Americans are certainly no strangers to exercise, though we seem to favor working out at fitness clubs. Just after New Years in 2017, Google searches for “improved health” saw a 315% increase in more specific queries for gyms. Unfortunately, this intent doesn’t always translate into action. I’m not crazy about gyms myself, but I do want to get fit for life. My goal is to have energy, strength, and flexibility to do everything I want in life, and I plan on having a long one. The key is to integrate exercise into daily life. Here are 10 tips to reach this fitness goal for personal physical wellbeing.
Tip #31: Integrate Exercise into Daily Life
My year in an intentional Buddhist community in Thailand confirms one key secret to long-term wellbeing found among Blue Zone centenarians: integrate exercise into daily life. If you’re not familiar with the Blue Zones, Longevity expert Dan Buettner and a research team from National Geographic studied these places where the highest concentrations of centenarians live.
Buettner describes in his TED talk:
Sardinians live in vertical houses, up and down the stairs. Every trip to the store, or to church or to a friend’s house occasions a walk. They don’t have any conveniences. There is not a button to push to do yard work or housework. If they want to mix up a cake, they’re doing it by hand. That’s physical activity. That burns calories just as much as going on the treadmill does. When they do intentional physical activity, it’s the things they enjoy. They tend to walk, the only proven way to stave off cognitive decline, and they all tend to have a garden. They know how to set up their life in the right way so they have the right outlook.
The “right outlook” might be something like: If you want to keep living, keep moving. And that’s so much easier when physical activity is built into the daily routine.
Tip #32: Get up and Move
According to the CDC, a whopping 80% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of physical exercise (a mere 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity—at least a brisk 30-minute walk 5 days a week).
A large part of the problem is that many of us lead sedentary lives. At least 1 in 4 Americans spend 8 hours a day sitting (another CDC stat)—more now that the pandemic has forced so many people to work from home. As I’m sitting here typing through back pain, I know this situation is not good for our physical wellbeing. We simply need to get up and move.
Why not try the pomodoro technique? This is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo that breaks up work with a timer (his looked like a tomato, hence the name).
Typically, you’d set a timer for 25 minutes and take a break for 5. The original idea was to force more productiveness into that 25 minutes, but for our purposes, it forces some movement. Push the chair back, step away from the desk, and do something physically active. Even better, walk outside and look into the distance to give your eyes a break, too.
Tip #33: Make Work Your Workout
If you are on the job market right now or thinking about changing careers, you might want to choose an active one. Sedentary jobs have increased 83% since mid last century, according to the American Heart Association. But there are still plenty of professions that will let you make work your workout.
Here are a few: high school teacher, surgeon, fire fighter, fisherman, wind turbine technician, environmental engineer, dancer, fitness instructor, occupational therapist, landscaper, construction workers, bellhop, maintenance/repair worker, nurse, daycare aid, environmental restoration technician, correctional officer, plant nursery worker, athlete….basically any job that doesn’t involve a desk.
If you are sticking with your desk job, you’ll have to find every opportunity to move. Go talk to someone instead of sending an email. Park far away from your building and take the stairs. Mail your own stuff instead of putting it in the outgoing-mail tray. Use the restroom that’s farthest away. Walk on your lunch break. This movement is actually a great way to break up the monotony and make your day more lively.
Tip #34: Just Do It…Yourself
But since we’re trying to integrate exercise into daily life, we might say Just Do It…Yourself. Fitness opportunities abound around the house if we rely less on other people (cleaning ladies, gardeners) and machines.
There’s something to think about: 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 thinking of washing my family’s mountains of dirty clothes in a tub. 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.
Tip #35: Walk 10,000 Steps
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 phone 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.
Gadgets like Fitbits are popular to keep track of steps (and sleep and calories, etc), but I’m not a fan. All that data makes me crazy, and who knows who has access to it (seriously, I’m not paranoid). Plus it’s one more think to spend money on and have to take care of. I’d rather just raise my awareness about many steps are in my usual activity and try to increase from there.
Tip #36: Adopt a Dog
To make sure I walk 10,000 steps (5 miles) a day, my family adopted a dog. Buddy is an energetic 7-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.
There are actually so many benefits to having a dog – studies show that dog owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health. They relieve our stress and boost our positive emotion as well. Some may argue that dogs are “a lot of work” but it seems well worth it to me.
Tip #37: 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 yoga after brushing teeth), 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.
Tip #38: Plan for a Fit Future
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). So what can you keep up for several decades?
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.
Walking only fulfills the first exercise criteria, but yoga incorporates all four. Another doable daily option is 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, even if g split it up into 2-3 sessions. Sounds like an easy pre-meal activity to me!
Tip #39: Enjoy Your Endorphins
We typically sell physical activity as being good for our physical health, but what if that’s the wrong approach to convince people to do it? Physical inactivity persists as the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, despite the reams of public health campaigns we throw at it. Recent research by WHO suggests that promoting the health benefits of exercise may not be as effective as promoting the psychological effects.
WHO’s proposed new approach is to present exercise as a “challenging and potentially interesting activity” with the more compelling argument that “physical activity makes life worth living.” Other research also suggests that linking physical activity with higher purpose can increase motivation. In a study published in 2010 in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver found that people who reported having a stronger sense of purpose in life were more physically active. One of the co-authors, Stephanie A. Hooker explained in an interview with Time, “Reminding yourself what gives your life meaning and purpose, and connecting that to why you want to be physically active, could improve the chances that you stick with it.”
This certainly makes sense, but it still seems to involve significant abstract thinking and rationalizing about a far off benefit. So how about leading with how we feel while we exercise and just afterward? Your body releases chemicals called endorphins when you exercise, triggering positive emotions, like relaxation, optimism, and general wellbeing. Since we can experience this immediately for ourselves, it might be an easier sell. So the next time your looking for an excuse not to exercise, try telling yourself, “Just get out and enjoy your endorphins!”
Tip #40: Activate Identity and Values
Even with all these great strategies to integrate exercise into our daily lives, we may still sometimes feel like we’re going through the motions. That’s when we have to dig into our deeper motivations, like activating ouridentity and personal values.
This idea comes from Dr. Lindsay Duncan of the University of Western Ontario’s School of Kinesiology, who led a study of over 1000 regular exercisers to uncover their motivations. The study applied self-determination theory: human motivation lies along a continuum of autonomy from intrinsic motivation (engaging in the behavior for the sheer satisfaction of it) to extrinsic motivation (broken down into four distinct degrees). Duncan and her colleagues found that the most autonomous degree of extrinsic motivation—“integrated regulation”—had the greatest influence on exercise behavior.
Duncan explains that integrated regulation has to do with an “individual’s belief that a behavior is an important part of his or her identity and is consistent with his or her personal values.” For example, a woman who considers herself an environmentalist might enjoy hiking in the woods—hiking then reinforces her sense of who she is and what she values. So if we can link our physical activity to our core self, we are more likely to do it.
My 11-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 her books’ female heroines who fight for fairness, like Katniss of the Hunger Games. 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.
Kids need special attention when it comes to physical activity. The next set of tips consider how to combine our exercise with theirs and make sure all children can enjoy an active life.