healthy habits

Creating health habits: Getting active and staying active

If you asked yourself:Is regular exercise good for me?” Most of you would say – “Yes”.

If you then asked: “Do I exercise regularly?”  Most of you would say – “No”.

Why is it that so many of us appreciate that being active is good for us, but find the doing part so challenging?

Why is it so hard to exercise regularly?

85% of people do not meet physical activity recommendations. This statistic has barely changed in over a decade despite numerous campaigns from peak health bodies globally and locally, such the World Health Organisation and the Australian Government, emphasising the benefits of exercise, for both our physical and mental health. As a society, we know more about the benefits regular exercise has on our body and brain than ever before, yet despite all this ‘knowing’, we continue to see the same high rates of physical inactivity. One major reason for this is that knowledge alone is not enough to get us off the couch, and (for a myriad of reasons) most of us find it extremely difficult to exercise regularly.

The expert team at Monash University’s BrainPark (including exercise physiologists, psychologists and clinical neuroscientists) understand that making exercise a part of your lifestyle is a deeply personal process. It depends heavily on your unique circumstances and preferences. Based on insights into behavioural research, and years of practical experience helping people to get active for the benefit of their mental health, here are BrainPark’s top tips for getting active. These strategies go beyond the practical and physical to encourage mental reflections to help empower you in your physical activity journey.

 BrainPark’s Top Tips for Getting Active

Here are our top tips for making exercise a regular part of your day-to-day life:

1. Reflect on your WHY

Knowing your WHY is knowing your core purpose, your goals and ambitions. The relationship you have with physical activity can be far more meaningful than simply how often you are active. For example, exercising to be a role model for your family, to improve your mood and cope better with stress, to cultivate sharper thinking skills, or to live life with more physical and mental vitality. Before you determine what exercise to do, start by identifying your WHY. Reflect on it regularly, write it down or find an image that depicts it and put this on your fridge as a daily inspiration and reminder. Your WHY can then act as a reflective-touchstone that helps motivate you to overcome common barriers to exercise.

2. Reflect on your WHAT

When starting out on your journey to an active lifestyle, it’s critical to choose activities that are sustainable. The number one priority in selecting what exercise to do, is selecting something you can do regularly – and enjoy doing. This may mean a combination of activities. So, think about what exercise-ingredients have worked, or not worked, for you in the past. For example, you may not love exercise, but love socialising – so try pairing social time with exercise, like walking with a friend or starting a jogging challenge with your neighbour. Other examples could be that you have a busy job, so choose to exercise on your least busy days, such as on weekends; or you may find accessing a gym difficult, so choose regular walks or runs as they are super accessible and require no (or minimal) financial cost.

 3. Make small, easy changes

You are far more likely to start exercising regularly when what you do is easy to fit into your existing lifestyle, rather than changing too much too soon. Once started, you can then slowly grow and refine your activity over the long term. For example, gradually increasing your exercise frequency over a period of months is a far more sustainable and rewarding approach than going from 0 days per week to 7 days – then quitting because you were unable to sustain that frequency.

 4. Be patient

Play the long game.  Aim for consistency, not perfection. Exercising “imperfectly” for decades is FAR BETTER than exercising “perfectly” for a few weeks. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is cultivating a physically active lifestyle. The value to your health by exercising regularly is far greater than extreme exercise bouts infrequently. So, if the choice is between going for a 30-minute walk after dinner weeknights or doing a heavy gym session once a year – choose walking!

 5. Embrace adaptability

Too tired, too cold, too hot, not enough time? There will always be reasons not to exercise. When we have a pre-prepared plan in place to navigate these barriers, rather than try and change tack in the moment, we are far more likely to stay active. So, take a moment to create, and then reflect on, your ‘if- then’ plans’. Examples: If I’m tired, then I will go for a walk instead of a jog (i.e. exercise at a lower intensity, or reduced time). If it’s raining and my outdoor soccer match is cancelled, then I will do a yoga class instead (i.e. change your exercise environment to suit the weather). If I am time-poor, then I will pick a 15-minutes online training session, instead of a 30-minutes one (i.e. commit to a time that suits your availability, rather than cancelling all together).

6. See a professional

If you don’t know what the best exercise-strategy is for you, reach out to your local exercise professional. There may be some out-of-pocket fees at first, but initial professional guidance has the potential to turbo-charge your own self-management skills in the long term. You may be able to lower the financial cost even further via your private health insurance or through eligibility for Medicare rebated services.

Written by Sam Hughes. Sam is a Senior Exercise Physiologist at BrainPark, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University.