Talking about the benefits of exercise is really a concept that’s worn out.
That’s not something you’d expect to hear from two people whose careers are dedicated to helping individuals improve and maintain their health. But that’s exactly what Jude Sullivan and Dan Wanta – senior exercise physiologists at UW Health’s Sports Medicine Fitness Center – believe.
“It’s important to recognize that the word “exercise” (as it refers to voluntary physical exertion) is only a few generations old,” says Wanta. “Before then, most people’s lives were naturally physically active. Moving was a necessity for survival and prosperity. There are some cultures that don’t even have an equivalent or similar word in their language.”
Even within our own culture the concept of exercise, like going to the gym, is a relatively recent one. Whether it was Charles Atlas in the 20s, Jack Lalane in the 60s or any number of YouTube fitness gurus today, our concept of exercise has changed over time. And Wanta and Sullivan believe it’s time for it to change again.“We really need to step back from the word exercise and focus instead on movement,” says Wanta.
Sullivan adds that exercise has become a concept that’s loaded with guilt. We all know we should exercise, but despite guidelines and recommendations, a large percentage of us are not, in Sullivan’s words, “moved to move.”
Focus on the Fundamentals - Just Get Moving
And that’s why they advocate for focusing on the fundamentals.
“Everyone hears that they should be active at least 150 minutes every week,” says Sullivan. “When we think in those terms, it can seem daunting and makes exercise seem like it’s separate from our daily life. What we want is for people to just move.”
Sullivan explains that when we stop to look at our daily habits, we already move a lot – cleaning the house, walking the dog, walking from the car to the store, gardening or even those after dinner strolls. It’s easy to dismiss those movements as not making a difference but really, it adds up.
“Going to the gym is great, but even regular gym goers can be incredibly sedentary throughout their day. That’s why we encourage people to look for opportunities to bring more movement into their day,” he adds.
They acknowledge they’ve said it many times before, but with good reason – simple things like taking the stairs, parking in a space far from the door, walking instead of driving when possible, really add up and help keep us in motion throughout the day.
“With so many modern conveniences from garage door openers to television remotes and now devices that will do almost everything for you just by talking to them, we have less and less need to move. But moving and exercise should really be synonymous,” says Wanta.
The other issue they both point to is that when we think of exercise as this distinct thing, it can become like a chore – it’s something you have to do.
“We forget how fun moving and being active can be,” says Sullivan.
Wanta shares that his 81-year-old father goes polka dancing nearly every week. And as any Wisconsinite knows, that’s quite an aerobic workout.
“If I were to ask my dad what he does for exercise, he would never think to say polka dance,” Wanta says. “But the movement of this joyful (for him) activity more than meets every definition of “exercise” that I can think of. Both the physical movement and the social interaction provides significant health benefits for him.”
That’s why when anyone asks either of them “what are the best exercises to do,” their response is to say “something you love doing.”
“When you watch kids out playing on the playground, they look joyful. There’s laughter and smiles and everyone is having fun,” adds Sullivan. “That’s what we recommend – find the joy and fun we experienced when we were kids and you’ll look forward to moving as much as you can.”