Beyond helping you maintain or lose weight, physical activity boosts your energy, increases your focus, helps you sleep, improves your body composition and metabolism, and can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer. If you could get all of that in a pill, it would be a wonder drug!
But how much exercise is enough? Which guidelines should you follow? Do you really need a full 60 minutes per day to prevent weight gain, as recent studies suggest? (1)
If you find yourself intimidated by guidelines that seem out of reach, take a step back and think outside the box. If the discomfort of making a change is too great, you won’t make the effort. Instead, create realistic goals for yourself—goals that you will be sure to meet and that you may even be tempted to exceed.
Rethink Your Goals and Create a Personalized Plan
To get started with your own customized plan, ask yourself this question: What is the least amount of exercise I could do most days joyfully and consistently? Yes, you read that right: do the least amount of exercise—so long as you do so joyfully and consistently. In fact, I recommend lowering the bar so low that the temptation to step right over it is irresistible.
The key to finding physical activity that you’ll do joyfully and consistently is to evaluate your fitness level and your time constraints within the context of your lifestyle. To get a good picture of a plan that will take each of these factors into account, try using what is known as the FITT (frequency, intensity, time, and type) formula:
Frequency. Exercise recommendations vary depending on the source, the purpose, and the type of exercise. Personally, I prefer “most days of the week.” That may be four, five, six, or even seven days, depending on the week. If three days have gone by without any exercise, I know I need to fit it in every day for the rest of that week. When my schedule is less busy and more flexible, I enjoy hiking or yoga every day of the week.
Intensity. Your intensity will be determined by your current activity and fitness level. Keep in mind that you are setting small, irresistible goals. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Walk for five minutes on your breaks at work.
- Dance in your living room nightly.
- Take a flight or two of stairs (even if you need to take the elevator up the rest of the way).
- March in place during the commercials of one 30-minute television show.
- Walk around the soccer field during your child’s practice.
- Increase the incline on your treadmill by 3 percent.
- Add weight training to your cardio workout twice a week.
Now look over your FITT prescription. How does it make you feel? Optimistic and excited? If not, revisit the questions above and think about what will truly bring joy and consistency to your exercise plan.
Type. Another important way to overcome the discomfort of change is to discover which activities you find pleasurable. This is where the “joyful” part comes in. If you’ve struggled with exercising consistently in the past, you may have been trying to do things that just didn’t fit your personality, preferences, or values. Here are some questions to guide a brainstorming session to decide which types of activities you are likely to enjoy:
- Are you most comfortable outside, in a gym environment, or at home exercising to videos?
- Do you like to take classes with other people, participate in team sports, or walk by yourself?
- Are you competitive? Creative? Outdoorsy?
- Do you like gadgets, numbers, music, or other distractions?
- How much accountability do you need, and would you get that from walking with a friend, working out with a personal trainer, or committing to a 5K fundraising event?
- What are your values? If you want to spend more time with your partner, how could you plan time to exercise together? If you want to teach your children to make healthy choices, what activities could you do as a family?
- Do you value the spiritual connection that you might find through activities like yoga, hiking, or meditative walking?
- What activities did you enjoy doing in the past—bicycling, swimming, racquetball?
- What have you always wanted to learn—tennis, ballroom dancing, tai chi? What else appeals to you?
Time. When is your energy at its peak? When do you have the most control over your schedule? Could you add a few minutes to what you are already doing? Would you be better off breaking your exercise into multiple short bouts due to your schedule or fitness level? How much flexibility do you need to have to fit physical activity into your family obligations, work, and travel schedule? Again, set the bar low and raise it gradually as your body and schedule adjust.
Small, Manageable Changes
Remember, fitness is not a one-size-fits-all prescription; for many women the best exercise plan is the one that you create yourself to fit your lifestyle. If you’re still concerned that you’re not doing enough, keep in mind that the important thing is to set accessible goals and, when possible, step beyond them. By setting a small, specific, manageable goal, you’ll take the next step toward becoming the active, energetic person you want to be.
Lee IM, Djoussé L, Sesso HD, Wang L, Buring JE. Physical activity and weight gain prevention. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2010;303(12):1173-79.