Sit Less, Move More
By: Lesley Ross, M.D. | April 24, 2020
“Just how much exercise do I need for better mental health?” I get this question often. We don’t know for sure but we do know that the mind won’t heal without looking also at whole body health. Evidence consistently supports that even a small amount of physical activity can prove beneficial to both mental and physical health. Our bodies need movement but have never been so sedentary as they are today.
We used to move to ensure our basic needs such as getting water, gathering and hunting food, staying sheltered and safe, and engaging with the community. Although some technologies like fit-bits and pedometers may help us move more these days, most technologies have made life so convenient that we almost never need to move much. The recent stay-at-home orders made this more obvious than ever. I can sit on my sofa with my computer and do telepsychiatry, order dinner, water my yard, even exercise my dog and vacuum at the same time by turning on the Roomba (which he chases around the house).
While exercise has clear evidence-based benefits, especially cardiovascular, we really need to move more and perform tasks in less sedentary ways for health. Think of the small movements and different muscles that we activate when doing things as simple as household chores and caring for children and animals. The conventional idea of exercise — short bouts of significant activity spaced between significantly large periods of inactivity — may actually create an evolutionary mismatch wherein we do not use our bodies the way they were designed. Movement specialist, Katy Bowman, and author of Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health with Natural Movement, has committed her life to researching and teaching us how to incorporate more movement into our daily lives. Physical movement does not need to occur in bouts of 30-45 minutes for 3-5 days a week to count.
The most important activities are those that we sustain in the long-term and apply in our daily lives. Too often do we set lofty goals to follow in an exercise prescription for health but find ourselves unable to maintain beyond a month or so. This may improve cardiovascular fitness initially but when we find it unsustainable we may develop increasingly negative attitudes toward exercise and false beliefs about our own abilities. Michelle Segar, PhD, talks about this ‘cycle of failure’ in her best-selling book entitled No Sweat. She emphasizes that maintaining a sustained physical activity program requires that the activity be joyful and easily adapted into our busy lives. Feeling positive about our successes while obtaining gratification from our physical activity is what sustains our behaviors in the long term.
The following basic tips may help you make physical activity more a part of your daily life and lifestyle:
- Choose an activity that you enjoy from which you can get immediate gratification. Find activities that mean fun for you. Dust off your roller-blades, take a dance class, join a recreational sport league, go for a hike, or go out in nature. Make your activity social by scheduling walks with friends or joining a team. Do what it is that brings you joy.
- Re-frame the reason why you want to exercise. We often focus too much on losing weight or getting healthy as a reason to increase our exercise. Consider the more positive benefits and more stimulating reasons for increased activity such as stress management or just plain feeling better. Finding personal meaning in increasing your activity is a big motivator.
- Take a 10-minute walk after lunch. It is a great way to start and does not overwhelm. Identify where you can take the stairs. Identify where you do not need to drive around to get that front row parking space. Do your own cooking and gardening. All movement counts, not just formal exercise. Any activity is better than no activity.
- Evidence increasingly shows that a few 10-15 minute periods of high intensity exercise can improve fitness just as much as a 30-minute jog or 60-minute walk. Consider brief periods of high intensity exercise when time is limited.
I encourage you to spend some time thinking about how to reduce the amount of time you remain unmoving and think about where you can make even small changes to your routine to increase your activity. Sedentary time negatively influences mental health while increasing risk for anxiety, depression, and lowered emotional well-being. Give yourself permission for flexibility with your activity plan. Dreaded or painful activity plans do not last. The books mentioned above represent great places for getting more ideas about making increased movement and activity part of your lifestyle.