Actionable ideas for the tired, overworked, fearful, pain-ridden, injured and concerned.
We all know there are benefits to be derived from regular exercise, but most aren’t aware of quite how great they are. In order for us to be motivated to do something we need to find our why, our motivation to devote time and energy to said enterprise.
Sooo many benefits you'll love
This study showed that with regular exercise, 70-year olds had muscle mass and strength identical to their 40-year old counterparts. The authors conclude that the loss of bone, muscle, strength and balance over time is due to increasing levels of inactivity, not age. This is great news, and completely contradicts the commonly held false belief that aging inevitably has to be a period of gradual decline.
Multiple studies and review papers such as this one show the effects of regular exercise on mood, cognition and its power in warding off dementia. As a matter of fact, the great news is that those genetically most at risk for Alzheimer’s disease (those with one or two copies of the so called ApoE4 gene) seem to reap the greatest protective effects from physical exercise! There seems to be justice in the world after all!
Add to this the fact that regular exercise helps prevent the most common diseases (75% for breast cancer, 49% for cardiovascular and heart diseases, 35% for diabetes, 22% for colorectal cancer). Imagine if there was a pill that could do that! We have such a "pill" at our disposal in the form of exercise and with only positive side-effects at that. When exercise is combined with other simple constructive behaviors such as sleeping in a pitch-black room, eating nutritious food and cultivating a peaceful mindset the effects are even more pronounced.
Given how fantastic the effects of exercise are, why aren’t we all out there, reaping the many benefits? (After all, physical exercise even gets you closer to that coveted “look better naked” status.)
But (almost) no-one spontaneously prefers exercise to a comfy seat on the couch, and in a real-world situation many obstacles seem to keep so many of us from reaping the tremendous benefits of regular exercise. To help you move from passivity to physicality I have listed some of the most common obstacles below, along with some hopefully helpful and actionable work-arounds. If you are experiencing obstacles or concerns that aren’t listed below, reach out to me in the comments section!
Time to troubleshoot!
I don’t have the time. Yes, you do. But your available time may be found in small increments during the day. Work by a desk? Type standing, stand and do toe-raises while on the phone, take 30-second breaks (which enhance creative thinking and make you more productive) to do push-ups against your desk, squats over your chair etc. And take the stairs every time. The elevator is for lazy people, and you’re not lazy, just busy. This advice applies to stay-at-home parents as well. Take advantage of the opportunities you may have been missing to strengthen arm and trunk muscles while holding a baby, or leg muscles by performing little lunges carrying groceries.
I’m too tired. If you are truly exhausted, you should not perform strenuous exercise. Yet. You need to work on your burnout and nurture yourself back to health. When tolerated, start with slow, short walks. During your recovery, perform stretching and meditation to stay in touch with your body and its intrinsic value. You know you suffer from this level of exhaustion when any exercise leaves you drained instead of invigorated.
Those who feel tired and therefore unmotivated, but feel awakened and a bit better after some exercise actually need physical exercise to overcome the fatigue. The mitochondria, the little energy factories in your cells, multiply in number in response to exercise. The body rises to the challenge. They key is to re-enter the world of exercise gradually and keep your focus on your improvement, not your challenges.
I have pain. If you’re in pain from the type of acute injury that truly means you should lay off your usual exercise, such as a broken bone, exercise the part of your body that isn’t injured. Most other types of injuries respond better to activity modification, rather than cessation. In other words, lift a lighter weight fewer times, run or walk a shorter distance with a shorter stride length etc.
If you suffer from chronic pain, know that waiting for the pain to go away before starting an exercise program is putting the cart before the horse, and a mindset that will lead you deeper into pain as your body and its tissues keep getting weaker due to inactivity. Exercise decreases pain, and being decondition increases it, so pain is an added reason to exercise. Seek the advice of a physical therapist who will guide you through, and accept that there is going to be some discomfort before you feel better again. A simple rule for how much discomfort is safe is what I call the traffic light test:
Red- severe, sharp pain that takes your breath away - Stop doing what you’re doing
Yellow- Some discomfort that doesn’t seem to get worse with what you’re doing -
keep moving, with awareness
Green- movement feels great, or discomfort is decreasing - Keep right on moving cap’n!
Every time I exercise I get injured. Your amazing body adapts to what you’re using it for. Is your body adapted to sitting? Then you need to give it time to gradually adapt to movement. Want to run? Lengthen your hip flexors, strengthen your glutes, start walking and give your bones, ligaments and muscles time to gradually adapt. Want to lift weights? Work on a stable trunk
( planks, dead bug ) before you add any weight to your extremities, then strengthen buttock muscles and stretch your body to improve your joint range of motion.
And why not add some collagen to your diet (preferably before exercise and before bed and with some vitamin C) to give your body the building blocks for all the connective tissues it will be building.
Remember, an injury means that you are doing something wrong. If you can’t, despite following the above guidelines, figure out exactly what that is, consult with a physical therapist for some additional troubleshooting. Don’t give up on reaping all the benefits of regular exercise because of a few false starts!
I have special limitations. Not everyone can engage in all kinds of movement. If you have spinal stenosis, for example, you may not enjoy uphill running, but you may very well tolerate working out on an exercise bike. Learn how to get the most out of it (doing sprints on the bike, for example, adds a whole new layer of benefits) and you may over time find that other types of exercise get easier. If you can’t run, then walk, use an elliptical trainer or a bike. If you don’t have access to a gym, exercise class or a work-out buddy, use your body weight, household objects and the great outdoors for an equally beneficial experience.
If you are recovering from an injury, progress at a pace that allows all of your tissues to grow stronger. Muscles grow strong faster than ligaments, tendons and bones, so if you feel discomfort in theses tissues simply slow down the pace a bit. Older individuals and those on the hypermobility spectrum need to give their bodies more time to recover and progress.
I am just not motivated enough. Ask yourself what you are motivated to do or want to experience, and how that will play out in a gradually weakening and deteriorating body. Not so great, huh? Tough love, yes, but it is also part of a rather absolute reality that the physical body needs strain (aka exercise) in order to remain healthy.
Ask yourself what you need your body for. Is it playing with the grandkids? Travel? Long hours of work? Attracting a mate? Aging comfortably, with dignity and joy? Exercise is the key for all this, and more. See: the beginning of this post.
And lastly, the close cousin of lack of motivation:
I have to suffer in order to benefit. While vigorous exercise can certainly be a special kind of uncomfortable, it also offers immediate feelings of wellbeing of an even greater magnitude. And for a beginner, exercise does not need to be vigorous. The habit of seeing the world in black and white / can or can’t / good or bad is a counterproductive one, and prevents you from seeing the opportunities you do have. Don’t ask yourself whether you can or can’t do something, ask yourself instead how you can do it. If you are unsure about performing squats, don’t rule them out, but find a safe way to do them (over a chair? holding on to the kitchen sink?). If you have trouble running or lifting weights, don’t give up because of what you can’t do. Ask yourself, instead what can I do? Perhaps you’ll decide to start walking and doing some simple body weight exercises instead. And if you can’t walk yet, you might decide that what you can do is stand up every 15 minutes.
Remember, age is not an excuse (see above). Not having exercised before is not a reason not to start now (the body responds at any age). Injuries should end in recovery. Not possessing the know-how is no problem (make an appointment with a movement expert and learn).
Your quality of life depends on your physical health, and your body, unequivocally needs some form of movement and strain to stay healthy. Find your why and your how and the what will appear!
What would you like to be able to do?