Physical activity and exercise: getting started

So you’re thinking about becoming more active? That’s great! Being active on a regular basis will help improve your health and happiness.

Physical activity refers to all types of activity, including: walking upstairs; walking to work; shopping; housework; manual labour; and gardening. These activities, which may be part of your everyday life, are undertaken incidentally as you go about your day. Increasing the amount of time you spend doing these will be beneficial and make you less sedentary.

In recent years, our physical activity levels have mostly declined due to our increased use of motorised transport, jobs involving less physical labour and an increase in leisure pastimes that are sedentary, such as watching TV and computer games. As a consequence, most people don't have enough physical activity in their everyday working lives and leisure time, which means that we need to consciously make an effort to be more active, and this includes engaging in exercise.

Exercise is physical activity that you undertake deliberately with the specific purpose of improving your health and/or fitness. For optimal health and fitness benefits, it's likely that you'll need to add some exercise to your weekly routine - as well as being conscious of taking the opportunities to be more physically active when undertaking your daily tasks.

Increasing levels of physical activity

Ways of being more active include:

  • active transport, such as walking or cycling to work. Perhaps getting on or off public transport one stop further from home and walking the extra distance;
  • taking the stairs at work instead of the lift;
  • taking stairs in shopping centres and train stations instead of the escalators; and
  • parking in the corner of the car park furthest from the entrance to work or the shopping centre and walking the extra distance.

To try and be less sedentary you should also try to ensure that you get up from your desk every hour and take short walk up and down the corridor at work. There is a move towards changing workstations for 'standing desks', so that people spend less time sitting.

Examples of exercise to help improve your health and fitness:

  • moderate-paced walking, jogging or running;
  • dance;
  • aqua-aerobics, lap swimming;
  • cycling;
  • strength training and other gym exercises;
  • roller-blading; and
  • exercise classses such as tai chi or yoga.

Increasing your physical activity will not take much extra time during your day and you should try to include at least 20 minutes of exercise a day. The trick is to ensure the activity or exercise is scheduled for most days and doesn’t get pushed aside by competing demands. Both incidental physical activity and exercise will provide you with health benefits. Including more physical activity and exercise in your lifestyle is likely to offer you great benefit in terms of weight loss, having more energy or managing a specific health issue.

Making the distinction between physical activity and exercise is important because the inclusion of physical activity will reinforce your commitment to a comprehensive lifestyle change. The National Physical Activity Guidelines, published by the Australian Government, recommend that all Australians view physical activity ‘as an opportunity, not an inconvenience’. If more Australians adopted this attitude Australia would undoubtedly be a healthier country.

The secrets to becoming more active

Even though most Australians have some idea of what makes up a healthy lifestyle, the population is more overweight than ever. So, there’s a clear gap between what we know about health and how we act.

This does not mean that Australians are lazy. By studying regular exercisers and non-exercisers, researchers have discovered the secrets to consistently incorporating physical activity or exercise into your lifestyle. These are:

  • planning;
  • enjoyment;
  • internal motivation;
  • prioritising physical activity and exercise; and
  • a conducive environment.

Preparation - the key to success

Regardless of whether you choose physical activity or exercise, preparation is the key to success.

Before you start choosing an exercise or activity for yourself, it’s important to address how this will impact your lifestyle and the choices you make on a daily basis. Whether you are trying to quit smoking, eat better or increase your activity levels, without proper preparation you won’t be giving yourself the best chance of success.

'Motivation is not a trait, it's a state'

Firstly, understand that your success will depend only partly on motivation.

Motivation levels fluctuate in everyone; even exercise fanatics find it hard to get motivated from time to time. So before you start, expect that there will be brief periods when you are not achieving your goals. If this occurs, remind yourself that this is not failure; it’s simply life getting in the way. So long as you plan how to resume your new activity level then you need not worry.

Understanding your motivation for change

Why are you seeking to change your lifestyle by increasing your activity level? Are you introducing this change for yourself or is it about what someone else wants or has said to you? Internal motivation means that it is a change that you want. If you are making a change for someone else (external motivation), chances are it won’t last more than a few days or weeks.

By listing the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for change, you can review the source of your motivation. Some examples have been listed below; you can tick those that apply. You are likely to have your own reasons though, so add these to the list. Be specific when listing your reasons as this will help you unearth your motivation source.

My motivation for change
Reasons for changeReasons change may not happen
 Improving my general health Less time for other things
 Having more energy I might feel like a failure if I don’t meet my goals
 Managing my stress I don’t like getting sweaty
 Losing weight  
 Being able to play with my kids or grandchildren  
 Helping lower my cholesterol  
 Helping to control my blood sugar levels  

If you have listed safety concerns about activity in the ‘Reasons change may not happen’ column in the table above, you might benefit by talking with your doctor, health professional or experienced fitness professional. It is important that you are confident that your exercise or physical activity will not injure you.

If the pros don’t outweigh the cons in your mind, you may need to spend some more time considering your motivation, or you could need a little support — read on.

Recruit support

Making a lifestyle change by yourself can be tough, and if you think that you lack the confidence to succeed with this change, then consider asking for help from a partner, family member or work colleague.

Not everyone will benefit from external support and some people are perfectly happy to exercise on their own, using it as valuable time to be with their thoughts. Others like to chat and debrief and find exercise the ideal environment for this. Exercising with someone is often the best way to ensure that you do it. By arranging to meet up with someone, you are making a commitment to them and are less likely to let something else fill that timeslot when you're busy or a bit lethargic. If you think you might benefit from some support, complete the table below to assist you in thinking about how this might work.

My support network
WhoHowWhen
NeighbourWalking together — we support and encourage each otherTuesday mornings and Thursday evenings
Work colleagueThey ask me how it’s going. They have recently lost weight through activity and are keen to support meA few times a week

Manage your priorities

When researchers ask sedentary people whether they know that exercise is good for them, almost all sedentary people say that they do. The most common answer to the next question, ‘Why aren’t you active if you know it’s good for you?’ is ‘I don’t have enough time’.

Take a few moments to think about what a typical working day or day off includes for you. Now ask yourself how important these activities or pastimes are to you. Are they an essential part of your lifestyle? Chances are many of them are important for maintaining or improving your quality of life or happiness.

So, if your days always seem to be busy, finding time to be more active might require you to review which activities you can:

  • modify to include physical activity;
  • reschedule;
  • stop or reduce and replace with physical activity.

Therefore, to say that you don’t have time to exercise might be a little simplistic. Instead, it is about priorities. The key then, is to review how important increasing your physical activity is to you when you already have these competing priorities. If it is important you will ensure that you modify your day-to-day activities to fit in physical activity. Examples of re-prioritising might include:

  • walking in the evening after dinner and watching a little less television than usual;
  • committing to walking your children to school or home from school some days of the week; and
  • committing to taking the stairs at work every time you go out to buy food or a coffee.

Identify your roadblocks

Spend time thinking about how your current priorities are likely to interrupt your plans. Anticipating disruptions to your plans will help you to:

  • avoid these interruptions in the first instance;
  • understand that disruptions do not reflect upon your motivation; and
  • schedule your next session after the interruption.

So this might be where your first bit of support comes in. Why not get the help of your partner, friend or work colleague to brainstorm what the most likely interruptions will be to your activity plan. Examples are listed below.

Roadblocks that could stop me from being active
RoadblockSolution
I don’t want to exercise in the dark by myselfI’ll walk with my neighbour Sue
I don’t like exercising in the coldI’ll walk at lunchtime at work during the cooler months
I find exercise boringI’ll start with a friend and finish with a coffee to make it a social event

I’ll plan a holiday that includes an activity that needs training for, e.g. a bush-walking holiday
Bad weatherI’ll walk around the mall at lunch time
I don’t think I can get out of bed in the mornings during winterI’ll set the timer on the heater so that the house is warm for me when I get up

I’ll have my warm clothes laid out ready for me to get changed into

I’ll wear a beanie, scarf and gloves to keep me warm
I’m too tired after work but this is the best time for me to exercise because I hate getting up earlyI commit to going out every day even if it’s just to walk to the corner of my block, because I know that once I get out of the house I will feel like walking

I’ll also get my exercise clothes out each morning and lay them on my bed ready to get into when I get home

I’ll have a big drink of water before I leave work for home to try to wake me up

By anticipating your roadblocks and planning how to overcome each one you are planning your success! People who exercise or are physically active on a regular basis are prepared for interruptions and quickly re-establish their routine. Make exercise a habit and try to prioritise that time of day.

Regularly incorporating physical activity or exercise into your life should not require you to have high motivation all the time. It simply requires you to remove or reduce the barriers that make it hard for you to restart your physical activity or exercise.

Note: It is not possible to prescribe just one form of exercise that is suitable for all people. Exercise should be tailored for health, age, personal likes and dislikes, and the desired results. This article is intended to offer the reader general concepts only. For further advice you are advised to consult your health professional (GP, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist) or a fitness professional (fitness centre staff or personal trainer).

Last Reviewed: 24 March 2015
myDr

References

1. Australian Government Department of Health [website]. Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines (updated 10 July 2014). Available at: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines (accessed Mar 2015).
myDr

myDr

myDr provides comprehensive Australian health and medical information, images and tools covering symptoms, diseases, tests, medicines and treatments, and nutrition and fitness.