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Before you start exercising, ask yourself why


I once read about a parent driving to pick up their 10-year-old child from school. As they approached the schoolyard, they fumbled around in their glove compartment looking for a cigarette, only to find they were out.

As the school bell rang and the crowds of children came down the stairs, it began to rain. The parent thought, “If I put my foot on the accelerator, I can get to the corner shop and pick up my cigarettes before my child gets too wet.”

That was the day that individual quit smoking for good.

Like that parent, some people change unhealthy behaviors on their own — usually when they see a disconnect between their behavior and what is important to them in their lives.

Inspired to start

So many of us know we ought to be more physically active. But with life passing us by at such a rapid pace, this seems to be the first thing to fall off our to-do list. Others jump into an ambitious exercise routine, only to lose steam a few weeks later.

In my practice as an exercise specialist within a cardiology department, I invite my patients to put the pause button on life and consider why they want to exercise.

Ask yourself: What, if anything, would be a good reason to start an exercise routine?

Taking that brief moment to think about that question is probably the most important message I can give anyone who is stuck in the vicious cycle of a sedentary lifestyle. It allows you to find a deep motivation to exercise by connecting exercise to what is most important in your life.

For example: Maybe you want to travel easily without worrying who will pull your suitcase or how far you can walk on a tour. Maybe you want to keep up with your kids. Perhaps you would be inspired by charitable exercise events such as a 5K, 10K, half-marathon or triathlon. Maybe you want to better control your diabetes or help lower your cholesterol. Or you want to get stronger and maintain your sense of balance so you can live independently as long as possible.


Next steps

If you discover starting to move more will help you achieve what you really want in life, here’s the next question: If I did decide to exercise, how might I go about it?

 Be specific and customize your exercise plan to fit your life. You may enjoy exercising at a routine time in the morning before work to avoid the distractions and mental fatigue that occur later in the day. Some people want to exercise in a group for support and accountability. Others opt for exercises such as water aerobics that avoid aggravating joint pain.

Once you have had that conversation with yourself, you may be ready to consider guidance from an exercise specialist. Here are some tips:

  • Select an activity that is safe, therapeutic and somewhat pleasurable.
  • Start out with a conservative plan.
  • Progress steadily over a 6- to 8-week period.
  • Begin by increasing the minutes and days rather than the intensity. A little exercise is good, but more is better.

I liken exercise to paying your rent or mortgage. We can’t go long periods without making our mortgage payments, yet we expect to remain youthful as we age without regularly exercising. The more you invest in exercise (within reason), the higher the quality of living.

Finally, seek guidance from your physician if you have concerns about your physical limitations or a medical condition.

For more information, listen to a Mayo Clinic podcast interview with Dr. Scales:

Exercise is Medicine: Adding Years to Life and Life to Years.

Robert Scales, Ph.D., M.S.

Dr. Scales is an exercise physiologist and Director for Cardiac Rehabilitation & Wellness in the cardiology department at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was born Scotland, but he has lived most of his life in the southwest of the United States.   

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