Is Taking Exercise Really That Important?

This dull looking chart is what has given me the motivation to exercise over the 10 years since I first saw it. It may be hard to read so let me explain the basics.

Functional capacity on the left hand axis is defined as an ability to go about normal life – to work, to lift up your children, to drive and to play sport. It is also a proven predictor of cardiac health. The gap between the orange lines (i.e. from 50% to 83% functional capacity) shows the range for people to maintain a normal life. Below 50% you are classified as disabled. Age is the axis along the bottom of the chart.

The three curves represent three approaches to lifestyle:

  1. The Red curve shows a sedentary lifestyle with a poor diet. This shows that the person never reaches 100% of their potential capacity and is disabled by the age of 50 with a life expectancy of 55.
  2. The Yellow curve shows a sedentary lifestyle with a healthy diet. Here the person reaches 100% capacity by the age of 17 and maintains this to 30. They then decline rapidly, becoming disabled at 72 and dead at 80.
  3. The Green curve shows someone who eats well and takes regular exercise (normally defined at 30mins at least 3 times per week). In this case 100% capacity is also reached at 15 but the crucial difference is that this person never drops below 50% capacity until their death at 90. That means in theory being able to lead a normal active life throughout.

So if that does encourage you to start thinking about exercising more regularly here are 10 ideas that have really helped me and my clients reach the green curve:

  1. Involve someone else whenever possible – not only does this make it more fun, it also makes it much more likely that you will turn up and exercise
  2. 3 times a week is a minimum – tempting as it is to do one long run a week, the research shows that 3*30mins is the minimum to reach the green curve
  3. Always have a goal – preferably and external goal with internal as a by-product. Internal goals such as losing weight or improving your health are great, but are easy to talk yourself out of on a dark February night. Not so easy is the event that you have entered (a couple per year seems to work); even more if you have entered it with friends or are raising money for charity.
  4. Find something that you enjoy doing – for at least 2 of the three sessions. If you hate running and set up a program involving running three times a week, even with the chart in mind you are never going to keep it up. Write a long list with two columns – exercise I enjoy and exercise I do not. Think creatively, it does not have to be lifting weights in the gym. The research shows that a brisk 30 minute walk is enough. A quick round of golf, squash with a friend, walking the dog, all these can count to your three a week. It is no coincidence that dog owners live longer and are happier.
  5. Track your progress – it is deeply satisfying seeing your fitness improve and keeping a log of what you have done, like keeping a diary, greatly increases your chances of continuing. There are many brilliant smart phone apps now (Strava being the most popular), or go old school and start a log book.
  6. Build it into your diary and routine – it just does not work getting to the end of the day or week and thinking “Oh I suppose I must go out for a run”. You will not do it, no one is that good at motivating themselves on the spot. I am a great believer in routine as it creates habit and it also lets everyone else (partner, kids, friends) know when you are not around. Find 3-4 slots that work for you, block them out as repeating events in your diary and then at the start of each week figure out which 3 (or preferably 4!) work for you that week.
  7. Be outdoors for at least 2 of the three sessions – nature is a huge natural stimulant. Pounding away in the gym is just not the same and running repeatedly on a treadmill for example can create problems. Find a route or a landscape that you love, even if it means driving or cycling a little way first.
  8. Mix it up – have a range of sports/ exercise you enjoy doing. Doing the same thing over and over again even in the most motivated of us will lead to boredom and possible injury. Even professional athletes “cross train”. Go back to that long list in point 4 and make sure you have captured everything you have ever tried……
  9. Try something new….. and on that list things you have not tried but would love to. Find out how to start street dance – go on, google it and sign up now.
  10. Be kind to yourself – this is not easy, it requires real motivation and self discipline. If you have a week where you only exercise twice occasionally try not to berate yourself. As long as the majority of weeks see 3 sessions you are well on your way to the green curve.

If that is not enough motivation here is a short list of scientifically proven benefits of regular exercise (with thanks to C. Simmons of

  • People who are physically active live longer. According to a 20 year follow-up study, regular exercise reduces the risk of dying prematurely.
  • New brain cell development, improved cognition and memory. Exercise stimulates the formation of new brain cells. Researchers found that the areas of the brain that are stimulated through exercise are responsible for memory and learning. For instance, older adults who engage in regular physical activity have better performances in tests, implying decision-making process, memory and problem solving.
  • Improved sexual function and better sex life. Regular exercise maintains or improves sex life. Physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function can all enhance sexual functioning in both men and women. Researchers revealed that men who exercise regularly are less likely to have erectile dysfunction and impotence than are men who don’t exercise.
  • Exercise is a powerful antidepressant. Study after study has shown that exercise promotes mental health and reduces symptoms of depression. The antidepressant effect of regular physical exercise is comparable to the potent antidepressants like Zoloft. It may take at least 30 minutes of exercise a day for at least three to five days a week to significantly improve symptoms of depression.
  • Cardiovascular health. Lack of physical activity is one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Regular exercising makes your heart, like any other muscle, stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort.
    Cholesterol lowering effect. Exercise itself does not burn off cholesterol like it does with fat.  However, exercise favorably influences blood cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Prevention and control of diabetes. There is strong evidence from high quality studies (e.g. Finnish Diabetes Prevention Study) that moderate physical activity combined with weight loss and balanced diet can confer a 50-60% reduction in risk of developing diabetes.
  • Blood pressure lowering. The way in which exercise can cause a reduction in blood pressure is unclear, but all forms of exercise seem to be effective in reducing blood pressure. Aerobic exercise appears to have a slightly greater effect on blood pressure in hypertensive individuals than in individuals without hypertension.
  • Reduced risk of stroke. Research data indicates that moderate and high levels of physical activity may reduce the risk of total, ischemic, and haemorrhagic strokes.
  • Weight control. Regular exercise helps to reach and maintain a healthy weight. If you take in more calories than needed in a day, exercise offsets a caloric overload and controls body weight. It speeds the rate of energy use, resulting in increased metabolism. When metabolism increases through exercise, you will maintain the faster rate for longer periods of a day.
    Muscle strength. Health studies repeatedly show that strength training increases muscle strength and mass and decreases fat tissue.
  • Bone strength. An active lifestyle benefits bone density. Regular weight-bearing exercise promotes bone formation, delays bone loss and may protect against osteoporosis – a form of bone loss associated with aging.
    Better night sleep. If you suffer from poor sleep, daily exercise can make the difference. The natural dip in body temperature five to six hours after exercise may help you to fall asleep.

I will write in the next blog about the other half of the equation- nutrition.

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