What image comes to your mind when you hear the word exercise? Is it someone putting on running shoes and going for a run? Is it a person sweating it up in a gym on a treadmill or lifting weights? If so, you’re not alone. Most people have these or similar images of what exercise is.
These are great activities, but they’re not the only ones people can do for exercise yet this is the prevailing image. Why is it? Why do we have this stereotypical notion of how we get exercise? Maybe it’s because these are the activities most people do. Or could it be these are the ones we see on commercials for shoes and fitness gear.
When I ask patients why they don’t exercise, a lot reply that they don’t like going to the gym. Others I know who do go to the gym or jog/run, complain about how much they hate it. This impression of exercise actually becomes a barrier, and it’s not just with patients; nearly 1 in 4 doctors mentioned that exercise is boring as a reason for not being more active. Now I’m obviously biased, but how could exercising or being active not be fun? There are countless different ways people can their exercise in.
There are many reasons why people may not want to go to a gym. For some, they want to be outside, others don’t like the cost, and yet others don’t like the crowd and may feel intimidated by the guy in the corner slapping his chest before he goes and lifts his weights. With almost 80% of people in Canada and about the same in the United States not getting enough activity, there is plenty of room for improvement.
People also desire to exercise and be around others like them. Seniors were more likely to adhere to an exercise program if they were matched with others of similar age. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter if the groups had a mix of men and women. I see something similar in our cardiac rehabilitation program where the patients in their 40s with heart disease tend to drop-out because many of the other patients are much older and they feel out of place.
This social atmosphere is actually a key reason for whether people exercise or not. While some people may like the solitude of going for a run or bike ride on their own, being around others can itself be motivating. The CEO of the local YMCA once told me: “People come for the facilities, but stay for the community.” This is so true. We wouldn’t last very long exercising at a place that we didn’t like.
For me, my activity of choice is swimming, which I find quite social. Many of my friends and colleagues are surprised when I tell them this. Obviously one can’t talk while they swim, but unless you are super-rich and have your own lap pool, you will have to go somewhere like a public pool to swim. After going to the pool at the same time and days every week for a few months, I started to get to know the other swimmers and it became social.
A few years ago my group conducted an exercise study in older South Asian women. This is a population that has some of the lowest levels of activity, and, at the same time, South Asians are at greater risk for diabetes and get heart disease 5-10 years earlier than other ethnic groups. Hence, increasing exercise can be an ideal prevention strategy.
We recognized that standard gym exercise may not be appealing to the women, so we created a program around learning to Bhangra dance (a dance comprising of kicking and arm movements originating in India). Women were assigned to three groups: Bhangra dance lessons, standard gym-based exercise on treadmills and stationary bicycles, and a non-exercise group.
In just 12 weeks, both exercise groups improved their fitness levels by 12% compared to the non-exercise group, and fitness levels in the Bhangra dance group actually improved more than the standard exercise group. This was surprising to us because exercising on gym equipment we could control the intensity while dancing is a mix of high, moderate and low level activities. It wasn’t until we talked to the women at the end of the study that we realized they found the dancing fun. They didn’t see it as exercise and because of that, they found it easier to stay active, while the other group found the standard exercise boring. In addition, the social camaraderie provided support and a fun challenge for exercising more.
Now, of course dance isn’t the only alternative to gym-based exercise, there are many different types of activity, for example, team sports. These activities combine a social atmosphere with a competitive spirit that might suit some quite well. Other activities, like mowing the lawn, we might not associate with exercise, but it is about the same intensity as a walk/jog.
In a recent paper, we reported that activity of any type (even household chores!) can reduce risk for early death and heart disease. It didn’t matter whether it was activity at a gym, at work, at home doing chores or actively commuting; it was all beneficial. In fact, our body doesn’t care what type of activity we do and what we call it, it only cares that we do it. So don’t worry what type of activity you’re doing, as long as it as you enjoy it, it is the right activity.
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