Many of us don’t like the idea of exercise, so we avoid it.

Here’s the thing: our bodies were designed to move. Yet in developed countries like Australia, many of us spend far too much time sitting on our backsides.

The fact that we are more sedentary has become a health issue: in fact it’s killing us.

The Department of Health says low levels of physical activity is the fourth leading cause of death due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide, with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancers contributing to more than three million preventable deaths annually (six per cent of deaths globally).

The seven diseases most closely linked to physical inactivity (in descending order) are:

  • Diabetes
  • Bowel cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Dementia
  • Breast cancer
  • Coronary heart diseases
  • Stroke

The Department of Health says if all Australians did an extra 30 minutes of brisk walking at least five days each week, this would reduce “the disease burden” due to physical inactivity in the population by 26 per cent.

The good news — and any personal trainer will tell you this — is that it is never too late to start exercising. In fact, recent research has found no difference between people who had always been fit and those who decided to take it up later in life.

But even armed with this information, starting an exercise regimen can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. A lot of this has to do with the perception that exercise has to be goal-oriented, and a lot of us don’t enjoy feeling pressure to perform. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“People often associate exercise with pain,” says Brisbane-based sports and exercise psychologist Patrea O’Donoghue.

She says exercise can be anything you want it to be these days — the image of a macho instructor barking at you to do 50 push-ups is a thing of the past. A lot of people don’t like showing their bodies in public, yet you can have your own trainer or yoga instructor on your phone via an app, or do a workout in the privacy of your home on a treadmill and cycling machine. And it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

“People think it has to be all about joining a gym or buying a $2000 bike or looking the part, but you don’t need a fancy kit. You can just start with a decent pair of walking shoes.”

Here are a few points exercise newbies need to consider:

  • See your doctor. If you’ve never really done much exercise, ask your GP to give you the all-clear to start an exercise program.
  • Assess your diet. There is not much point in starting to exercise regularly if your diet doesn’t complement it. Even if your goal is not to lose weight but to rather get fit or healthy, a balanced diet will help.
  • Think about what you would enjoy doing — walking, cycling, tennis, golf, jogging, swimming, yoga, or even skipping.
  • Turn your exercise into a habit.

“If you decide, for instance, that you’ll go for a walk or to the gym twice a week, take steps to follow through with it no matter what,” says O’Donoghue.

“If you find that work or a personal commitment means you won’t have time to go to the gym on the day you’d allocated, go anyway. Even if you just spend five minutes in the gym on that day, that’s psychologically and physically better than not going at all, as you’ve maintained the habit and you’re sticking to your commitment.

“With any habit, any time you start to make excuses like not having time — you’re in danger. It’s like many people who make a New Year’s Eve resolution to get fit: they attack the gym for two weeks and completely overdo it, then never follow through. That’s never going to work.”

Remember to take baby steps
“If the person has been very sedentary in their habits and wants to make some lifestyle changes, I’d say to them, ‘Let’s start small’. I’d get them to look at one small thing they could do that they could attach to an existing behaviour, so they could say to themselves, ‘When I get home, I put on my walking shoes straight away and go for a walk’. Even if they just start off with five minutes, depending on their level of health. Start with just one thing and stick to it.

“As they progressed, I’d ask them how long was acceptable to them to keep going so that the five minutes is turning into 15 minutes and so on. I’d ask them to tell me how many times a week they’re committing to do it. It’s not about saying it’s good or bad whether they did it or not, but maintaining the habit and what’s realistic for them.”

O’Donoghue says she’d also ask the exercise newcomer to think about what successes they’ve had in their life (not associated with exercise) such as in their career or personal life, and ask them to think about how they achieved that success. “It might be a presentation or how well they cook — get them to extract the key principles from that and apply it to their exercise.

“It’s important to look at the role of feelings associated with exercise,” she says. ”If we have the thought one cold dark morning that we just don’t feel like doing any exercise and there is that self-talk going on in our heads, making sure you turn that around. Maintaining the momentum is very important.”

You can exercise alone, with a friend, or in a group. What’s important is working out what will work best for you. “If someone said they really did struggle to exercise by themselves, I’d be encouraging them to exercise with a friend or neighbour or a group,” says O’Donoghue. “They are more likely to uphold a commitment to someone else than themselves. That sense of accountability can be useful.”

It’s worthwhile knowing that research shows you don’t have to do a big block of exercise in one hit. You can break it down into ten-minute blocks — walk to the shops instead of driving; go up the stairs instead of taking the lift; even doing housework, standing up while watching TV, or doing some gardening counts! Think about anything that contributes to you burning calories.

Before you start patting yourself on the back, O’Donoghue says it’s important to recognise the difference between being healthy and being fit. Initially, regular exercise such as fairly brisk walking for half an hour for five or six days, is about getting healthy so that you are mildly out of breath as you walk — but if your aim is to get fit, your heart rate needs to go up when you exercise.

Older Australians also need to think about doing some light strength training up to three times a week, using exercises to work all the major muscle groups of your body (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms) to maintain bone health and muscle mass. To avoid injuries, have a professional show you how to apply low levels of impact on the muscles. Elastic band exercises, for example, are ideal.

Are you ready to start exercising? What made you decide to give it a serious go?

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