- According to CDC data, 47% of American adults over the age of 18 do not meet recommended guidelines for aerobic exercise.
- Lowering the bar can lead to more exercise success: Studies show people perform better when they feel their goals are attainable.
- Other research-based strategies that can help people start exercising include finding one's motivation and removing barriers.
What percentage of American adults do you think exercise regularly enough to meet standard exercise guidelines?
According to 2018 CDC data, about 53% of adults aged 18 and older meet the guidelines for aerobic exercise—150 minutes of mild to moderate physical activity per week, such as 30 minutes five days a week of brisk walking.*
So, there are two Americas—one that exercises, one that does not. If you are currently part of the sedentary 47% and would like to join the Exercise Club, what could you do to motivate yourself? This post will focus on easy ways to get started with an exercise program.
First, Find Your Motivator
Why exercise? Physical activity is a magic potion that bestows multiple benefits. Here’s a quick summary of those benefits, verified by numerous research studies:
- Brain benefits: Improves thinking/cognition; lowers risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; slows age-related memory decline; leads to better sleep.
- Mental health benefits: Offers immediate mood lift; reduces depression, stress, and anxiety; leads to higher self-esteem; combats lethargy and increases energy.
- General health benefits: Slows the aging process; lowers blood pressure; helps maintain a healthy weight; reduces symptoms of diseases such as arthritis and Parkinson’s; reduces risk for obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers; reduces risk for premature death; reverses decline in muscle strength, thus increasing metabolism.
- Protection against severe COVID, according to a recent study.
- Beauty benefits: Exercise will improve your looks and self-esteem. While vanity may not be the noblest motivator, as I write here, it can nudge you toward healthy habits.
And the greatest benefit of all:
- Life satisfaction: Exercise will help keep you functionally fit so you can do the things you have to do--like lift a bag of heavy groceries--as well as the things you want to do, like attend art events, spend time with friends and relatives, immerse yourself in nature, walk your dog, or express yourself through creative activities. Lack of exercise can, unfortunately, lead to loss of mobility, hunkering down at home instead of going out, worsening health problems, fewer social connections, and low mood. Avoid this vicious cycle!
Any amount of exercise is better than none because even small amounts of exercise will give you some of the awesome benefits above.
The Low Road to Exercise Success
Once you decide to join the Exercise Club, what’s the best way to get started?
You could set your sights high by investing in a gym membership, deciding to walk 10,000 steps/day, setting a goal to run a marathon, or buying an expensive treadmill.
I say: Forget that! Instead, make your exercise plan as easy as possible. Remember, any amount of exercise is better than none and will give you benefits like those listed above.
I repeat: Any amount of exercise is better than none. Could you adopt that phrase as your motivating motto?
6 Don'ts for Easy Exercise Success
Below are suggestions to jump-start your exercise program. I am going to assume that the easiest form of exercise will be a walking program, but any exercise you enjoy will be fine.
Let’s start with a few things you don’t have to do as a beginning exerciser. Consider these don'ts:
- You don’t have to buy expensive equipment.
- You don’t have to invest in expensive clothing. Old clothes work.
- You don’t have to walk 10,000 steps. According to this article, big benefits begin with as few as 4400 steps.
- You don’t have to join a gym.
- You don’t have to sweat. Exercise can be a pleasant stroll around the block or around your living space.
- You don’t have to avoid exercise because you experience chronic pain. Staying physically active actually eases chronic pain in many cases. Check with your doctor.
If any of these "don'ts" appeal to you, go right ahead and join that gym or aim high in other ways. Some people like to "go big."
But if you think it makes more sense to "go small," try these 10 simple steps to exercise success:
- Set an easy goal for yourself. Why? “Studies have shown that people who perceive their goals as attainable perform better than those who think their goals are beyond reach,” according to journalist Shankar Vedantam in his book, Useful Delusions. Setting a goal of exercising for 30, 20, or even 5-10 minutes a day could be a reachable goal. In fact, if you are not exercising at all right now, 5-10 minutes is a sensible goal.
- Know your reasons for exercising. Which of the benefits above could become your primary motivator? Keep it top of mind. Create a motto for it. Write your reasons on Post-its and stick them all over your house. Part of learning to exercise is remembering to do it.
- Invest in decent walking shoes. Good shoes are the one necessity for most types of exercise. It’s easy to take our feet for granted until a foot problem restricts mobility, as I have learned from personal experience with the dreaded plantar fasciitis.
- Figure out your barriers to exercising and remove them. I like to exercise in the morning, but when the weather is good, I also like to take short strolls in the evening, too. Unfortunately, the hassle of changing into exercise clothes has been a barrier for me. So, I recently decided to walk in whatever I was wearing. I just put on those walking shoes (#3) and go. Freedom!
- Make it a habit by scheduling exercise at the same time each day. Habits “put good behavior on autopilot,” as Katy Milkman puts it in her book, How to Change. Make it a no-brainer. On the other hand…
- If you can’t exercise at the usual time, exercise at an unusual time. When can you exercise today? Be flexible and seize your opportunities. Or...
- Give yourself two "passes" per week. This excellent idea from Katy Milkman acknowledges the reality of our numerous commitments. Skipping exercise for a doctor's appointment or a meeting is inevitable, so you could build two "no-exercise days" into your program, guilt-free.
- Divide it up. Take a 10-minute walk in the morning and another 10-minute walk in the evening.
- Create streaks. Use a wall calendar to make giant checkmarks for every day that you do at least 10 minutes of exercise. See how many days in a row you can keep it up. Streaks are motivating.
- Kick it up a notch. Once you solidify your exercise habit, add to it. I like this quote from habits expert James Clear: "Start small. Master the art of showing up. Scale up when you have the time, energy, and interest."
Your New Identity
At some point, you may find yourself looking forward to your exercise breaks. The pleasure of movement can then itself become a motivator. But whether you enjoy your exercise sessions or just take them like a daily pill, give yourself credit for your success and embrace your new identity. You can now call yourself "an exerciser."
© Meg Selig. All rights reserved.
*Also recommended by the CDC for all adults: strength training—aka, weight-lifting or resistance training—and balance exercises for adults over 65. Only 23% of adults do regular strength training. But we're taking it one step at a time in this blog!
Vedantam, S and Mesler, B. (2021). Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. NY: W.W. Norton, p. 20.
Milkman, K. (2021). How to Change: The Science From Getting Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. NY: Penguin Random House, p. 119, 139. (Nook edition)