By Karen Angelo
Millions of people ring in the new year with the best of intentions – lose weight, save money, get organized. This year’s most popular resolution, according to a survey by YouGov.com, is to exercise regularly.
Every year, the number of gym memberships spikes in January. But by February, March or April, many of those new gym members have disappeared.
Assistant Teaching Prof. Kyle Coffey of the Department of Physical Therapy and Kinesiology specializes in the role of physical activity and exercise in health promotion and disease prevention. He says it takes a certain degree of personal motivation and accountability to ensure consistency after the beginning of the new year. What else can we do to stick to an exercise program beyond the January bump? Coffey shares his expertise on how to stay motivated for the long term.
Q. Why is it so hard for many of us to stick with an exercise program?
A. The unfortunate fact is that getting healthy can be a cruel double-edged sword. In the beginning, you’ll see improvements in physique and fitness that come “cheap.” By this, I mean that it does not take a lot of effort to see improvements. But over time, consistent gains take harder work and more dedication.
Probably the first reason most people start an exercise program the first of the year is help them lose weight. They may go on a special diet and join a gym. To stay motivated for the long term, remember that muscle uses a lot of energy. This means that the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn even when you’re resting.
Q. We know exercise is good for us. But what’s actually happening to our bodies when we exercise?
A. Exercise increases blood flow to your heart, which over time makes it work more efficiently. When the heart pushes out more blood with each beat, it beats slower. This puts less strain on your heart, reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
With consistent exercise, your body is learning to adjust to a progressive challenge. This forces the body to make adaptations, such as increase the amount of muscle mass or pump blood more efficiently to the working muscles. Over time, this makes us stronger and increases our endurance, which means we won’t get tired as quickly doing basic tasks.
Also, our bodies produce chemicals that trigger a positive feeling. This can cut down on stress and reduce anxiety. Studies show that exercise can also slow down the onset of dementia by maintaining adequate blood flow to the brain and stimulating brain cell growth and survival.
Another benefit to keep in mind is that by building body strength, your stronger muscles will better support your joints, which helps prevent injuries. We need to keep our bodies strong especially as we get older, when our muscle and bone mass is naturally declining. Weight-bearing exercises such as weight training, walking, hiking, jogging and climbing stairs could help prevent osteoporosis, which affects both men and women.
Q. What are some motivational tips for exercising regularly?
A. Set realistic goals centered around activities that you enjoy doing. Humans are designed to move, so find creative ways to stay interested.
To stay motivated, it’s very important to be aware of what interests you. This is not something that someone else can do for you. A tip I give people is to identify things that you enjoyed doing as a child – running, biking, swimming – and start there. It’s hard not to like something that brings back feelings of nostalgia.
Surround yourself with a strong family and friend support system and a welcoming gym environment and staff. This will positively influence your ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You can also hire a certified strength and conditioning specialist to guide you through the obstacles you’ll face along the way.
Q. Besides going to a gym, how can we integrate physical activity into our daily lives?
A. Stand more, sit less, take the stairs and have walking meetings. Integrate physical activity into your daily life, especially if you sit at a desk all day for your job.
Q. When motivation drops off, what do you recommend?
A. Keep everything in perspective. The path to progress is not a straight line. It can be a roller coaster, and you need to learn how to keep your emotions in check during the highs and lows. Focus on the long-term gains!