Updated: Jan 3
Exercising for health is not a new idea. In fact, for decades, doctors and health professionals have been telling us to exercise more. It has been widely accepted that exercise, like diet, is paramount to our health and well-being. Yet, statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that the majority of the adult population (over 80%) do not meet the guidelines for physical activity (engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 150 minutes per week) and that less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Sadly, sedentary behaviour is increasing, and this trend is widespread across many nations despite the fact that we know it is linked to numerous chronic health conditions.
Now, as much as I love the many wonderful benefits of living in our modern world - with all the amazing technology and conveniences, it also brings with it many obstacles for those of us who are trying to live more naturally and healthfully. One of the side effects of living in this modern world, is that we, as population, have become very sedentary.
From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are made to move. Engaging in all manners of manual labour throughout the day was essential to our survival as a species. It is not until, perhaps, the last century or so did we make such a dramatic shift from living an active lifestyle to a sedentary one, and there is an abundance of research to show just how detrimental this is to our health.
Inactivity has been linked to chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, altered lipid profile, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, depression, hip fractures, inflammation, acute infections, certain cancers, and the list goes on! Being sedentary has actually been linked to a physical change in brain structure – certain areas of the brain (the white matter) shrink in relation to sedentary behaviour! Not surprisingly, sedentary behaviour is also negatively linked to brain function, affecting the release of neurotrophic factors, the maintenance of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, and the regulation of hormone release. Whereas physical activity reverses these problems and was shown to increase brain volume, improve brain connectivity, enhance synaptic plasticity, increase cerebral blood flow, and more.
Physical functioning and cardiorespiratory fitness are so deeply connected to our health, well-being, and longevity that scientists are advising the medical community to consider using them in health assessments as important prediction markers of disablement, chronic disease, and even mortality. For example, older people with poor lower extremity performance (as measured by an assessment of standing balance, a timed 2.4-meter walk, and timed test of repetitive sitting and rising out of a chair) has higher risks of hospitalization and mortality. They are also at higher risks for geriatric conditions like dementia, bed sores, hip fractures, pneumonia, dehydration, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and acute infections.
Now many of us may share the mentality that we have time to rectify our lifestyles later in life. We may think, we are not old enough to worry about geriatric issues yet! However, our life-long habits and our way of life don’t just change overnight. These are things that need to be cultivated. Physical strength and functioning need time and consistency to improve, and then be maintained. Often, when the time finally comes when we feel the need to address these issues, is the time when we are already in pain, showing symptoms of illness, cognitive problems, and so on. Wouldn’t it be wiser to start cultivating healthy habits when we are still healthy? Wouldn’t it be a better goal to stay healthy, or at the very least, keep our current health status from declining, for as long as we can rather than trying to ‘fix’ things after they have been damaged? To add to this, a recent study has shown that the process of disablement begins in midlife, especially in women, when we still have many decades ahead of us. Inactivity has been linked to declines in physical functioning, leading to pre-clinical disability (a state of physical decline that limits daily functioning and activities, that have not yet caused disability). What this means is that there may be many years of discomfort and suffering before symptoms turn into a diagnosable illness, a serious chronic disease, and/or a disability, which only means that health continues to decline (likely rapidly), suffering continues to worsen, and quality of life takes a drastic downturn, lasting for many years, even decades.
As mentioned above, the current public health recommendations regarding physical activity is that adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, or an equivalent combination of both. So, if we take the example of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, dancing, gardening, hiking, etc, we would only need to do 30 minutes of such activities, 5 days a week to meet the guidelines. Now, let’s clarify that the guidelines relate to the minimum requirement to lower your chances of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and so on. So yes, it is there to help us avoid some of the more serious chronic illnesses, but these are not guidelines to achieve optimal health.
Picture this scenario, we sleep for about 8 hours a night - time spent being physically inactive, then we wake up and go to work. We may spend some time in the car or on public transportation commuting to work. Once we arrive at work, we may sit at a desk for another 8 to 10 hours. We get back into our car/bus to get home. Once home, we feel too exhausted to do anything else but to chill out in front of the TV. This is a typical day for many people. And during the pandemic, many of us are forced to spend even more time at home and likely more time being inactive. Do we really think that 30 minutes of activity can counteract all the sitting and inactivity we do all day? Remember that our bodies are built for movement, and we are supposed to be participating in some sort of physical activity for most of our day! Thirty minutes of activity is no where near enough. Sadly, many of us, struggle to meet even this guideline.
Luckily, it is not all doom and gloom. It is never too late for change. And it doesn’t mean that you need to go from zero to a hundred either. In fact, if we are looking to make meaningful and lasting changes, it is usually more successful if we took things slow and steady. If you lack the motivation to start an exercise program or to join a gym, don’t stress. Acknowledge where you are right now and go from there. Set realistic expectations and take each baby step forward as a victory! Even if you are unable to currently keep a regular exercise program, you could still try to find ways to add more movements into your day. For example, park your car a little further away so that you walk a bit more to get to the entrance; whenever possible, take the stairs instead of the elevator; set an alarm to sound every hour to remind you to get out of your chair and go for a short walk (even if it's just inside your home) - get a drink of water, stretch; go for a short stroll on your lunch break; do a few squats; do a silly dance, or anything at all that requires you to move your body – get creative! No matter where you are at on your health journey, the goal here is to increase your physical activity beyond your current level right now. You’d be surprised how much better you will feel just by adding a little more movement to your day. One step at a time, you may begin to look forward to these movement breaks, you may start to increase frequency and/or intensity of your movement exercises, and eventually, you may feel ready to do more and begin to build on your exercise program. In the long run, you would want to work towards building a consistent routine for aerobic and strength-training exercises three or more times per week.
Even for those of us who already have a consistent exercise program (some of us may even be hitting the gym every day of the week) it is still immensely important to incorporate more movement into your day. As we discussed above, 30 minutes (or even an hour) of exercise is simply not enough if we sit around or engage in sedentary behaviours for the rest of the 24 hours of the day. So please keep your exercise routine, aerobic classes, and strength training in your schedule if they are already in place, but the advice here is the same, move your body often!
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