Those Back-to-School sales can only mean one thing: time to shake off the summer lethargy and get moving again. And, if you’re a member of that super-majority (“the 80 Percent”) of Americans who don’t get enough exercise to enjoy life fully, it’s time to start.
We all know the wonderful benefits of being physically active at every age: stronger cognitive capabilities, greater levels of happiness, increased social attractiveness and confidence, more zest for life. As you grow older, exercise can even reverse some of the symptoms of aging.
And most of us resolve to do better. But the sad fact is that fewer than 10 percent of those who make the effort succeed in reaching their goal of improved physical fitness and functionality.
Recent research, however, has identified some of the keys to success in making our lifestyles more healthy, happy, and productive. Here are five of my favorites.
The first is the most important: make it easy to get the physical activity you need. That does not mean that the activity needs to be easy, but the bigger task of a) getting started and b) ”keep on keeping on” must not require you to routinely take heroic action, like deciding: what to do today? When and where to do it?
From the start you must have a specific plan. Make all the decisions up front, so you don’t have to make big decisions again. For instance: plan to walk or jog or ride a bike or paddle a kayak along a specified route from point A to B and back on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, at 12 noon beginning next Tuesday for three weeks. Chose an activity that you enjoy, at time and place that are convenient, and suited to your physical condition. If in doubt, check with your health provider. And, be sure to write your plan down.
Second, tell your family, friends, and co-workers about your plan. This has several advantages: you’ll get their support and cooperation; you’ll harness some social pressure to stick to your plan; and you will have committed socially to your plan. All this will be helpful in overcoming the little voice inside you that says: not today, maybe tomorrow when I’m not so busy/tired/ hungry.
If you think that early failure is a big risk, you can arrange with a friend to hold a cash deposit that she will return to you when you complete your initial plan; otherwise she will give it to her favorite charity.
Third, monitor and record your progress. Use an easily visible calendar to mark each day that you follow your plan. A simple colored dot will do. Once you have developed a healthy habit, you can record progress in more detail. For now, the big challenge is just sticking to your plan.
Fourth, forgive yourself for “departures.” There will be occasions when you will be unable to execute the plan. Make those into opportunities for new resolve, not for shaming or disparaging yourself.
Fifth, enjoy. The benefits of increased levels of physical fitness are almost immediate. Your body will produce pleasurable endorphin rewards that make you feel better after each activity. You’ll have more energy. You’ll sleep better. Notice these changes and embrace them.
So there you have it: write out a specific plan, tell others about it, record your success, and if you fall off the plan, get right back on. And enjoy.