Excuses. Almost everyone has one when it comes to exercising. No time, work schedules, kids, a health condition, the weather – Jude Sullivan, senior exercise physiologist at UW Health’s Fitness Center, understands.
He’s heard countless reasons why it’s hard for people to exercise. Which is why Sullivan and his colleague Dan Wanta say it’s not about exercise – it’s about finding ways to be active within the lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves.
“We were made to move,” comments Wanta, who is also an exercise physiologist. “So we try to encourage people to focus more on moving rather than on ‘exercising.’”
Both Wanta and Sullivan admit it’s a shift in perspective. “Exercise is really a recent and somewhat arbitrary concept,” adds Wanta. “But, when we start to look at incorporating more movement into our day and how we can be physically active, then it becomes a natural part of our day.”
They both explain that fitness is really about quality of life – being able to do those activities that we want to do. And that can vary between the individual who wants to be able to keep up with their kids or grandkids, and the athlete who wants to be competitive. But regardless of the why, understanding the what and the how can help people create and maintain active habits.
The Six Facets of Fitness
Sullivan explains that when researchers and physiologists talk about fitness, they break it down into six facets:
Aerobic or dynamic fitness
Flexibility/range of mobility
As fitness experts, Sullivan and Wanta are frequently asked what type of exercise is best. But it’s not a simple answer.
“It’s like education,” explains Wanta. “We wouldn’t say math is more important than language. What’s important is our capacity to learn. Fitness is the same and we all have the capacity to improve in each of the facets, although that may look different depending on the individual.”
Focusing on Activity (and Exercise)
Sullivan comments that in our society, we often feel time constrained with busy schedules and activities pulling us in multiple directions. As a result, we often put exercise on a to-do list, but when we do, it becomes a joyless activity – a chore. If we can find ways to incorporate activity into our every day, we can begin to enjoy the process of being fit. And when planning to be active, Sullivan and Wanta say it helps to remember FITT:
Frequency – how often we’ll do something.
“The recommendation by the CDC is to be active for ‘most days of the week’,” explains Wanta. “But when you start, don’t get hung up on how often.”
Intensity – how hard someone works when they’re active. Sullivan notes that people may use fitness trackers to measure their activity levels, while others may look at heart rate to measure intensity.
Measuring the Effectiveness of Your Workout
How do you know how hard you're working out? Sullivan and Wanta explain how to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale
Time – how long are we active for. Wanta notes that this can be all at once – like when we work out at the gym – or we can break activity up over the course of a day.
“Most of the recommendations are for 30 minutes every day,” says Sullivan. “But that could be 10 minutes at a time throughout the day.”
Type – what type of exercise you’re going to be doing. Wanta notes that this is where the facets come into play – aerobic, muscular strength, flexibility, etc.
“The purpose of exercise – or of being active - is to overload your system so it can adapt and you can develop a more capable ‘system,’” says Wanta.
He explains that intensity is the most common way to ‘overload’ – how high you set your treadmill or how fast you walk. And the best thing, he notes, is that as people become more fit, they will choose more activity in their life.
How to Change Things Up - “Tweakology”
Sullivan explains that fitness levels aren’t going to change if you don’t change your routine. Your system learns to adapt, so by mixing things up you can challenge the system and increase your level.
“It also helps keep you motivated and helps you enjoy being active” says Sullivan.
Do the opposite. If you’re someone who exercises at the gym by yourself, try working out with a friend, a group or even try a class. Or in the reverse, if you exercise mostly in classes, try an individual exercise, he suggests.
Do something different. It could be taking a walk outside rather than on a track. “You engage different muscles because the terrain is different – it goes up and down and it challenges your body,” says Sullivan.
Add some time. Add five extra minutes to a walk or to your exercise time. Wanta says that by adding just a few extra minutes every day means you can add a half hour or even more of activity every week. “It can really add up,” he comments.
Change the intensity. As an example, Wanta suggests walking or running faster for 30 second intervals and then increase over time. “So 30 seconds at a faster pace, return back to set pace for five minutes. Then increase to one minute at the faster pace, then two and so on,” he explains.
Change with the seasons. “Look for opportunities to do something different,” says Sullivan. “Each season offers new opportunities. In winter, try snow showing, ice skating or even sledding. In summer there’s swimming or even golfing. You may just find something you love to do.”
They both note that when we make changes, we may discover something else – muscles we never even knew we had.
“You may feel some muscle soreness” says Sullivan. “Your body is telling you use used those muscles and it can help you identify whether you’ve done too much. It’s good feedback and shouldn’t be a reason you stop, but instead is something that can help guide you in the future.”