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Keeping fit is far from my idea of fun and many would probably agree. In fact, this is one of the reasons why fitness New Year’s resolutions are so popular every single year. We may have the best intentions in January, but we struggle to stick to our fitness goals as the year unfolds. Yet, come December we still want to reap the numerous benefits of exercise.
So, what are the benefits of exercise (and physical activity)? First, being in a better physical shape makes us feel more attractive and boosts our self-esteem and confidence.
Second, exercise is beneficial to our physical health; it helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (such as coronary heart disease and stroke), diabetes (type 2) and metabolic syndrome, and some cancers (including colon and breast cancers). It also helps control our weight, strengthen our bones and muscles (therefore reducing the risk of osteoarthritis and hip fractures), and overall increase our chances of living longer.
Third, physical activity can be beneficial to our mental health too, including our mood and cognition. Research has shown that exercise lowers the risk of dementia and depression, by releasing endorphins. Exercise can also foster our sense of self-worth and increase our self-confidence not only by making us feel better about our appearance, but also by helping us gain a sense of achievement and mastery. For these reasons, I often prescribe exercise and physical activity to my patients.
Is exercise and physical activity the same thing? Not quite. Exercise is a form, or sub-category, of physical activity, but physical activity does not require exercise. For example, gardening, walking the dog or even doing housework are all physical activities, but not exercises, whereas sports, jogging, pilates and yoga are physical activities as well as exercise.
Physical activity and exercise can be further divided into aerobic (such as walking, jogging, dancing, swimming and gardening), flexibility (such as pilates and yoga), and muscle strengthening (such as include weight lifting, press-ups and sit-ups).
In the US, the Physical Activity Guidelines provide science-based guidance to help people maintain or improve their health through regular physical activity. These guidelines recommend that we do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity over the week, which is about half an hour each day.
A variety of different exercises and physical activities is best; yet, yoga is the one I prefer, as it is more than physical exercise. Having a meditative and spiritual core, as well as combining physical exercise with an awareness of breath, yoga can help you relax and unwind. I know that yoga classes can be quite expensive, but you don’t always have to join one to practise yoga. Apps and YouTube videos provide an inexpensive way to practise yoga, as well as meditation, in the comfort of your home.
Power walking is another inexpensive way to easily introduce physical activity to our daily life. Smartphones tell us how many steps we walk each day; I personally aim for 10,000 steps a day. Walking instead of taking the bus, or getting off the bus a few stops early, is an easy way to increase the number of steps walked (and even save some pounds in the longer run). As is taking the stairs instead of the lift, or riding a bike instead of driving the car.
Fitness doesn’t have to be something to dread or avoid. If you want to stick to your fitness goals and resolutions, physical activity has to become a habit incorporated into your daily routine. It may be easier said than done, but it is worthwhile all the same.
Dr Alex Chatziagorakis is a London-based consultant psychiatrist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.