
Resources & References
General information about exercise and its benefits
Guide to Physical Activity – Provides many examples and ideas of physical activity that you might not have considered exercise. (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
Getting started and keeping exercise going
Exercise: How to Get Started – An overview of exercise basics including stretches. (familydoctor.org)
Fitness Basics – A comprehensive guide to fitness including overcoming barriers, creative ways to exercise, types of exercise and measuring your heart rate. (Mayo Clinic)
Tips to Help You Get Active – A step-by-step guide to getting active, breaking down how to overcome barriers and practical tips on getting started. (National Institutes of Health)