By Sturdy McKee, PT
Why don’t we exercise? We all know that it is important. We have also heard the myriad ways it can benefit our health. Exercise can help with blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, flexibility, cardiac health, improved mood, better sleep, and more. Indeed as a physical therapist we tend to be evangelists around this. So why don't we do more of it?
Lack of time is the thing most frequently cited, at least in my very non-scientific survey of people I know, and from 15 years of patient care. But time is the one thing that we all have the same amount of. So why is it, or rather how is it that some people find the time to do more exercise? Is it better time management? Establishing different priorities? Or could it be that some have figured out ways to make physical activity less impactful on their time?
Aside from time, many of us have some misconceptions around exercise and physical activity that can and should be overcome. We may believe that exercise by definition is rigorous. We may fear the inconvenience of preparing, buying equipment, clothes changes, as well as the cleanup afterward. We, most of us, would like to avoid driving to the gym, or even going at all. And the good news is we don't generally have to. And exercise does not always have to be so rigorous that we must shower afterward, or even change into specific clothes. If we reframe our ideas of positive physical activity, we are more likely to integrate it into our lives than if we see it as yet another project to be taken on.
When I speak for the Spondylitis Association of America, people hear me say that you do not wait until Saturday to brush your teeth for 45 minutes. It simply would not work very well, and we know this. Yet, this is often how we treat physical activity. If we would treat exercise more like we do dental hygiene, by doing a little each day, then we would accomplish far more over time than if we set aside a large chunk of time once a week.
Activity is something we can often mix into our day. It is important to find daily opportunities to do this, and to take advantage of the moments when we can take part in some type of physical movement. Is there an opportunity to walk your children to school? Can you get a dog that will force you to get up and move, and walk a few times each day? Are there a set of stairs that are convenient, that you could practice walking up and down 3, 5 or 10 times each day? And there are tricks that we can all do to introduce more physical activity into our day. For instance, we can add a few squats into our routine when we get up and down from the couch simply by repeating the motion before moving on; balancing on one leg at the kitchen counter for a few seconds before doing the dishes, or while in line at the grocery store, is another of my favorite stealth exercises; doing a single stretch after getting out of the shower is a great way to improve or maintain flexibility without a huge time investment. Be creative and think about simple hacks to allow a little bit more movement during each day. It will burn calories, help with your strength, improve your conditioning, and help you sleep better.
Ideas for activity inclusion in your daily routine:
Another way to incorporate more activity is to find the thing you're passionate about. To this day if you place a ball at my feet I have to start moving around and kicking it. I will start jogging and kicking and passing and dribbling out of sheer joy (or compulsion). I'm a little bit like a dog with a ball. So, if I can find situations to do that it will make me work on strength, balance, and movement. Is there something that automatically gets you going? Is there an opportunity to join a league, or a team that has a regular schedule? It really doesn't matter the sport, just that it’s something you enjoy and will stick with. And think outside the box. Your sport and new passion might be bocce or lawn bowling, fencing or kendo, Tai Chi or yoga; it might be swimming, or water aerobics, or even sailing. There are all kinds of groups doing sporting activities if you just look for them. It need not be the sports we see on TV.
The difficulty with all of this isn’t the not knowing. We read articles. We watch videos. We hear from our healthcare providers. We know that physical activity is good for us, and important to do regularity. It will help us maintain our independence as we age. It will make other activities more enjoyable and easier to tolerate. It will help us keep up with our children and grandchildren, or our younger friends. The difficulty with all of this is that it is a form of behavioral change. So, our challenge is to trick ourselves into making physical activity more of a habit, and less of a chore. Mixing it into our daily routine is one way to start this. And being willing to share your new habit with your family and friends is another. Some may resist, but you will likely find that the majority are very encouraging.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” (Lao Tzu) Begin your journey today by taking that one step. Try it now. If you can - do a couple of sit to stand squats, or some heel raises, or balance on one foot right now; put this magazine down and try it. You might find that it makes you happy. And if you're happy you're more likely to do it again later today and tomorrow. And what simpler way to bring yourself a little bit of joy each day?
Sturdy McKee is a physical therapist who has been living with ankylosing spondylitis for over 20 years. His primary forms of regular exercise are walking the hills of San Francisco and playing with his three children.
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