One thing I have realized is that getting exercise daily and even weekly can be a challenge for many of us. As adults with packed schedules, it can be challenging to prioritize exercise, but with a ton of research emerging supporting the benefits (mental, genetic, academic, and of course physical) of consistent exercise, it is important to make physical activity a habit. Although I have been called the exercise queen on numerous occasions by both family and friends, I often struggle to get workouts in.
This year has been one of the busiest I can remember, filled with applying to graduate programs, working in research, publishing a paper, and completing my prerequisites. I know how important exercise is for my mind, my body, and my glycemic control. Yet, after a full day of work, and looking forward to a night of studying, I have found it really challenging to make it to the gym or out for a run. I know I am not alone in this struggle, which is why I am writing about some of the tricks and tips that have worked for me personally.
1. Make exercise a priority
I honestly believe that exercise should be given the same priority as a meeting with your boss, and sometimes, all it takes is a mindset adjustment.
How much time do you spend in your day distracted or trying to remember things? A number of research studies have actually shown that physical activity strengthens both focus and memory retention, and can help protect against Dementia. A study conducted at the University of British Columbia suggested that exercise training may even increase the size of your hippocampus. Other studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (parts of the brain that control thinking and memory) tend to be larger and more active in people who exercise frequently than in people who are inactive. So, the next time you decide to skimp on your workout because you have to study or work, know that even a quick 20-30 minute workout may actually help improve your productivity, and may keep your brain healthy in the long run.
How much time do you spend per day stressing about the work or studying you have to do? Exercise again can help relieve some of that stress and anxiety. Although exercise is a physical stressor, it serves to reduce the body’s stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). Exercise can also stimulate the release of endorphins, which can actually decrease your sensitivity to certain types of pain.
Although it may be a stretch to conclude that getting a workout in will make you ace that test you’re cramming for or help you zip through those emails, but there is enough research to suggest a strong connection between consistent exercise and brain benefits, so it’s time to prioritize exercise.
2. Schedule exercise
One of the best ways to prioritize exercise is to schedule it. You schedule meetings, so why not schedule exercise? In fact, it’s much harder to skip a workout when you already have it scheduled in your calendar. Whether you use a physical calendar or your smart phone, get in the practice of scheduling your workouts. It is much easier to find the time and energy when you already have a plan. I am a fan of putting things in writing, and try to draw out my weekly schedule every Sunday, which seems to work best for me.
3. Grab a friend
Making a commitment with a friend or colleague, makes it much harder to flake out on your physical activity goal, because you are accountable to someone. I was listening to an interview with Dr. Sanjiv Chopra, professor of medicine at Harvard medical school, on The Ultimate Health Podcast the other day, and he had a great suggestion that even if you cannot find a workout buddy in the city you live in, with the internet you can have a workout buddy over email, and I would add over text. Plus, exercising with a friend can be much more exciting than exercising alone.
4. Invest in an accelerometer
If you’re the type of person who is motivated by feedback as I am, it may be a good idea to invest in an accelerometer. For me, my Fitbit provides that extra motivation I sometimes need when deciding whether to walk or drive to the grocery store or deciding whether to take the stairs or the elevator, and these small decisions to be more active throughout the day can mean big benefits to health. Hitting a goal every day can also make exercise feel more rewarding than if you were to workout without any feedback.
5. Train for Something
A couple of years ago, my boyfriend got into biking by signing up for a century. Since then he’s been signing up almost every year as a great way to motivate him to stay in shape and bike consistently. I personally find backpacking trips to be good training motivation for me, as hiking at altitude all day with a heavy pack requires a certain level of fitness. Find whatever it is that motivates you, set goals, and start training.
6. Stop Viewing Exercise as a High Intensity or Nothing Deal
It can be really hard to get consistent physical activity if you only consider high intensity training, heavy lifting, or running to be exercise. Although high intensity training can be beneficial to your health, a hard workout can seem daunting, making it easier to skip working out for a Netflix date with your bed after a long exhausting day at work. One way to make choosing to workout easier is to make it seem less daunting and find something easier. I like to spread out my high intensity workouts throughout the week and do lower intensity workouts in between to prevent injury and burn out.
If you really need that TV date, one great thing about most gyms is that you can get your TV in while exercising. Although I wouldn’t suggest low intensity elliptical + TV every evening, any activity is better than none, and guess what, low intensity exercise has many health benefits as well. If you can’t even make it to the gym, try an online workout or take a walk around the block.
7. Don’t feel too guilty if life gets in the way
We all have days when life gets in the way. We get sick, injured, or work gets out of hand. When these things happen, it’s important to not be too hard on yourself, and take steps to get back into those healthy habits as soon as possible.