Much of my time as a student at the Teachers College has been focused on why people should exercise more. We learn about the mechanisms involved in how exercise effects all the major systems of the body to prevent and help manage chronic illness (i.e. cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, metabolic disease) psychological and affective disorders (i.e. types of depression, anxiety) as well as improving quality of life, sleep and mood. You can’t say enough about how physical activity is good for health. period. For the past two years I’ve been studying the history of exercise physiology as well as the current literature and research that is proving what has been inherent for thousands of years: we were meant to move, and we function better when we are moving regularly.
The dilemma is this: as a society, we are not moving, and we don’t like to move, because we’ve made it so we don’t really have to move. Obviously there are many people who are physically active, but the large majority of us are not active enough. Exercise is hard, it’s time-consuming, and it’s not enjoyable. At least that is the stigma it has in many people’s minds.
There is a some truth to that, unfortunately. For example, exercise is stressful, but it is that regular stress that prepares and trains the body for anything life might throw your way. If you are physically active, stressors tend to be seen more like challenges than threats. You say to yourself “hey, I’ve survived worse, let’s do this!” instead of “this is going to be rough, I don’t know how I’ll make it .” The difference in this psychological perception effects how your body responds to stress.
When researchers study exercise adherence, one of the most popular theoretical frameworks uses Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory. This theory builds off the idea that all behavior is learned through observation of others. And it’s main construct deals with self-efficacy, or the perceived belief that one has the capabilities to perform a behavior. Self-efficacy has been demonstrated time and again in research to be a good predictor of behavior. So if someone has a high self-efficacy for a behavior, they are more likely to engage in that behavior.
So how does this apply to exercise? Well self-efficacy is based on experience, so if you do not have a good experience of exercise, or more likely, have a bad experience with exercise (think grade school P.E. class) then you will probably have poor self-efficacy toward physical activity. This represents a very large portion of our society. Poor self-efficay = decreased likelihood of starting and sticking to an exercise program. It’s not impossible. People successfully change behaviors all the time, but it is not easy. There have to be other factors at play: namely, personal motivators and an encouraging environment.
Keep your eyes open to programs aimed at increasing our physical activity. This epidemic is effecting all of us; the American Heart Association is predicting that the cost of treating heart disease will increase to $818 billion by the year 2030. In New York, we are increasing bike lanes and encouraging new buildings to have more accessible staircases. I’ve seen more news about walking meetings, treadmill desks, and even this whimsical hamster wheel desk! Professional sports have started programs such as NFL’s play 60, and NBA Fit which are geared to encouraging kids to stay active. There has also been a huge increase in interest of physical activity monitors such as the FitBit, Jawbone UP Band, and the much anticipated Apple Watch. These devices can make a large impact on overall motivation. They increase personal accountability and awareness of your actual activity levels. Most of these trackers are designed to be fun to use, and encourage friendly competition when connected to friends and coworkers.
Find activities that you enjoy doing, staying physically active is a lifestyle choice you want to be making!
Also, if you have three minutes, I highly recommended this video from James Hamblin at The Atlantic, Workouts to Do at Work. A little humor makes all of this information a little more palatable!