Physical Wellbeing Challenge, Round 2: Fitness

Realistically, it’s often easier to find excuses not to exercise than the time, energy, and will to do it.  That’s why Nike came up with the brilliant advertising slogan, “Just Do It.” So for most of us, overcoming mental barriers to exercise is really all it takes.

But too many others face real obstacles to physical activity. They can’t Just Do It because their streets are too dangerous to walk or they can’t afford a park’s entrance fee. So as we work on boosting our own physical fitness, we might also think about how we can help others to do the same. Our goal is to increase our collective capacity to enjoy long-term health.

Round 2 of the physical wellbeing challenge includes 10 exercise-related actions based on the lesson learned from my stay in the Buddhist community (See Being In-shape, Part 2): “Integrate exercise into daily life and find motivation in meaning.” Some of these actions may take a little effort, but in this case, that’s a good thing 🙂

1. Just Do It yourself

How much of our lives are mediated by machines? We have electric mixers, coffee grinders, vacuums, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, power saws, washing machines, and many other means of lessening our daily load. In the 1950s, these new household helpers where hailed as modern conveniences that would allow both men and women to get work done more quickly and have more time to relax and have fun. They did just that. But they also eliminated countless calorie-burning activities that the Blue Zone centenarians (like Sardinians) say are at the core of their long-term health.

 Don’t get me wrong. I would not want to go back to pre-machine days, when our ancestors did everything my hand. I get weary just thinkingof washing my family’s mountains of dirty clothes in a tub and hanging everything on a line to dry. But there is something to be said for doing some chores by hand. We move more and often in a more meditative way. The rhythm of sweeping or mixing cake batter with a wooden spoon—this rhythm can lull us into a calm if we let it. So give the Roomba the day off once and a while and see what happens.

2. Walk 10,000 steps (with a dog)

Since most American lifestyles will still fall on the low end of the physical activity spectrum, we will have to be more intentional about exercise. The simplest approach is to walk 10,000 steps a day (approximately 5 miles). This is not a magic number, but a guideline to help shift us from a sedentary lifestyle (fewer than 3000 steps a day) to an active one. 

I was curious about how I would fall in this continuum, so I loaded a free pedometer app on my iPhone and kept track for a week. This experiment made it clear that since I’m not a farmer (Amish men average 18,000 steps a day and Amish women, 14,000 steps), I’d have to double my dedicated walk time. And to make sure I stuck to that plan, we adopted a dog. Buddy is an energetic 5-year-old black Lab who needs an hour of exercise a day to keep him from getting under foot. No excuse is worth the aggravation—I have to take him to the trail. 

As it turns out, research supports this dog-walking strategy. Rebecca Johnson, professor of Gerontological Nursing & Public Policy at the University of Missouri and co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, found that dog owners walked 300 minutes a week on average, making them 54% more likely to meet recommended levels of physical activity than people who didn’t own dogs (this group walked just 168 minutes a week). Another study found that dog walkers improved their fitness even more than people who walked with other people! Having been dragged by Buddy up a hill, I can see how that’s possible.  

3. Park the car

No dog to walk? Try getting through one day without a car, and see how much more walking naturally occurs. Considering how much we depend on cars, going without one for even a single day could be a major challenge, so just take small steps. Maybe the first No Drive Day, you walk to 7-11 for milk instead of driving to the store; the next week you could try taking the bus to get your groceries. Public transportation still involves more walking than driving yourself. And when you’ve conquered that, maybe you’re ready for the ultimate shopping challenge: Costco without a car (bonus: you’ll think twice about what you buy!).

Commuting to work poses another opportunity to experiment with going carless. Commuting via public transportation decreases stress levels significantly, and if you can walk or bike, all the better. E-bikes (electric bikes) are becoming much more common, so as the price comes down and the quality goes up, more people will be able to ride to work without becoming a sweaty mess. 

The added benefit of going carless is the huge boon for the environment. It reduces our dependence on scarce fossil fuels as well as the pollution that comes from car exhaust. So if you need more motivation to drive less, think of the greater good.

4. Plan for a fit future

The big question for me is: is 10,000 steps really enough exercise? The answer likely depends on your goals. Since I read about the Blue Zone centenarians, I’ve decided that I don’t want to just live to be 100; I want to dance at my 100thbirthday party. Many factors influence that goal, of course, some of which we can’t control. But to help fate along, we’d be well served to favor long-term health objectives (like being able to tumble about with grandkids who are yet to be born or climbing Machu Picchu at 80) over short-term ones (looking better in a bathing suit). 

The exercise experts say that a holistic, four-pronged approach to physical activity best contributes to long-term health. This includes 1) aerobic exercise to build cardiovascular endurance as well as lung capacity; 2) anaerobic (weight bearing) exercise to maintain muscle strength and bone density; 3) flexibility exercise to facilitate full range of motion of muscles and joints; and 4) exercise that hones balance. As they say, variety is the spice of (a long) life.

Sadly, walking only fulfills the first exercise criteria. A good yoga class incorporates all four, but since I only make it once a week (on a good week), I need a doable daily option. Enter rebounding, a.k.a., jumping on a mini trampoline. Rebounding became popular in the 1980s when NASA studied it as an effective way to help astronauts recover and regain bone and muscle mass after being in space. Fifteen minutes a day is all it takes to realize rebounding benefits

5. Set positive defaults

Blending physical activity into our daily life works well because it makes exercise automatic. When we have to think about exercising, we forget or find excuses. Luckily, there’s an easy fix: set positive defaults.  This idea came from behavioral economists who discovered the “opt in” paradox. People are less likely to participate in beneficial activities (such as doubling their retirement savings with their employer’s matching plan) if they have to sign up for it—opt in—even if it only requires checking a single box. The example frequently used is organ donation: in the UK where citizens must sign themselves up for the organ donation program, the participation rate is about 24%; in countries like Demark and France where citizens are automatically enrolled and must opt out, the participation rate is over 90%. The take home message: set a positive default. 

For exercise, positive defaults might include scheduling it on the calendar, stowing running shoes or a yoga mat in the car (so you don’t stop home after work), arranging for childcare, paying in advance for classes or membership (some people then feel obligated so they don’t lose the money), bundling it with an existing routine (like rebounding before each meal), or making a date with someone who will be disappointed if you can’t make it. Once we set a few positive defaults for exercise, there’s much less internal debate.

6. Integrate identity and values

We can certainly create new exercise habits with positive defaults, but how do we keep from feeling some days like we are just literally going through the motions? That’s when we have to dig into our deeper motivations. Remember Dr. Duncan’s discovery about integrated regulation: an individual is more likely to exercise if she can integrate it with her sense of identity and personal values. 

My 9-year-old daughter is a good example: To my surprise, she has really taken to karate, despite my own pacifist upbringing and values. But she identifies with the female warriors in the books she reads, like Artemis the Hunter of Greek mythology and Katniss of the Hunger Games. Admittedly, this comes partly from her parents who banned anything to do with Disney princesses (the “damsel in distress” kind), but also from her own drive to defend those who are treated unfairly. So karate is not something she hurries through so she can get back to her book; it’s a way to enact her core self.

It might take a little thinking to first figure out how to connect exercise to your sense of self and values, or even how to articulate your core values in the first place. That’s okay. Do some reflective journaling, talk to friends or family who know you well, and try some identities on for size. Are you a warrior? Or how about an environmentalist who hikes for the spiritual connection to nature and bikes to work to promote sustainability? The possibilities are endless. 

7. Get fit for a cause

For those who felt like “identity” is too abstract, there’s a more concrete way to make exercise more meaningful—linking fitness training to causes we care about. When I was in high school, my friends and I took part in the annual March of DimesWalk to raise money for maternal and child health worldwide. We’d collect our pledges from family members, church friends, and neighbors and then rain or shine, we’d make our laps around Belle Isle (an actual island in the Detroit River) with hundreds of other walkers. In those few hours, we got the triple benefit of exercise, socializing with friends, and doing global good.

The March of Dimes walk was the pioneer for cause-related fitness events. Other popular ones now include Race for the Cure, the largest fundraiser for breast cancer research, walks and rides supporting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.For many participants, these events provide the right incentive for regular exercise: being fit for the big event. It helps to have an invested interest in the cause, like a loved one with MS or Alzheimer’s.

A worthy alternative to such charity events is an app that allows you to donate money through your every-day exercise. My favorite is Charity Miles, a free app that funnels donations from corporate sponsors to one of 40 charities (you choose)—25 cents for every mile of exercise logged. Charities include Feeding America, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, World Wildlife Federation, and many more reputable organizations that make a sizable impact. I can tell you from experience, the immediacy of the contribution is extremely gratifying.

8. Model active play

As a parent, the most obvious way to connect physical activity to a larger life purpose is to focus on my daughter’s wellbeing. Kids’ low physical activity level is a real concern. It’s so easy for them to get over-scheduled with structured activities and too much homework, and then they crave downtime, which often involves a screen (or in my daughter’s case, a book). When I was young, my mom would just send me outside to play in the yard or roller skate around the block, but things are different now (for us, we don’t have a yard or sidewalks). So the reality is that we have to nudge our kids into active play.

And that means taking a more active role. We can take our kids and their friends to the city pool or a trampoline park. Or spend the day exploring museums—museums are so interactive now that kids won’t complain about walking for a few hours. We can also find a physical activity that the family can do together regularly on weekends. We like to hike, particularly if the destination involves a waterfall, boulders to climb on, or something else equally appealing to kids. All this adds up to progress toward being a more physical family.

The last piece is that in order to encourage our children to be active, we have to be active role models. The Aspen Institute Project Playfound that kids of active moms are two times more likely to be active themselves. So if they don’t actually see you being active, make sure you tell them—on the way to school or at bedtime—how glad you were that you went on that run, even though it was hard or it made you late for dinner.  It’s our job as parents to set a good example.

9. Explore “Complete Streets”

It’s no secret that our society caters to cars to the detriment of other modes of mobility like pedestrians, bikes, and public transit. In fact, 6000 pedestrians were killed by cars in 2016—a sharp 11% increase from the previous year. According to Smart Growth America’s2016 Dangerous by Designreport, people of color and individuals over 65 make up a disproportionate percentage of pedestrian deaths, with the most influential factor being where they live—overwhelmingly low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. 

The good news is that many cities are starting to revamp their roadways to accommodate more types of travelers. In the last ten years, more than 1200 communities have joined the national “complete streets” movement, which aims to make streets safer for all users. The California Complete Streets Act (AB 1358)spells it out more plainly:

In order to fulfill the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make the most efficient use of urban land and transportation infrastructure, and improve public health by encouraging physical activity, transportation planners must find innovative ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and to shift from short trips in the automobile to biking, walking and use of public transit. 

In my town, the Complete Streets committee has accomplished new bike-route markings, a law requiring three-foot clearance between moving cars and cyclists, and a free trolley on weekends. Other ideas include a bike-share program, removal of on-street parking, traffic calming modifications, and more. With Complete Street role models like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where bicycles now outnumber cars on the road, we have no shortage of innovative examples to inspire us. 

10. Support public parks

Getting off the streets and into urban green space, public parks and trails have been a fixture in American life for over 100 years. New York’s Central Park was the first, established in the mid 1800s. The superintendentof Central Park in 1857, Fredrick Law Olmsted, proclaimed that public parks would act as the ‘lungs of the city’—open spaces where the city’s inhabitants could freely access fresh, clean air. Since then, governments across the country have provided parks to support public health—as safe places for physical activity, stress reduction, social interaction, and connection to nature. Governments also recognized early on the value of public parks for environmental health—as verdant places that mitigate heat, reduce flood risks, and serve as wildlife refuges.

The biggest threat to public parks is funding. Some city, state, and national parks are now instituting or increasing day-use fees or charging to access certain areas and activities. Single day-use fees for California State Beaches are now up to a staggering fifteen dollars, though the ones near me now permit hourly parking rates. Fees for national parks are steeper and perhaps even more concerning. President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916 expressly to protect national lands so that all citizens could have free access to nature far into the future. 

As members of the public, we have a responsibility to protect our common resources. Individuals can support parks by donating money (perhaps through a local “Adopt a Park” program), volunteering to maintain trails, signing petitions like Protect Our Public Land, and voting park supporters into public office. For national parks specifically, we can voice our opinion on the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Commentsite. Our parks give so much to us, it seems only right to give them something in return.

Wrap up…

These 4 posts on physical wellbeing (including Being In-shape Part 1 and Part 2 and the challenge, round 1) aimed to provide some food for thought on how we can improve our own wellbeing with a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet and integrated, meaningful exercise; and at the same time, how we might channel our efforts to help other people and the planet. Of course it will take some time to solve pervasive problems like food insecurity or unsafe streets–just as it will take some time to improve our own wellbeing. But rest assured that every positive action we take is a step in the right direction.

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