Getting physically active

A version of this article was originally published as part of Mental Health America’s Live Your Life Well campaign.

The dusty tennis shoes. The unused gym membership. The jump rope coiled at the back of the closet. Many of us have proof that it is tough to stick with exercising. But if we can find the motivation to push through, being physically active can benefit both our physical and mental health.

How being active helps

There are many ways that exercise helps us. One way is by preventing heart disease and high blood pressure. And it also lowers your risk for stroke, osteoporosis, colon cancer, and diabetes. [1] It can also improve sleep, increase energy, decrease some kinds of pain, and even boost your immune system.

Physical activity helps your mood too. Many people have found that exercise decreases stress, anger, and tension. And it can help with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Experts believe that physical activity relieves pent-up muscle tension and stimulates “feel-good” hormones. It can also burn off stress hormones and increase blood flow to the brain. In many ways, exercise can offer a greater sense of well-being.

Working out essentials

If you’re starting physical activity for the first time or the first time in a while, it’s a good idea to start slow.  And then gradually increase the number of days and minutes per session.[2]  It might also be a good idea to check with your doctor if you haven’t been active in a while before starting.

Once you’re ready to start moving, a good routine to follow is to

  1. Gently warm up your body. Starting slowly gives your muscles and joints a chance to loosen, which prevents injuries. Around five or 10 minutes of warm-up usually is enough.
  2. Go, but remember moderation. Try not to push yourself to the point of pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath.
  3. Cool down by moving slower for 5-10 minutes. This brings your heart rate and body temperature back to normal.
  4. Stretch to relax the muscles you’ve taxed. Try not to force yourself past the point of tension or bounce. Check out some model stretches here.
  5. Drink water before, during, and after a workout. If you wait until you’re thirsty, you might already be dehydrated.

How much activity do you need?

For your overall health, the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend [3][4] one of the following:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (think walking or a leisurely bike ride) throughout the week PLUS strength training twice a week.

OR

  • at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like jogging or a challenging bike ride) spread throughout the week PLUS strength training twice a week.

OR

  • An equal combination of moderate and vigorous activity on two or more days PLUS strength training twice a week

Though 20- or 30-minute sessions may be ideal for health and mood, you can still get plenty of benefit from working out in 10-minute spurts. To boost your mood, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise. Or a combination of aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening 3-5 days a week. Some research shows that even lower levels of activity may offer mental health benefits. [5]

Making time to work out

Sometimes we don’t have time to work out. But we can squeeze physical activity into our day in other ways. For example, breaking your movement into 10-minute chunks during “blah” parts of your day can help. You may also want to try:

  • “Running errands:” Walk a bit faster or further in the parking lot when you stop at the store.
  • Playing: Race or play tag with your siblings or children. Or shoot some hoops.
  • Scrubbing: Instead of a few wipes here and there, try cleaning energetically for 10 minutes
  • Dancing: Play your favorite song and have fun.
  • Watching TV: Yes, watching TV—while walking in place, doing leg lifts, or punching the air

Staying strong when you feel unmotivated

While there are many benefits to being physically active, we’re not always motivated to do it. But there are some tips that can make exercising easier and keep us motivated. For example, you don’t have to join a glitzy gym. Many recreation departments, senior centers, and YMCAs have great equipment and fun and affordable classes. You can also find out if you can hit the track at your local high school. Some other tips are:

  • Keep a record. Write down why you want to work out, some realistic goals, and your achievements. Seeing on paper what you hope for and what you’ve accomplished can boost motivation. You can print a weekly tracker to track your progress.
  • Add it to your calendar. Schedule physical activity as you would any important appointment-and keep it.
  • Make it fun. You’re much more likely to stick with something you enjoy. If you’re finding your routine a drag, try something new.
  • Find a friend. Working out with a partner can be motivating. Plus, it’s sometimes harder to break a commitment to someone else than to ourselves.
  • Figure it out. Think about what’s really stopping you and then find alternatives that address those problems. Maybe you’re too tired at the end of the day: Try working out in the morning instead. Maybe you’re intimidated by the beefy set at the gym: Consider working out at home. (Lots of different workouts and routines are available online)
  • Reward yourself. A gift or celebration for sticking to your goals is a great way to reward yourself for staying motivated.
  • If you drop the ball, pick it up. It would be a shame to give up entirely because you missed a few days or even a few weeks. Remember to acknowledge yourself for any steps forward, no matter how small.

  1. Warburton, Darren E.R., Nicol, Crystal Whitney, & Bredin, Shannon S.D. (2006) Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.051351
  2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, May 11). Get walking with this 12-week walking schedule. Health Lifestyle Fitness. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/walking/art-20050972
  3. The Centers for Disease Control. (2022, June 2). How much physical activity do adults need? Physical Activity. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fphysicalactivity%2Feveryone%2Fguidelines%2Fadults.html
  4. American Heart Association. (2022, July 25). Getting more exercise than guidelines suggest may further lower death risk. American Heart Association News. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2022/07/25/getting-more-exercise-than-guidelines-suggest-may-further-lower-death-risk
  5. Reed, Paul, MD. (2021, December 15). Physical Activity Is Good for the Mind and the Body. United States Department of Health and Human Services.  https://health.gov/news/202112/physical-activity-good-mind-and-body

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