We Are Made to Move
It’s obvious, but also easy to forget, that our bodies are bio-mechanical machines that evolved to function best when they move regularly throughout the day. Our muscles and bones need the stress of movement to stay strong, as does our cardiovascular system and digestive system. Our nervous system is also calmer when we get enough movement.
If you feel it’s difficult for you to find time to exercise, you may be caught in a trap of preconceived notions about what “counts” as exercise. Ideas like:
- I need to exercise for at least thirty minutes
- I need to sweat.
- I need to wear special clothing or use special equipment.
- I need to go to a gym.
- I need to feel tired afterward
- I need to do the same activity or level of intensity that I was able to do at another point in my life.
All of these thoughts are barriers that prevent many of us from getting enough healthy movement in our lives. Forget exercise. Focus on movement.
Understand What Truly Motivates You
If you want to establish a healthy movement habit and maintain it for the rest of your life, the most important thing you can do is to notice the immediate, positive impact it has on your life. Research shows that people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising. The immediate rewards of exercising—more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family—are far more motivating. For more tips on motivation and exercise, check out the book “No Sweat” by motivation psychologist Dr. Michelle Segar.
How Much Do You Need?
Our bodies need 20-30 minutes of movement a day for optimal health. More than that is for vanity or performance. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good or push yourself physically, but those goals don’t have anything to do with health. The best place to start is with a walk. Daily walking greatly reduces the risk of every chronic health disease, and improves your mood. After you finish your walk, notice how you feel in that moment, both mentally and physically. Appropriate exercise makes us feel better—calmer, more relaxed, or energized. Experiencing the positive benefits and actively taking note of them will make it easier to stick with this habit.
Keep it Basic, Add Variety When You Feel Bored
I like to break up fitness into four main areas: cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, flexibility and balance. I like to mention balance because we tend to forget about it. Weight training may help keep you from breaking a hip if you fall in your old age, but spending time working on balance will make you less likely to fall in the first place.
If you like to work out, there are loads of options to pick from. Some people love the gym, some like the accountability of a personal trainer, others prefer videos or streaming services. But if you don’t like to work out, don’t sweat it. Focus on getting an exercise “snack” into your day—something short and easy that gets you moving.
For strength work, I love the free Johnson and Johnson 7-Minute Work Out app, designed by an exercise physiologist. He has created a variety of different routines for the app, including a gentle beginner’s version.
If you’re looking to work on flexibility and balance, try “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube. This playlist has routines under 10 minutes.
For me, the key to success is to be honest with myself about what I’m up for that day, week or month. Some days I have enough energy for a fast yoga conditioning class with my favorite yoga teacher, Gustavo Padron. Some days I like to lift weights with my husband. And on other days, just getting outside for a ten minute walk is a major accomplishment. My main go to exercises are walking (for cardio) and yoga (for strength, balance and flexibility).
Just Like a Car, You Need Maintenance
Most people, myself included, are both surprised and angry when something in their body breaks. This does not make sense. All machines break with time if they are not properly maintained. Few of us do regular maintenance on our bodies, including those of us who exercise regularly. Poor posture, repetitive movement, and overuse or underuse of our bodies put us at risk for injury.
The best guide I’ve found to do doing regular maintenance is the book “Deskbound” by physical therapist Dr. Kelley Starrett. If you prefer to learn by watching videos, he is also the creator of the free YouTube series “MobilityWod”, which contains over 200 videos on treating musculoskeletal pain. Personally, I find the volume of his youtube playlist hard to navigate, so I recommend his book instead. The book goes through keys to good posture, how to move well, how to set up your work station to avoid injury, and prescriptions for solving pain problems in every part of the body.
Each of us tends to store tension in different areas of our body based on our biomechanics and daily activities. I will always have a tight upper back and tight hips. Using the techniques from this book help me address a tight upper back before it manifests as daily headaches, or address my problematic left hip before it causes a lot of low back pain or prevents me from getting comfortable at night to go to sleep.
When Pain Becomes Chronic
For some of us, an acute injury can turn into a chronic pain problem. I had this happen to me in my late 20s. I slept curled up on a couch one night and woke the next morning with severe upper back pain that I couldn’t shake for several months. I tried all sorts of things to make the pain better—massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, acupuncture, muscle relaxers, ibuprofen, nothing help. The pain prevented me from sleeping, and set off a period of severe insomnia.
While there was a triggering event for this pain, I was also going through a period of extreme personal stress. At the time, I didn’t realize how much my stress level and my pain level were tied together. Running out of options, I turned to mindfulness techniques, and my pain started to improve.
If any of this sounds familiar, please check out Curable. I wish this site had been around when I was suffering through my back pain. Many factors, including the way we think and behave, can have an impact on our experience of pain. Even if pain started with a physical injury or illness, if it persists for a long period of time then it’s likely that the brain has started to play a more significant role. I think acupuncture is so effective for chronic pain because it helps with pain and mood, but there are other options as well. Curable is a great place to explore.