(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)

“If you don’t make time for exercise, you’ll probably have to make time for illness.” – Robin Sharma

“I like to move it move it.” –King Julien from ‘Madagascar

Whether we are doing Yoga, Zumba, Barre or Crossfit, we wear specialized clothing, are coached to move in certain ways, in rooms specifically designated for that purpose.

Our prehistoric ancestors, however, were exercising all the time just to go through the basics of feeding themselves chasing prey with a spear, digging up root vegetables or getting their bearings in their environment. They were engaged in constant, varied aerobic activity. We referenced our ancient ancestors earlier, when we spoke of the ‘fight or flight’ response, and the build-up of adrenalin in the body that this causes. Because we exercise so little in comparison to our prehistoric selves, the stress chemicals aren’t burnt off immediately by physical activity, but linger in our bodies, and deeply affect our psychological state. So by exercising your body, you’re actually helping your mind and elevating your mood. What’s more, it helps you sleep better, which we already identified as one of the key factors in well-being and boosts your immune system. Most medical experts agree that exercise is by far the single most effective way to combat the long-term effects of chronic stress. Researchers at Harvard were publishing their findings on the positive effects of exercise on people with stress back in 1999, and studies since then have only strengthened their case.

All this is wonderful to know, and most of us can understand this in the abstract – it makes good sense. But countless broken New Year’s resolutions of signing up for a gym membership also tell us that getting into an exercise regimen requires a high degree of motivation. Often, people have the feeling that their fitness goals are unattainable, requiring a level of commitment they are unable to give. And so they end up not doing anything at all. Well the good news is that you might be surprised at how little exercise you can do, while still doing your body and mind huge favours. Allow us to break it down for you with a few recommendations from EOV’s Medical Director Dr. Chris Stewart-Patterson.

Even a little is a lot.

A Duke University study of 200 people required them to do the smallest and simplest amount of exercise – a 10 minute walk. There was no requirement for the walk to be brisk. Just whatever pace was comfortable for the participant. Alongside the people doing the walk, there was a control group that did no walking at all, and yet another group who did no walking but were given a chocolate bar. The researchers recorded stress and mood levels of all participants before and after, and it was clearly the people who walked for 10 minutes who had the biggest mood improvement. Those who got a chocolate bar got a short, sharp spike in mood, but it was the walkers who were associated with an overall improved mood.

Just do it.

The lesson to be drawn from all this, to quote Nike’s iconic byline, is simple – just do it. Make physical activity part of your day. No two ways about it. Don’t wait for the ideal season, or the perfect gym, or a point in the future when you’re less slammed at work. If it helps you, you can consider exercise the way you would prescription medicine, as a non-negotiable that you have to do every day.

Even if it’s a 10 minute walk as part of your work commute, and then another 10 minute walk on your lunch break. Do this, and you’ve already incorporated 30 minutes of exercise into your day. Perhaps you’re able to incorporate walk-and-talk meetings at work, as some employers do in Vancouver, a city known for its health and wellness culture and actually has a Healthy City Strategy. Especially if the intent of the meeting is to generate new and innovative ideas, companies have found it more productive to take the brainstorming team for a walk than to have them sitting around a boardroom table. Apparently ‘blue sky thinking’ happens under blue skies! Or if your work is near a gym or has fitness facilities, make time for a 20 minute workout before your lunch. Military personnel are often given a longer lunch break and encouraged to do a pre-lunch workout, and it results in much higher levels of afternoon productivity!

Make it a part of your day, just like sleep, food and work

In this way, you stop seeing exercise as an insurmountable goal, or something that you are giving up time to do, but rather a natural part of your day. Walk on every occasion that you can, take the stairs rather than the elevator, add some intensity to household and gardening  chores so that you break a little sweat. Once you start feeling the benefits of regular walks or you if you are someone who already has a good level of activity in your life, you can increase the time and intensity until you have longer, more sustained periods of exercise. You’re aiming for at least 20-60 minutes of light aerobic exercise every day, for a total of 120-150 minutes a week. If you’re doing more intense exercise, you can get away with as little as 20 minutes a day, four days a week.

Step it up, but keep it manageable. As a next phase, you can step up the level of your exercise routine by trying this intense but brief seven-minute workout from the Academy of Sports Medicine. It takes you through a series of 12 short exercises, targeting your whole body in just 7 minutes, performing the exercises at high intensity for 30 seconds with a 10 second rest between them. In 2013 Chris Jordan, Director of Exercise Physiology at the Human Performance Institute co-authored a study in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal that supported the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, and in the years since then, HIIT has become an integral part of fitness routines worldwide. It does something different from longer, more sustained aerobic exercise – it acts as a potent stimulus that triggers physiological changes that are consistent with improved health among overweight people. In other words, HIIT lets your body know that it is expected to perform at a higher level, and your body therefore starts to consider itself as a high performing machine rather than a sedentary one. Again, the more you do, the more you’ll be capable of doing as you go along and you can increase the amount of HIIT exercise you do. And if you’re ever in a situation where you’re unable to maintain whatever regimen you’ve worked out for example, if you’re travelling on work, you can always come back to the basic 7 minute routine to make sure you’re not letting yourself go completely.

Make it social.

As social animals, human beings often do better if we’re not working in isolation. Make exercise social in whatever way works for you:

  • Join a class or work out with a friend you feel comfortable enough with not to judge you, but who’ll hold you accountable.
  • Make exercise a part of the way you bond with friends and family even if it’s just a long walk or a mild hike while you chat and catch up. New parents often find that their exercise regimen suffers now that they have children. There are ways you can incorporate your little ones into your exercise. Baby carriers have come a long way, and you can not only take your infant or toddler along for a hike, the added weight can make you fitter!
  • Hire a personal trainer if your finances allow for it. Paying for something is usually a good motivator to make sure you use the service.
  • If you prefer to exercise on our own, but still want to track your progress in isolation or in comparison with others, there are now numerous apps, fitness trackers and smart watches that can encourage you to reach your goals, and provide you with data about your progress.

The really great thing about exercise, which becomes apparent once you push past the first few weeks of a regular physical practice, is that it actually becomes more enjoyable the more you do it. In fact, some researchers at the University of Michigan decided to aggregate and analyze past studies that linked exercise to happiness. They went back to 1980 and dug through databases for relevant studies in which researchers measured the happiness of people before and after exercise. While each study only looked at a small group (like the one at Duke University we shared with you earlier), the aggregate of all the studies yielded a total of 500,000 people, across diverse age ranges, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The overwhelming finding was that exercise was strongly linked to happiness. It did not matter what type of exercise it was- some found joy in swimming, others in yoga or jogging. The main thing was that they did some form of exercise almost every day. And even more interestingly, the Harvard Health blog published an article referencing a study done at the University of British Columbia in which researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning.

This is certainly borne out by historical examples. There are a good many people in business and the arts who swear by the connection between exercise and intellectual productivity. President Barack Obama’s workouts and running regimen are now legendary, and he has said more than once that without it, he wouldn’t have been able to handle the pressures of his role. The literary world offers many examples of ‘walking writers’, who saw physical movement as the key to their creativity. The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. The Romantic poets of England took walking to competitive levels. One of the most famous poets of that time, William Wordsworth, composed some of his best known works while he strode across the hills of the Lake District. He is thought to have covered 180,000 miles on foot in his life. Whether President, poet or philosopher, one thing was clear, they all saw physical activity as a metaphor for a journey into the self. So when you think of exercise, we suggest that you see it less as a task set by someone else for you to do, but as a way of deepening your connection with yourself.

EOV Medical Director’s recommendations:

  1. The 7 minute workout offers the shortest, simplest isometric exercise routine that you can do to spark and maintain fitness. This is the best stepping stone towards more intense exercise.
  2. Robert E. Thayer, PhD’s landmark book shows how unprecedented stress in society and epidemic levels of depression have led people to food as a poor means of managing mood. Analyzing exercise and mood, he shows how physical activity is essential to psychological and physical health.
  3. The Centre for Disease Control, although a lot of its data is US-based, nevertheless offers a lot of resources and tips for a healthy, active life.

Great additional material:

Exercise is not just about your body. It also has a profound effect on your mental wellbeing and functioning.

From dancing to yoga, strength building to cardio – there’s a video here for a wide variety of exercise types.

The UK’s National Health System has a set of exercise to help you get to the 120-150 minutes a week level.

Recommended for older participants, CCAA certified instructors take you through a variety of exercises.