Let’s be honest – procrastination comes too easily to us all. As does fear. Perhaps the fear bit is an Irish thing – we are a self-deprecating nation, no doubt about it, and often that’s at the expense of our self-belief and motivation to make changes to our lifestyle.
The whole area of physical activity, exercise and ‘fitness’ is a classic example of this. It’s almost funny at this stage the number of times in a year we decide to ‘get fit’ for various reasons, most of which are culture and media drive. You know what I mean – starting a workout regime for ‘the summer shreds’, ‘a bikini body’, or because it’s ‘a New Year, and a New Me.’ Or even worse – ‘I’m back from my holiday abroad, ate loads, drank even more, fell off the wagon, time to lose 3 stone.’
You know what all of that screams to me? Two things – number one, there is no sustainability in that plan. Number two – there is no real inner fire or joy driving that perceived desire for change. Number three just popped into my head – there is no real understanding of WHY regular physical activity is important (no, seeking a bikini body doesn’t count).
What I’m also seeing holding people back, on the other end of the spectrum, is fear. Fear of simply getting started – being afraid of the gym environment, of not knowing where to start, or how to start, of previous injuries that haven’t been checked out flaring up again, of being judged by others who aren’t trying to make change, and worst of all, fear of perceived failure.
Recently, I attended a mini-conference on Brain Health and Brain Disease at University College Dublin (my new hangout for the year!), which was organised by the Dementia and Neurodegeneration Network Ireland. It was fascinating, aimed at both the general population and professionals, to raise awareness and reduce stigma around the topic of dementia, which, FYI, is only going to become more prevalent as our population ages. I’m writing a separate article on Brain Health so you’ll find that on the Friday Focus soon!
I mention this conference because a key focus how we can optimise brain health for prevention AND management of dementia (of all forms) is physical activity. Physical activity levels are a crucial MODIFIABLE risk factor for dementia – and by that I mean that a LACK of adequate physical activity increases our risk for developing dementia. If we could take a pill that would reduce this risk, we would – and in fact, patients who need medication to control blood pressure and cholesterol are doing just that, as high blood pressure and cholesterol are both modifiable risk factors for dementia too.
So I decided that this post would be, in the context of the background I’ve written about, all about sharing eight easy steps to get you started on your exercise journey – NOW. No matter what is holding you back at the moment – fear, pain, motivation, understanding – these steps are simple and address all of those blocks you have set in your mind against getting started. Don’t think of these as steps up a ladder – think of them as little stepping stones you’re gonna stroll across (maybe even hop lightly from one to another) along your journey to improving your physical activity. So here they are, and I’ve pre-faced these tips with the Irish Physical Activity Guidelines:
- Aerobic Activity: Moderate Intensity Activity (can talk but not sing) of 30 minutes duration, 5 days per week – 150 minutes per week in total
- Strength & Balance Activities/Activities to Focus on Muscle Strength: At least 2 days per week
1. Get Cleared For Take Off
If you have a pre-existing medical condition, be it to do with your heart, lungs, musculoskeletal system (e.g. an old injury), or a chronic illness of some description, the best place to start, for safety and your own reassurance, is to get checked out and cleared for activity by your GP and/or a physiotherapist. It alleviates your fear, and creates a safe zone within which you can begin to exercise and promotes awareness within you of your limits, and when it’s okay to push past them and when it’s not.
2. Exercise For Enjoyment
People often ask me ‘How do you stay motivated to train?’ The easy and honest answer is mostly because I train in ways that I ENJOY. I love to lift weights, I love to run and go for walks, I love yoga. Therefore, it’s pretty much never a chore to go and do them. In fact, my issue is often making sure I have enough days in my week NOT doing one of the 3 to rest. You will return to the exercise you enjoy – that might be walking, Zumba, Salsa, badminton, tennis, swimming, squash, the gym, cycling – it’s unique to you. And many of these activities offer us both aerobic and resistance training benefits too! So if you hate running for example, stop trying to force yourself into it. Try something new. If you dislike a form of activity and you keep trying to do it for whatever reason (e.g. your friend is running a 10km or marathon), you’ll associate exercise with negativity, which is NOT what we want!
3. Start Small
Crucial. Let’s say you love running this time, and you want to move beyond the epic 5km you’re already doing. Awesome! But maybe don’t book the Dublin Marathon that’s in a month’s time. That’s insane. And unsafe. Instead, work on gradually building your distance up, kilometer by kilometer, and maybe yes, book a 10km in the near future. But never set goals too big for you in achieve in the short term – it’s a sure fire way to lose motivation and drive very quickly. To take it to the basics, let’s say you want to work up to 10,000 steps a day. Fantastic! Why not start with 3 short walks each day? 10 minutes, three times a day = 30 minutes. Aim for 5,000 steps, and build it up, for example. Increasing the duration and frequency of your activity once you start, slowly and surely, is the best way forward – because there is no better motivation than achieving those little goals along the path to success.
4. Track Yourself
I’m not saying you need an app or a Fitbit to maintain your activity, but I do think it’s really important to track your progress. As we all know, Monday to Friday flies in and before we know it, Sunday evening rolls around again and we’ve forgotten all our good intentions in a busy week. Personally, I have a basic Fitbit that I use to track steps, and every week I write in my diary the days I’m going to the gym, and the days I want to either get a walk in, or do a yoga class. They are commitments I’m making to ME, to be my best self, and I’m darn proud of them. If you keep a diary, write down your weekly plan – pencil in the gym time, the walks you want to do, the run you planned with your friend. That way, you’ve scheduled in a time that suits you and your busy week, and you can hold yourself accountable to it. Most smartphones now track our steps for us, so if just getting more active in your day is where you want to start, think about logging that with your day and monitoring it to see how you’re doing.
5. Get Social
A great motivator to stick to your exercise ambitions is having a friend to do it with you. It’s a LOT easier to cancel on yourself than it is a friend. So think about signing up for a new activity with a buddy, or rope in a pal to do those walks with you, either at work or at home! It gives you a great way to catch up, as well as allowing you guys to share the highs and lows of the journey. I love booking yoga classes with a friend, and planning a catch up over coffee after!
6. Use It Or Lose It
I’ve written about the importance of strength and balance training to maintain muscle mass for healthy ageing previously, and I’ll say it again because it is that important. It is vital to ensure we are including physical activity that promotes muscle mass maintenance in our week – that can be body-weight based (push ups, squats, tricep dips, the plank), gym-based, or other activities such as ball sports, racquet sports, even dance and yoga or tai chi! As I talked about in my previous post, there is a big role for these activities in allowing us to remain functionally independent (i.e. capable of caring for ourselves) as we age. Frailty in older adult life is no joke – a massive risk factor for falls, fractures, head injuries, and longer term morbidity and even mortality. So let’s do the basics now to maximise our chances at a long, indepenent, healthy life.
7. Progress, Not Perfection
With the best intentions, sometimes life just happens and gets in the way of your plans. Crazy traffic, a late meeting at work, an issue at home – we can’t 100% predict the day that lies before us despite our best efforts, so if and when you don’t hit a weekly goal, give yourself a break. You haven’t ‘fallen off the wagon‘ (I despise that phrase) – you’re living your life in all its realities. So start the next day fresh, with those great intentions you always had. They didn’t disappear in a mad Monday – so don’t let that be an excuse.
8. Simply Put – You WILL Feel Better
It definitely takes more than 2 weeks to make a habit permanent, but I find often time is irrelevant – it’s all about our drive and motivation to achieve a goal and change a part of our lifestyle, coupled with how we FEEL during and after the achievement. I challenge anyone to tell me they didn’t feel even 1% better after just a short walk on a sunny evening, no matter how busy the day was. So when you leave the gym, or the dance class, or arrive home from your walk or run – reflect. How do you feel? Pretty good I bet – maybe tired, but you should feel proud. We know exercise boosts those feel-good endorphins – that aside, remember to congratulate yourself on your mini achievements day to day, and keep that positive self-talk alive and kicking!
And that’s a wrap! I hope you guys enjoy this post – and most importantly, that it motivates you to start somewhere on your exercise journey, with just these simple, sustainable steps. Let me know what you think, and how you’re doing if you give them a go! I’m @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!
Ciara 🙂 x