Enjoying a lifetime of physical activity

Consider the importance of sustainability when looking for physical activities that are right for you.

How do we choose a physical activity and which one is best for weight management? Many Americans have gym memberships where they slog through miles on the treadmill or elliptical and lift either free weights or use weight machines. Others participate in group workouts like CrossFit, boot camp, yoga or Zumba classes. Still, others keep an active lifestyle through walking, trail riding, rock climbing or kayaking. In Dr. Michelle Segar’s 2015 book “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness,” she addresses the difficulty in sustaining active lifestyles over time and answers the question, which is best? The answer is any or all of them.

Dr. Segar’s approach to physical activity is very different than what most personal trainers or fitness enthusiasts will tell you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities. Dr. Segar’s focus is more on the sustainability of activities over time and less on the number of active minutes in the short term because she finds the current fitness messaging ineffective at keeping people exercising. Many personal trainers use the CDC’s recommendations as one-size-fits-all, while Dr. Segar recommends “start[ing] by taking any and every opportunity to move, in any way possible, at whatever speed you like, for any amount of time.” While this may sound overly simple, this approach emphasizes enjoyment of the activity, which is key for anyone to sustain a behavior like exercising for the long term. Dr. Segar encourages individuals to find activities that they like to do instead of choosing activities they feel they should do. This changes the perception of exercise from a chore to that of a gift, shifting it from something people dread to something people look forward to.

Finding consistency with exercise can be challenging when trying to fit the recommended 30 minutes per day, five times per week into our already hectic lives. Dr. Segar suggests that instead of feeling frustrated by trying to Tetris exercise into your calendar, shift your thinking to “everything counts.” The idea behind everything counts is that every step or action counts towards physical activity for the day. Dr. Segar says this has been groundbreaking for some of her clients and they find it much easier to maintain an active lifestyle when they count all movement instead of only movement done in proper attire (i.e. exercise clothes) in the proper environment (i.e. gym).

Examples of ways to increase movement throughout the day:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk for 10-15 minutes of your lunch break instead of sitting the entire time.
  • Stretch at designated times during the day or at the midway point of a meeting.
  • Park farther away if traveling to a meeting and walk the rest of the way.
  • Suggest walking meetings instead of sitting.
  • Request 50-minute meetings instead of an hour to allow time for an activity break.
  • Park in the back of the parking lot at work or at the store.
  • Do 10 minutes of yard work like raking or shoveling.
  • Complete a 5-10 minute online workout if you cannot fit in a full workout session.

Dr. Michelle Segar’s suggestions encourage individuals to find activities they enjoy and she recommends starting slowly, slower than the CDC recommends above. Instead of disagreeing with the CDC, Dr. Segar is thinking of the long-term sustainability of physical activity for an individual. She premises that if an individual begins exercising an hour a day for five days per week, eventually something in their life will interfere with their exercise schedule, they will miss workouts, and eventually stop exercising altogether. Finding a physical activity that is enjoyable and beginning with smaller increments of time for several months is easier to fit into a busy lifestyle and therefore, easier to maintain for Dr. Segar’s goal of fitness for a lifetime.

Other resources on physical activity and weight management can be found at Michigan State University Extension.

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