No, we’re not talking about resolving to gain weight.
Have you ever passed by a gym during the first two weeks of January? You know how it goes — maybe even from personal experience. The gym is filled to capacity with people on treadmills and elliptical machines, their faces grim and their bottles of vitamin water at their sides. They’re determined to keep their (annual) resolution to lose weight and to get in shape. But by February, two thirds of those machines are empty, and the vitamin water has been replaced by — well, other drinks.
How’s this for a resolution? Every day, you will make one good decision and act on it.
That’s it. At least one. Every single day. By “good decision,” we’re referring to something that has a positive impact on your mental or physical health — hopefully, both. The decision should be achievable and measurable. Maybe the decision will be empty a cupboard of chips or to do something nice for your partner, or to floss before bed tonight. One good decision.
Of course, many people’s New Year’s resolutions involve physical exercise, as we alluded to above, and that’s what we’d like to focus on today — purposefully moving your body every single day. This is not a novel suggestion. Everyone knows that exercise is good for their health. So why don’t they do it regularly? The excuses are many — I’m not athletic, I don’t have time, I tried it once and didn’t like it — it’s a long list. You may have come up with some pretty terrific excuses yourself. Congratulations.
But the benefits of being physically active are so incredible. If there were a medication you could take that was this cheap, this effective, this free of side effects, you would do it in a second! Exercise helps to protect against not just obesity (1,2), but also heart disease, many cancers, depression (3), dementia, loss of muscle mass, osteoporosis (4,5) — the list goes on and on. It’s not just that being physically active will help you live longer, which it will. Even more than that, physical activity will help you live better. Your body and your brain will thank you.
We suggest that if you are not regularly exercising now, there are a few simple elements to becoming physically active in a way that you can sustain and that will not be another source of perceived failure and shame.
1. Do something you like, at least sort of.
2. Do something achievable.
3. Make a commitment.
4. Give yourself credit.
Easy, right? Well, no — at least not at first. But we think we can make it both easier and more sustainable. Here’s how:
1. Do something you like
You hate the idea of going to a gym and seeing all those taught abs and defined upper arms? Fine — join the club. Save your money, and go for a walk. Even though it’s winter now, we still recommend outdoor activity as long as it’s not icy. Outdoor exercise tends to elevate most people’s mood even more than does indoor exercise (6,7). But if you’re more likely to stick with a routine of walking through a shopping mall, then that’s the right activity for you. And if “having” to go for a walk feels like a forced march, then dance or do yoga or plant a bush. “Exercise” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “I hate this.” Just get moving!
Jay — I can move for a longer time outdoors — there are so many distractions and interesting things to look at. Looking at nature makes me happy. So what if my body isn’t perfect? It’s moving along this lovely path and allowing me to look at this beautiful pond. I’ve got legs that work, and I’m thankful.
Janice — walking my dog is fun for me. Gardening is fun for me. The idea of going to a gym ranks right up there with the idea of going to the dentist. How long do you think I’d keep my commitment to going to a gym? Probably not even long enough to see the year’s membership fee on my Visa bill.
Consider finding a buddy. For most people, being active with a friend is more fun; and as you know from Jay’s story of how she incorporated exercise into her life, a workout partner is likely to make you more accountable to keeping your commitment.
2. Do Something Achievable
If you’re just starting to exercise, be smart: don’t get out of your chair for the first time and try to run five miles. Walk at a comfortable pace for five or ten minutes. See how that feels. You can gradually increase, walking farther and faster, but don’t worry about it now. Just start with a goal that seems reasonable to you in terms of how many minutes a day and how many days a week. If ten minutes twice a day is more enjoyable for you and is easier to incorporate you’re your routine than twenty minutes once a day, then that’s the right choice.
Jay — when I first started running, I followed the C25K program that I’ve told you about before in that earlier post. The first day of this program has you run for only 60 seconds, followed by walking for 90 seconds. There’s no way I could have tried to run a mile at first, or even half a mile. I started small and worked my way up.
3.Make a Commitment
You can easily eat a bowl of ice cream every night without needing to make a commitment to do so. Exercise is different; intention has to play a role. Make a firm commitment and keep it: you’re going to go for a brisk walk for twenty minutes four days a week. Or you’re going to go to a dance class twice a week. Or you’re going to do five minutes with free weights every other day while you watch television. You get the idea.
Janice — You don’t have to be like my brother Henry, who has kept his commitment for the last several decades to go for a run “only on days that end in Y,” but you see what we mean. Even we mere mortals can do this. We talked about habits in a former post and how connecting two behaviors helps you to develop new habits. Here's how it works for me: I used to come home from work, change into comfortable clothes and then make dinner and do whatever else I needed or wanted to do for the evening. Now, I come home, change into comfortable clothes and then, before, I do anything else, turn on music or the television and do exercises with my weights (I have five-pound weights in my bedroom). I also do core and balance exercises and stretches. The whole thing takes me five to ten minutes. For me, having this be a (nearly) daily routine works better than doing a longer session less often. That’s because it’s just an automatic habit now — I put on my comfortable clothes and then pick up the weights. It’s just what I do.
Jay — I make a commitment to walk whenever time allows. The in Peru where I’m living now is walkable, and everywhere I need to get to is within an hour’s walking distance. So, although there are taxis and buses all around, I walk wherever I need to go if I have the time to walk there. This has allowed me to see so much more of my city and get to know the area faster. My friends here are used to taking cabs everywhere; and when we go out together and I start walking, they ask where I’m going!
4. Give Yourself Credit
When you come in from your walk, or when you put down your weights, congratulate yourself. Thank your body for doing a good job. If you weren’t physically active today, for whatever reason, make a plan to do something tomorrow. Congratulate yourself for something else in the meantime. You had fruit for dessert. You didn’t say “I told you so” when you could have. You wrote to your congressperson. There’s always something. And if there isn’t — well then, the day’s not over yet!
Happy and Healthy New Year from J&J!
1. Beavers KM et al. Effect of Exercise Type During Intentional Weight Loss on Body Composition in Older Adults with Obesity. Obesity 2017; (11):1823-1829.
2. Melanson EL. The effect of exercise on non-exercise physical activity and sedentary behavior in adults. Obes Rev 2017; 18 (suppl 1):50-55.
3. Azizan A, Jusine M. Effects of behavioral and exercise program on depression and quality of life in community-dwelling older adults: a controlled, quasi-experimental study. J Gerontol Nurs 2016;42(2):45-54.
4. Manini TM et al. Daily activity energy expenditure and mortality among older adults. JAMA 2006; 296(20;171-9.
5. Peterson MD, Gordon PM. Resistance exercise for the aging adult: clinical implications and prescription guidelines. Am J Med 2011; 124(3):194-8.
6. Lacharité-Lemieux M et al. Adherence to exercise and affective responses: comparison between outdoor and indoor training. Menopause 2015; 22(7):731-40.
7. Puett, Robin et al. Physical activity: does environment make a difference for tension, stress, emotional outlook, and perceptions of health status? J Phys Act Health 2014; 11(8):1503-11.