Getting Active, Staying Active

by: Dr. Julie Beaulac, C. Psych.

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, ‘physical activity’ is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure” (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997).

Regular physical activity is linked to a wide range of important health benefits – from weight management, reduced risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and cancer, to the prevention and management of anxiety, depression, and stress.

For most people, it’s safe to start slowly and gently increase your activity. If you have a health condition and are not currently active, it’s highly recommended that you talk to a physician before starting a new exercise regimen.

How Much is Enough?

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology released guidelines on physical activity that suggest the following standards as a minimum for health benefit:

You can also build up activities in periods of at least 10 minutes each. Here are a few examples:

  • Low-intensity effort: Light walking, stretching, or easy gardening
  • Moderate intensity effort: Brisk walking, raking leaves, or biking
  • Vigorous-intensity effort: Aerobics, jogging, or fast swimming or biking

How Do You Know an Effort is Moderate?

If your breathing and heart rate are a bit higher, and you feel a bit sweaty by the end, you are using moderate effort or are being moderately active.

For managing anxiety or depression, research suggests that physical activity should be in bouts of at least 25 minutes 3-5 days a week (Smits & Otto, 2009) and add up to the following amounts weekly:

  • Moderate-intensity for minimum of 150 minutes (i.e., 2 hours and 30 minutes) weekly or; 
  • Vigorous-intensity for minimum of 75 minutes (i.e., 1 hour and 15 minutes) weekly

In terms of types of physical activity, it is recommended that we aim to include a mix of endurance, flexibility, and strength and balance activities.

  • Endurance (4-7 days per week): Continuous activities that make you breath deeper and increase your heart rate
  • Flexibility (4-7 days per week): Reaching, bending and stretching
  • Strength and Balance (2-4 days per week): Lifting weights or own body, resistance activities.

So, if we know it is so good for us, why is it so hard?

Lots of things keep us from being active – work and family responsibilities, feeling tired, low motivation, pain or health conditions, the weather and low confidence, to name just a few. There are some strategies that we can use to overcome barriers. Some ideas include:

  • Fit activity into smaller chunks throughout the day, such as walking 10 to 15 minutes three or four times a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Choose activities that you enjoy and are familiar with so that they can be more easily integrated into your life, such as walking to run errands instead of driving, walking the dog, active play with children.
  • Invite friends or colleagues for a walk during lunch hour at work.
  • Do activities like biking, swimming, or bowling, instead of going out for dinner with your family or friends.

If you want to increase your physical activity, the top five tips for success are to:

  1. Plan ahead
  2. Start slow & gradually increase
  3. Do something you enjoy
  4. Build it into your life
  5. Get family and friends involved

When working to make changes to your activity level, it is important to set goals that are:

  • Behaviourally-anchored (“I will walk for 15 minutes 3x/week is a behavioural goal”; “I will lose weight” is not a behavioural goal)
  • Realistic – Ask yourself, “Is this goal doable?”
  • Important – Set goals that are important to you right now.
  • Specific – The most useful goals are specific and concrete (e.g., “I will walk for 15 minutes 3 times per week” as opposed to, “I will walk more”)
  • Scheduled – Schedule your goals. Write them goals down. Post them somewhere you can see them and tell others about them.
  • Reviewed – Goals change. Review your goals often.

For more information, see the following resources:

The psychologists of CFIR’s Health Psychology Treatment Service can help you create a strategy for increasing physical activity and improving your overall wellbeing.

Read more about our Health Psychology Treatment Service.