Getting Started: making Physical Activity a Priority

Make an appointment for physical activity and put it on your calendar.

This shouldn’t be news to any of our readers: Being physically active is beneficial for cardiovascular health. In fact, there is so much credible science available about that subject that the American Heart Association has specific recommendations for how much we should all try to achieve: At least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity).

So, if we all know this, why is it so challenging for so many of us to take those first steps to becoming regularly physically active? About two-thirds of kids and half of adults in the U.S. don’t get enough physical activity — and three out of 10 adults don’t get ANY exercise. What’s standing in our way?

“I don’t have enough time”

There are plenty of tips and strategies for overcoming time constraints, but before we get to that, let’s talk about priorities. Most of us have time to do what we consider most important to us. There is no mystery to it. No, we have that time because we make that time — we arrange and re-arrange; we say no; we ignore temptation; we defend it against other demands — we prioritize.

Any physical activity is a good thing, but it is the habit of exercise that creates the greatest changes to your health. In order for something to become a habit, you are probably going to have to make it a priority. You are going to have to put out some effort, and the first thing you should do if you’re a heart patient or have any specific medical question is talk with your doctor about what is safe for you and what you are capable of doing physically.

Here’s a strategy to get started — make 30 minutes of activity most days of the week a priority for one month. Before you start the timer on that, monitor your daily activities for a week and identify at least five 30-minute time slots you could use for physical activity. Almost certainly, you will have to juggle and compromise, just as with any new priority. Next, do whatever you need to do to make it happen — workout clothes in the car; walking shoes at the office; shorter lunch so you can walk some then; buy some free weights; join a nearby fitness center or YMCA; make a verbal commitment to someone. After a month (at least 20 sessions), evaluate how you feel.

Most people feel much better, which reinforces you’re resolve to continue the habit. Not only will you feel better, you have also proven to yourself that you do, in fact, have the time. Now the issue is: Will you defend that time against other things that demand your attention?

Timely reframe: Recovering from a heart attack (or any sickness) takes time. If you exercise, you reduce the chances that you will be sick or, if you do get sick, the amount of time you are down. So, regular physical activity has great potential to ultimately save you time … and misery.

Tips for making exercise happen:

  • Park at the back of the lot wherever you go.
  • Take the stairs when it’s just a few floors.
  • Get a treadmill or stationary bicycle and exercise while you watch TV.
  • Make an appointment for physical activity and put it on your calendar.
  • Wear sneakers that fit.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that is comfortable and appropriate for the weather and the activity you are engaged in.
  • Start slowly and build gradually to at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most or all days of the week (or whatever your doctor recommends).
  • Work out at the same time of day so it becomes a habit.
  • Find a convenient time and a nearby place to do your 30 minutes.
  • Be flexible. If you miss your normal time, work some activity into your day another way. If life events cause you to stop for a while, start gradually and work up to your old pace.

Caveat: “No pain, no gain” is a prescription for injury! The goal is to integrate activity into your lifestyle, so you have plenty of time to reach any milestone you set.

To stay focused on your physical activity routine, make a contract with yourself.

“I don’t enjoy exercise”

Fair enough. At the beginning, before it’s a habit, physical activity may be uncomfortable or a hassle or just no fun.

So, make it fun — find something you like to do. Maybe it’s dancing or gardening or walking at the mall or a local nature preserve with a friend.

If you can’t identify an activity you like, take a class and learn a new skill.

Another way to make exercise enjoyable is do it with other people. If there’s not a walking group in your neighborhood, start one. Many churches and senior centers have exercise programs, join one. Activity shared is activity reinforced.

Get your family involved. Let your kids ride their bikes so you can move at a brisker pace. Or take the dog out for 20 minutes twice a day.

Take your cellphone and play your favorite music or listen to a podcast or book. Phone a friend. If you use an stationary bicycle, you can read a book or magazine or watch TV.

Use variety to keep yourself interested. Walk one day, go to the gym the next, swim the day after that, then go for a bike ride on the weekend.

If keeping track motivates you, then record your times and distances. And celebrate milestones — with non-food rewards.

Once a month, visit a nature preserve or participate in a fun run.

And whatever you do, start slow and easy. Don’t rush to challenge yourself. If it takes six weeks to work up to 30 minutes, so what! Nobody’s keeping score.

“It’s inconvenient”

True enough, changing a habit is challenging, and sometimes it feels inconvenient because old habits are comfortable, and new habits are almost by definition not comfortable.

But if we’re measuring inconvenience and discomfort, surely heart disease is a lot more inconvenient and uncomfortable than 150 minutes a week of walking at 4 m.p.h.

Not complicated

Don’t make it complicated or expensive. Start with walking! It’s easy and convenient, and it gets the job done!

It’s Easy

  • Walking is the simplest way to start and continue a fitness journey.
  • Walking generally costs nothing to get started — though if you don’t have walking shoes, get a pair.
  • Walking is easy and safe.

It Gets the Job Done

  • Walking for as few as 30 minutes a day benefits your heart — even in 10 minute increments.
  • Walking is one of the most effective forms of exercise to achieve heart health.

Make a commitment

Filling the exercise prescription is a gift you give yourself and everyone who loves you. To stay focused on your physical activity routine, make a contract with yourself. Include these items: the amount of physical activity you plan to do each week, the days and times you plan to do it and any specific milestones you’d like to achieve, such as participating in your first 5K race.

Be specific about your reasons for being more active — like improving your endurance and overall health, reducing your blood pressure or simply looking and feeling better. Then post those reasons and your signed commitment where you will see them and keep you motivated.

Here’s a sample commitment document you can fill in for yourself:

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