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Gain without pain

Get active with these six movement-boosting tips

Twenty minutes into my conversation about fitness and exercise with Health Promotion professor Dr. Sara Kirk, I notice something: She hasn’t used the words “fitness” or “exercise.” Instead, she talks about movement and activity. “I think we have to try to shift our mindset,” she says. “We’re designed to move. We’re just not moving as much as we should.”

For those looking to exercise more—sorry, I mean, get more active—there is a lot of confusing and seemingly contradictory advice out there. Should you be doing short intense intervals on the bike? Or maybe long hill climbs instead? And do you really need to go to a gym? It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, enjoying the benefits of becoming more active doesn’t have to be confusing.

Focus on health not weight

“We’ve got to decouple healthy activity from weight loss. Don’t do it because you want to lose weight,” Dr. Kirk says.

Lasting weight loss is difficult to attain. If you set that as a fitness goal, you risk being disappointed and giving up. Instead, Kinesiology professor Dr. Melanie Keats says, focus on the many other benefits of exercise: “Exercise not only improves your physical well-being, it also improves your mental well-being so you have better mood, reduced stress, less anxiety.”

And those regimens that promise extreme weight loss? Ignore them. Dr. Keats says these programs don’t work, and even if they did, “it’s certainly not going to be healthy. People are looking for that quick hit, to get the maximum benefit in the shortest amount of time. But when it comes to physical activity, exercise, fitness, and overall health and well-being, it’s not a one-time shot.”

Do what you love

“I don’t see any pleasure in running. So I don’t do it,” says Dr. Keats. “The only reason I’ll run is if someone or something is chasing me.” Dr. Keats is often asked about the best exercise. She says that’s “the easiest question to answer. The best exercise or best activity is any activity you’re going to do. The biggest trick, and it’s not even a trick, is do what you love.”

Think about activities that make you happy, Dr. Kirk says. “Cycling brings out the child in me and makes me feel happy. Whizzing down a hill on a bike makes me smile. We will never maintain activity if we don’t enjoy it.”

Some is better than none

In October 2020, the Canadian government released new 24-hour movement guidelines, with recommendations on sleep, movement and sedentary time. The guidelines call for adults to spend at least 150 minutes per week on “moderate to vigorous” physical activity.

That might seem like a lot, but you don’t have to get there all at once. “Any activity is better than no activity,” Dr. Kirk says. “We don’t have to run a marathon. It could be something like running up or down the stairs, going out for a walk, or playing with the kids in the yard—trying to build these opportunities for physical activity or movement into our day.”

Variety pack, not six-pack

Don’t just try sculpting your abs—or focusing on just one other part of your body or aspect of fitness. Try to vary your types of exercise, incorporating a mix of aerobic activity (like walking, swimming, or cycling) with something that builds strength, and movements that work on flexibility and balance. “Ideally, a well-rounded program would include all of those. But that doesn’t necessarily mean going to a gym,” Dr. Keats says.

“Do what fits in with your daily life and with your capabilities,” Dr. Kirk says. By taking that approach and adding some variety you’re more likely to develop a new habit and stick to it.

Pain is bad

“No pain, no gain” is a workout cliché. It is also a terrible approach to getting active. “Your body is very smart. If something is painful, your body is telling you that you need to stop or slow down,” says Dr. Keats.

That doesn’t mean you should never feel any soreness. “You may wake up a little bit stiff or a little bit tight. That’s normal. But that should resolve very quickly,” she says. And remember the fun factor: pain isn’t much of a motivator, but enjoyment is.

It’s about more than individual choice

Let’s face it: we live in a world designed for convenience and immobility. Most cities prioritize cars. And with many people working from home during the pandemic, any activity associated with the daily commute is gone too. (Dr. Kirk says she misses riding her bike to the Dal campus.)

All this means we live in a world where it is harder to be active than inactive. So don’t blame yourself if it’s not very motivating to start moving more. “Because we’ve created an environment that encourages sedentary behaviour, it makes it hard to think about how we build activity into our lives,” Dr. Kirk says. Yes, you can make a difference with your personal choices, but the bigger societal choices can create barriers or remove them. “Until our environment becomes health-supporting, it’s hard work for everybody to be changing their behaviour. We’ve got to advocate for a healthier, more supportive environment.”