- Even busy people can find time to exercise, says Andrew May, former KPMG partner. The secret is turning off your mobile.
- Each week, adults should complete 150-plus minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75-plus minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity.
- Human brains, however, are actually ‘wired’ to conserve energy, which is why it’s so easy to make excuses not to exercise.
By Fiona Smith
We’re awake for about 17 hours a day, so you’d think it would be easy enough to find 20 minutes for a brisk walk or some other moderate-intensity exercise. But no.
About a third of us go from bed to office chair to sofa and back to bed without raising a bead of sweat through physical activity, according to the World Health Organisation’s global survey on physical activity.
We can get the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week by getting off the bus a stop earlier, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or by walking the dog. If we’re more ambitious, we can instead do 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week, which could involve a couple of jogs or some fast swimming laps, sport or any activity that makes us short of breath.
But if you’re one of the 30.4% of Australians or 42.4% of New Zealanders who find this too hard, the secret to committing to exercise may be to look at where you are wasting time.
High-performance coach Andrew May says the biggest excuse for inertia is that his clients are too busy – yet he can usually clear three or four hours a week in a client’s diary just by looking at their work habits.
“I think a lot of people are busy being busy,” says May, a former KPMG partner who now coaches executives. “We spend a whole lot of time on distractions and distracting each other.”
Before starting a client on a fitness program, May will get them to turn off all their email alerts and pop-ups on their computers and mobile phones. “They hijack your attention,” he says.
Rules are established about email and other communication channels, setting times to check them, deciding which ones need a response and picking up the phone if it becomes an ongoing conversation of more than two or three emails or messages.
May also recommends setting aside a couple of hours a week for thinking or uninterrupted execution. “I call it forced isolation and it is when you do the high-value work you are paid to do,” he says.
He says that when people fail to stick to their goals, it is often because they go straight to a fitness program without creating the time in their week or finding a strong intrinsic motivation.
It is also important to build in some accountability: to get a trainer, join a squad or to exercise with a friend or family member. “It is so you can’t just opt out.”
“The other thing is to get them to do something they like, or something they hate less,” May says.
Couch potato is a natural human state
Professor Adrian Bauman has spent 25 years studying physical activity and says we have to override our instincts to keep fit in a fast food, sedentary world.
A public health professor at the University of Sydney, Bauman says humans are “wired” to conserve energy. “I had discussions with evolutionary biologists because I always thought it was the other way around – that the natural state of human beings was to be moving. It’s not so.”
Our distant ancestors evolved to conserve energy because they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. “There wasn’t a stable food supply until 4000 years ago,” says Bauman.
Modern life has also removed a lot of the incidental exercise of previous eras. We no longer build strength by washing our clothes by hand or chopping wood.
“So we actually have to trick ourselves into expending energy,” Bauman says.
This can start by calling it something else, such as “physical activity”, he suggests.
Jacqueline d’Ath turns her commute into exercise
Jacqueline d’Ath. Photo credit: Ian Robertson.
Jacqueline d’Ath CA works as an investigator for New Zealand’s Inland Revenue in Wellington and gets her daily exercise from a combination of walking to or from work and running.
“It feels odd not to exercise and I don’t always think of it as exercise. Getting out and having a walk is really about getting time to myself to think about what’s happening and just getting out of the office for a little bit.”
During her hour of walking, d’Ath listens to podcasts to keep up with the news and business topics (she is completing a Master of Business Studies from Massey University). Her walk takes only 25 minutes more than if she used public transport for her commute.
“Getting out and having a walk is really about getting time to myself to think.”
How to commit to fitness
Committing to fitness starts with finding a motivation – such as losing weight, reducing cholesterol or keeping up with the kids, says Mia Kacen, an exercise physiologist and adviser to the Office of Preventative Health in New South Wales.
Writing down that motivation, even adding pictures, can act as reinforcement.
Those who have been exercise-avoiders can start small with just five minutes a day and then ratchet it up.
“Some people also suggest to start with just half an hour of walking, something simple and easy that can be broken up into three lots: 10 minutes each at breakfast, lunch and in the evening,” Kacen says.
“Sedentary people have higher risks of developing health issues and cardiovascular diseases, so any exercise is better than none.”
How Sarah Dammers went from deskbound to triathlon
Sarah Dammers CA. Photo credit: Philip Gostelow.
Perth-based Sarah Dammers CA has turned her physical fitness around in the past 18 months. The slide into poor habits started when she left university and spent six years working in external audit, with very long hours.
Ten years out of high school, Dammers had gained 20 kilos and lost all her fitness.
“When you start, you are just so grateful for a job you just kind of go along with it and, six years later, you’re like ‘Oh what happened to my life?’,” says Dammers, who now works as an analyst at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
In mid-2017, Dammers started going to a gym and then, inspired by a magazine article, completed a running program (Couch to 5K) that aims to get people fit enough to run five kilometres in nine weeks. As the next step, she decided to try a triathlon, but didn’t know how to approach the training. She searched around to find a club where she felt comfortable.
A Facebook group, Girls Like Us Triathlon Coaching, offered the support for all levels of fitness Dammers was after, and she joined up 12 months ago.
“I’ve lost about 10 kilos and more. I’ve dropped a dress size, which has been great. My mental health is so much better.
“I don’t feel the need to hibernate. I am much more interested in getting out and doing things. I’ve expanded my social circle, which had wilted when I was doing audit because I’d lost contact with a lot of people during that time.
“I am a lot more focused. I’m definitely a lot happier.”
“I don’t feel the need to hibernate. I am much more interested in getting out and doing things. I’ve expanded my social circle.”
Dedicated runner Brent Gregory finds a new challenge
Brent Gregory. Photo credit: Simon Scott .
Brent Gregory FCA has been a dedicated exerciser all his life, first as a champion hurdler and then as a runner. However, at 63 he has started to challenge himself with yoga as well.
“But I find it so hard. I get puffed sitting on a mat. I’m really bad on the flexibility type stuff,” says Gregory, an accountancy lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale in northern New South Wales.
Gregory’s exercise regimen took a hit over 10 months when he got busy at work and then had the excesses of Christmas, adding an extra five kilos to his frame.
“At the end of last year, I was the least fit I’ve been in my whole life. It felt horrible.
You’re not as effective at everything you do, you don’t sleep well.”
When he finds himself stalling, Gregory tricks himself into exercising.
“Sometimes I don’t tell myself how far I’m going to go when I go for a run. My goal is just to start and then I’ll say I’ll do one more lap, or I’ll walk for a bit and then run.”
Gregory sets goals and visualises the desired result. “It’s about the thousands of little decisions you make in a day. Do I eat this? Do I go for lunch with someone? Do I go for a run?”
He says the rewards are many. “My level of thinking is way superior to any other time. And I feel so much better.”
As Kacen explains, the “buzz” rush of endorphins that promote feelings of happiness and health comes after about five minutes of moderate to intense exercise.
“You are going to get that heart beating, you’ve got to get the blood flowing. And then, once you do achieve that, you will feel better – even if [the exercise] is literally five minutes,” she says.
“It’s about the thousands of little decisions you make in a day. Do I eat this? Do I go for lunch with someone? Do I go for a run?”
Having a dog is good for your physical and mental health
It’s not easy to stay on the couch when Fido is gazing at you with soulful eyes, leash in mouth. That’s why walking the dog is one of the easiest ways to trick yourself into getting active.
About 38% of Australian households and 28% of New Zealand homes own a dog. If you and your dog get 20 minutes to half an hour of walking twice a day, you will both be getting the recommended minimum amount of physical activity.
Dog owner and public health professor Bauman says that half an hour of dog walking is also good for mental health.
“It’s good to relieve stress and reduce anxiety and reduce depression,” he says.
“You’ve got the additional feature of the human-dog bond and that’s something else which is also positive mental health promoting.
“If you walk your dog down to the same local park, you’ll get to know other dogs and other dog owners. In my local park, I know at least 20 dogs by name. I think I’ve got one owner’s name. It’s a good way of engaging with your community.”
Sadly, Bauman’s research has found only about a fifth of dog owners walk their dogs twice a day, and that’s disappointing for both human and canine health.
“In my local park, I know at least 20 dogs by name. I think I’ve got one owner’s name.”
How much exercise is enough?
Adults should complete: 150-plus minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or 75-plus minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
Moderate intensity exercise: This is when your breathing quickens, but you’re not out of breath. You develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes and can carry on a conversation, but you can’t sing. Such activity includes very brisk walking, swimming, vacuuming or mopping, light cycling or playing tennis doubles.
Vigorous intensity exercise: This is when your breathing is deep and rapid. You develop a sweat after only a few minutes of activity, and you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath. Such activity includes hiking, jogging, fast cycling, playing basketball, soccer or tennis singles.
Sources: World Health Organisation, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health