Although most people know that regular exercise is vital to good health, many find that it's a hard habit to maintain. Just over half of adults in the United States meet the recommended advice to do moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Two of the main reasons people say they don't exercise are 1) not having enough time, and 2) having joint pain, fatigue, or a chronic health condition. Even people who aren't working full-time can still find it hard to make time for exercise. They may be caring for an ill spouse, taking care of their grandchildren, doing volunteer work, and filling their days with other pursuits. However, for some people in their 60s and 70s, reaching retirement age comes with a revelation.
"People wake up to the idea that exercise is a worthy thing to do. They make time for it because they realize it can help them enjoy a healthy life for as long as possible," says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
Practice piggybacking to get your exercise in
He encourages people to find creative ways to "piggyback" activity onto things you're already doing regularly. One simple trick is to stand or walk every time you're on the phone. Get earphones or a headset, which you can also use to listen to podcasts or audiobooks during a daily walk.
When you go shopping, don't circle in your car looking for a spot near the store entrance — make it a habit to park far away. "You'll get in some extra steps without spending much more time," says Dr. Phillips, who also directs the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. If you can, walk or ride a bike to do your errands. Or park in a central location and walk to as many places as possible. "My 80-year-old mother-in-law does this and gets in nearly a mile's worth of steps by walking to the post office, bank, and pharmacy rather than driving from place to place," says Dr. Phillips.
You can even use toothbrushing time to get in a little balance exercise, as Dr. Phillips does. He uses an electric toothbrush that buzzes every 30 seconds, which prompts him to switch from standing on one leg to the other leg.
Think of the exercise guidelines as a goal to reach over time. If you haven't been very active for a while, start slowly. Not sure you can commit to walking for 10 minutes at least four days of the week? Aim lower. Start with a goal of two days a week. When that becomes easy, add another day. Then start adding two more minutes to your walk, and then five minutes. Eventually, you'll reach the goal of walking for 30 minutes, five days a week.
Exercising with physical limitations
Physical limitations from health conditions (especially arthritis) often make people reluctant to exercise. In fact, exercise nearly always makes you feel better, not worse — provided you make the right modifications, says Dr. Phillips. Do you have joint pain in your knees, hips, or ankles? Stick to non-weight-bearing exercises, such as swimming or doing water aerobics, or low-impact exercise, such as using an exercise bike or an elliptical machine.
Strengthening the muscles that support your joints can help ease pain. A physiatrist, physical therapist, or personal trainer experienced in working with people who have arthritis can help you choose and adapt activities that will work for you.
If you've never had a formal exercise program, or if you've allowed your exercise routine to lapse over the years because of illness, time pressures, or family obligations, check out Harvard Health Publishing's online course Starting to Exercise. This program will help you create a safe, well-rounded exercise plan — one that fits your life and that you will be likely to stick with.