For many years, on Jan. 1, I resolved to practice a more active and healthy lifestyle; instead, I experienced consistent failure.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20 to 60 minutes of continuous aerobic activity (biking, walking, jogging, dancing, swimming) three to five times a week, at 60 percent to 90 percent of maximum heart rate. I never made it out of January with that resolution.
The surgeon general’s report on physical activity and health recommends that all adults should accumulate 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most, if not all, days of the week. Unfortunately, I have a sedentary job: reading, teaching, advising, and preparing reports. I never made it out of February with that resolution.
The National Institutes of Health suggests that even 10 minutes at a time is fine. The key is to find the right exercise for you. It should be fun and should match your abilities. Except, I don’t have that many physical abilities, and for me, exercise is not fun. Nevertheless, this suggestion includes a perspective that I appreciate. Even though 20, 30, or 60 minutes would be better, something is better than nothing. Even 10 minutes is more than I used to do.
Increased activity became a sustainable goal for me when I adopted the following perspective: Exercise can be of three forms.
In the first form, some exercise is indeed fun. Some joggers tell me that jogging is fun for them. I accept their contention as true, as long as they are willing to accept my contention that it is not fun for me. On the other hand, volleyball is my true passion. It is the one (and only) sport in which I am competitive, and that remains true in my mid-50s. But, I understand that volleyball might not be fun for everyone. The limitation with volleyball is that it requires a critical mass of like-minded and skilled competitors (but not too many). Then again, get one or two players on the court who confuse volleyball with dodge ball, and the enjoyment quickly abates. Sometimes, on really good days, I can clock hours of fun physical activity, but most days, not so much.
In the second form, some physical activity is productive. Although I do not enjoy jogging or walking in circles, some treks are productive, as I complete errands around town or use the stairs. Although I don’t enjoy raking leaves from my yard, it is a productive activity, as I recover my lawn from the 6-inch carpet of leaves. I seem to lose more weight in October and November than during any other time of the year. If exercise cannot always be fun, then it should be productive (which is one of the reasons why I still choose to shovel snow from my drive, rather than using a snow blower).
Most days in my hectic life, however, there are no obvious opportunities for either enjoyable or productive exercise. In the third form, exercise ought to be quick. If I can’t do something fun, and no active duty forces my hand, then I need a quick option to establish a sustainable exercise program. For me, that looks like sit ups first thing in the morning. Once getting out of bed, I accomplish my 10 minutes of active exercise. For me, the sit ups are boring, but the process is very quick. My waist size is still the same, without that spare tire look.
If you make resolutions that require a complete change in your lifestyle, it is unlikely that you will make much headway. On the other hand, focus on a sustainable change. How can you establish a new habit now, rather than waiting for health problems to force your hand? The key is a sustainable manageable program. When you can, enjoy your exercise. Or, at least accomplish something productive. When neither of these is available, just be quick.
I’m now starting year four. May your resolution be just as successful.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.