Physical Activity and Mental Health


Of all the different ways to improve your physical and mental health, exercise is one of the easiest and safest methods. It is also one of the most effective. Even a little regular exercise can help ease depression, boost energy, mood, and relieve stress. But you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. No matter your age, health limitations, or fitness levels, there are enjoyable ways to use physical activity to feel better every day.

The Life Changing Benifits of Exercise

Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise improves your health and your physique, but it has even greater benefits for your energy, mood, and brainpower. A study in the ACSM Journal of Health & Fitness asked long-term exercisers (those who had been regularly exercising for an average of 13 years) what motivated them to continue exercising. Rather than being motivated by building muscle or flattening their stomachs, for example, most exercisers cited the feelings of well-being they derived from exercise, along with increased pep and energy, and how exercise helped them sleep better and made them more relaxed.

Obstacles to exercise: What’s holding you back?

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.

Reaping the benefits of exercise is easier than you think

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 activitieslike running, cycling, and swimming strengthen your heart and increase your endurance.
  • Strength traininglike 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.

Easy exercise tip 1: Move more in your daily life

Even if you don’t have a 15 or 30 minute window to dedicate to yoga or a bike ride, that doesn’t mean you can’t add physical activity to your day. 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.
  • While watching TV. Gently stretch while watching your favorite show, do push-ups, sit-ups or lift light weights during the commercial breaks—you’ll be amazed at how many repetitions you can fit in during the commercials of a half hour show! Better still, once a week turn off the TV and take a walk outside instead.

Easy exercise tip 2: Start slowly—a little is better than nothing

When we decide to begin exercising, many of us will rush out and join a gym or buy costly exercise equipment with a vow to working out every day. We may go to the gym once or twice, use the equipment a couple of times and then quickly lose motivation. The gym membership gathers dust and the exercise equipment is confined to the back of a cupboard.

Exercise doesn’t need to be such 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.

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