We should exercise more. We know this. But for a lot of reasons — we’re busy, we’re lazy, we’re intimidated, or we just don’t feel like it — it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. If it happens at all.
Yet, the older we get, the more and more critical it becomes to stay active. Being physically active is closely related to well-being and to lowered risk of cardiovascular disease in aging populations. Staying active increases flexibility, agility, and strength, and brings a powerful mood boost. It also has profound effects on the brain and helps prevent memory loss and cognitive decline. A recent Swedish study cites exercise as the number one key to longevity — even for those who don’t start exercising until late in life.
Still, knowing all the reasons we should exercise is not always enough to make us do it. We need hacks to get us over the hump. Here are six.
1. Don’t call it “exercise”
Stop thinking of exercise as a chore or punishment. It can be as simple as walking to the mailbox and back every day. You don’t have to break a sweat every time, or wake up sore. You simply need to move your body. Expand your definition of what that can mean. Even low-intensity activity is better than nothing!
2. Distract yourself
Perhaps you find exercise to be, well, boring. That’s exactly why they put television screens on elliptical machines and treadmills. Find a gym that has a multimedia setup, and plug into your favorite sitcom or podcast as you knock out your 10,000 steps a day. Or conduct your stretching routine in front of your favorite talk show.
Incidentally, 10,000 steps is the default number that fitness devices such as Fitbit recommend. This is roughly five miles a day, or 30 minutes of exercise for the “average” adult. If you’re older, or less physically mobile, this bar might be much too high for you. Start with something obtainable. That might be 10 minutes on an elliptical at a fairly mellow pace. It’s about consistent daily activity, not your ego.
3. Meditate on it
While some people prefer to be distracted while logging steps, others get a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment from really experiencing the moment. In fact, there’s a type of meditation specially called “walking meditation.” According to Jack Kornfield, a well-known contemporary Buddhist author and teacher, “Walking meditation is a simple and universal practice for developing calm, connectedness, and embodied awareness... The art of walking meditation is to learn to be aware as you walk, to use the natural movement of walking to cultivate mindfulness and wakeful presence.”
If you’re interested in turning movement into a spiritual experience, if you will, conduct some research to find out whether there’s a Zen Buddhist center near you that offers this type of instruction (typically in a class, course, or workshop).
Yoga is another modality that combines movement with mindfulness, and today, you can find yoga just about everywhere, from your local gym or YMCA to private sessions with a qualified instructor. If all else fails, streaming yoga classes are available online from paid services like Glo and free, on YouTube.
4. Make it a social thing
If staying active keeps you young, social interaction is just as critical. The National Institute on Aging has conducted several studies that reveal “social relationship are consistently associated with biomarkers for health.” In layman’s lingo, spending time around other people helps ward off loneliness, depression, and even illness.
Combine the two, and your golden years get a little more golden. Join an exercise class, or simply invite a friend or neighbor along on your daily walk. Not only do you get the benefits of social interaction, but you keep each other accountable for showing up — the hardest part of any exercise routine.
5. Make it official
Another hack for keeping yourself accountable to consistent exercise is to commit yourself to a goal you can’t get out of without risk of embarrassment, shame, or disappointment. For instance, a walkathon raising money for a good cause, or a series of classes you pay for in advance.
6. Try something altogether new
Forget about the gym, the community pool, or the loop at the park you’ve walked (or at least, thought about walking) a million times. Have you ever tried martial arts? Pilates? Tai chi? Qi gong? Water aerobics? These are a few low-impact types of movement you might find more intellectually challenging than the typical aerobics session.
Find the style and motivation that works for you, and that might mean mixing it up here and there. To stick with an exercise mission, the essential element is that you enjoy it. As long as it’s a chore — something you know you “should” do — you’re less likely to make it happen.
Remember that it typically takes about a month for a new habit to “stick,” so at first, a certain amount of will is required. But if you find a way to be active that works with your physical condition and personality, then stick with it for a few weeks, you’ll soon find that regular exercise is not nearly as painful as you once thought.By the way, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that seniors get roughly 2.5 hours of “moderate aerobic exercise” a week. That breaks down to about a half hour five days a week, which might sound like a daunting goal if you’re currently at zero. Build up slowly, and reward yourself for whatever you manage to pull off. Anything, after all, is better than nothing.