Physical Activity, Exercise and Fitness

This post is the first part in a 7-post series on health.

I’ve written before on the topic of health – usually random posts and rants. There is so much information (and misinformation – usually more of this) available for free on the internet that it’s hard to sort through. I remember my first forays into the vast and terrifying world of Google, about seven years ago now; they left me with a headache and not quite sure where to begin.

I’ve read (and studied) enough by now to have formed solid opinions on what constitutes behaviours, patterns and adoptable habits for optimal health, and thought I’d share them here. In mainstream media, there’s a ton of talk about diet and fitness, but less on the other key components: psychological well-being (also included here: stress management and spirituality), and sleep.

In my program, we often discuss health in a multidimensional perspective. I personally like to break it down into seven main components: physical activity/exercise/fitness, diet/eating habitspsychological well-beingenvironmental well-beingstress-management, sleep, and spirituality. I’ll discuss each in separate posts; this first one is dedicated to physical activity.

Physical Activity, Exercise and Fitness

I am a big advocate for physical activity. As a kinesiology student, we talk a lot about the importance of physical activity, and it’s mainstream knowledge by now that regular exercise improves your overall physical and mental health, reduces stress, regulates appetite and even improves sleep. Just moving can help us forge better relationships with our bodies as we focus on what we’re capable, contributing to greater self-efficacy and self-esteem that (hopefully) isn’t axed on our physical appearance. Team sports and group activities provide a social component from which everyone can benefit (humans by nature are social and require interpersonal interactions for optimal happiness, even us “introverts”!).

Of course, exercise can be used negatively as well. In my eating disorder heyday, I was running an hour a day on a treadmill on an empty stomach, my only objective being to burn calories. This type of exercise was not born out of self-love or care; I was using it to feed an obsession and for the satisfaction of seeing the (albeit inaccurate) calorie count on the machine. Today, I run occasionally, but always outdoors or on a track, and always just because I feel like it.

Below, I’ll address some of the common questions I get from people just starting out on their own fitness journeys.

What type of exercise should I do?

Whatever you’ll actually do/stick to. Seriously.

You aren’t going to stick with something you won’t do. If you hate running or weight-lifting or going to yoga or playing soccer, then just don’t do those things. There are tons of different activities you can take up; find one you like. Experiment. Try salsa-dancing. Try kayaking. Try hiking. Try gardening. Try literally anything.

I sit at a desk all day. Is thirty minutes of physical activity enough?

Unfortunately, no. You can’t out-exercise a day spent sitting in 30 minutes. Sure, you’re better off than the average sedentary desk-job worker, but the fact of it remains that sitting for long periods of time is bad for you.

The solution? Walk. As much as you can.

Walking is the most underrated form of exercise. Sure, it’s not intense – and that’s the point. The fittest nations are those who walk or actively commute to work, and do little else by way of exercise. Case in point: most European countries (the French come to mind).

I personally live in a very sedentary city. Our public transit system is inconvenient to use, and so almost everyone drives. We’re also the second most obese city in Canada, and I don’t think that’s a random correlation.

The best part it, almost anyone can build some walking into their day. Take a ten-minute walk during your lunch break. Park further away from your workplace and walk a bit. Pace a bit while you take phone calls.

If you’re in walking or biking distance away from work, do that. I live a half-hour walk away from school, and make the journey as often as possible (weather permitting; it’s snowy here in Canadaland).

If you have the means, a standing desk is an awesome way to keep you on your feet. A lot of my profs have treadmill desks in their offices, which is an investment I plan to make if I ever find myself sitting for long periods of time.

If you’re sedentary and want to begin to improve your health, start walking. Once you manage to build walking into your day (10 000 steps a day is a good benchmark), THEN consider adding other exercises or workout sessions.

I heard that I should do 30-45 minutes of steady-state cardio a day to improve my cardiovascular health. Is that really necessary?

I’m not a proponent of long, drawn-out cardio sessions for health. There are pros and cons, of course:

Pros: Accessible, require minimal equipment (i.e. running shoes), require little planning, can be done without accessing a gym or purchasing more expensive equipment, provide improvements to the cardiovascular system

Cons: Long, provide relatively little “bang” for time invested (i.e. not as efficient as a shorter workout can be), often high-impact (i.e. running is hard on the knees)

If you’re a swimmer, marathoner or shorter-distance runner, biathlete, cyclist, cross-country skier, or any other form of endurance athlete, then of course carry on and disregard everything I’ve said above. If you’re new to exercise but have found that you love to run/swim/bike/etc, then keep doing that. The principle of “stick to what you’ll do” always applies. Ensure that you’re taking precautions to prevent injury, and avoid rapid progression – your body needs time to adapt.

The main point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t enjoy long aerobic exercise sessions, then you don’t need to do them. There are other ways of improving cardiovascular health that provide less wear-and-tear on the body and require a much smaller time investment.

If I’m serious about improving my health, then what should I do?

Honestly, walking and participating in activities you like are a major fitness improvement for most people. That said, some of us *raises hand* genuinely enjoy most fitness pursuits and are perpetually trying to improve our own health. There’s a ton of conflicting information out there; what I’d generally recommend (and try to emulate) is as follows:

  • Walk every day
  • Lift heavy weights 2-3x a week
  • Sprint 1-2x a week (or do a metabolic conditioning  [metcon] workout)
  • Stretch most days/do yoga 1-2x a week

At some point, I’ll write a post on what a sprint/metcon workout might look like, and what heavy-lifting might entail.

What do you do, in terms of exercise? What does your perfect fitness week look like?

Honestly, I’m human. I exercise semi-regularly and am currently working on making it a more integral part of my life, but my reality is that I’m a student who spends more time sitting than she should. I frequently work early 8-hour shifts on my feet and don’t always feel like hitting up the gym afterwards; I’m a morning exerciser through and through (and find that working out intensely later in the day messes up my sleep), but prioritize my sleep over getting up to fit in a workout before I start work at 6am. I attend yoga semi-regularly, run and lift weights occasionally, take walks with friends, and build make a point of getting outside to do seasonal activities when the opportunity arises.

That said, I try to sprint once a week, lift heavy two or three times a week, attend yoga once or twice a week, and get outside (kayaking or hiking) at least once a week. I also try to get in 10 000 steps a day. I’m also currently getting into stand-up paddle boarding and will be trying out rock-climbing soon. It’s a flexible process that varies depending on where I’m at in life, and that’s fine by me. I would prefer to keep a regular workout schedule and am trying to make that happen, but it’s a process. 🙂

On Movement

“Do you like to move?”

I start, blinking at the girl next to me, the source of this question. I’m momentarily confused. “How do you mean?” I ask, thinking that I really don’t love moving homes, though there’s an undeniable sense of excitement the day of.

“Like, are you into sports or stuff?”

With a small mental Oh!, I shrug, self-consciousness winning out for now. “Well, yeah. I was a competitive sprint kayaker, and played competitive soccer before that. I haven’t done either in years though. Lately I’ve mostly just been lifting weights and doing sprints and walking and stuff. I’m currently in exercise ‘rehab’ after having taken about a year and a half off to.. work on some health issues.”

She nods, but doesn’t let go so easily. “I’m a distance myself, though I also took some time off to.. work on some health issues.” She smiles at me then, and I’m smiling back at the deliberate echo of what I’ve just said. Despite myself, I’m curious as to what she means. “My training is mostly focused on track practices right now.”

“Cool!” I reply, and mean it. I am genuinely interested in how other people move.

As my father is known to say, there are three things you shouldn’t talk about in polite company: Religion, politics, and food. I’m in full agreement. Diets tend to acquire a cult-like following, particularly if they “work”; and, seeing as we all have to feed ourselves, food us something that affects us all, however much we choose to implicate ourselves in the actual politics of eating. Because there are politics, believe me – and if you’ve managed to remain completely unscathed I both applaud you and must regard you with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s practically inescapable: tabloids, television commercial, internet banners, ads on the sides of city buses. Foods and diets abound. Unwittingly, we’re consuming and reworking almost every thing we’ve seen (Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly 4” provides a thought-provoking apperçu into the ways media affects us).

Anyways, on the exercise matter: moving, as of yet, is not something that has become unduly political. Of course, everyone needs to move, and it’s well-known that movement is essential for good health. Exactly how much or what kind is highly up to debate. Various professionals and fitness experts have all sorts of opinions as to the types of exercise we need, which can be a bit confusing. At this point, I think that the most important thing is that people get up and move in the first place, and are conscious to keep moving in ways that help them to function best. Also vague, I know – I’m certainly not simplifying anything here. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Take a walk. Go to the gym, if that’s something you like. Swim across a lake. Hike. Swing from monkey bars at a playground. Go kayaking. Lift heavy stuff.

As a student in exercise science, I find the diversity in people’s physical activity levels fascinating. Some of my classmates are hardcore weight lifters and body competitors, training for maximum strength or “ideal” physique, respectively. Others are casual gym-goers, and still more do nothing in the way of “formal” exercise. All of these things are fine, by the way.

My philosophy on exercise has shifted around throughout the year. I spent a number of years training at a relatively elite level, in soccer but more so in sprint kayak. I fell into running roughly around the time my disordered eating started – by the end of my senior year in high school I was running for an hour (on a treadmill) every morning before school. As my mindset shifted towards total homeostatic health (gradually, over the course months), I stopped exercising almost completely.

In May, I began walking to and from work, for a total of an hour of easy movement a day. I began going to the gym intermittently, work and studying often getting in the way. Recently, I’ve begun to go to the gym more frequently, and I’ve set a few tentative workout goals. I actually enjoy the gym environment – when I can make it work for my schedule. I strive to stay active and want to me a more conscious exerciser. I want to move in ways that feel natural to me. I’ve been lifting and doing some sprints. Long-lasting cardio isn’t my focus, just now – running is hard on the knees, and I find myself too bored to commit beyond twenty minutes or so.

A yoga and climbing gym has just opened up here, which sounds absolutely perfect – I’d love to add climbing to my fitness regimen, and yoga is something I genuinely enjoy and would love to get back into (my chiropractor would love that for me also – I appear to have lost quite a bit of flexibility). Price is an issue (I definitely can’t afford a yearly membership, or even a monthly one, on my student budget), so I’m leaning towards class passes and using these types of work-outs as enjoyable accessory forms of movement, with sprinting and weightlifting as my base. Ideally I’ll also walk to and from school every day, though in the winter months that does become harder.

So, how do you move? Is it something you do consciously? Does it just build itself into your day, or maybe not at all?