The latest snapshot of Americans’ exercise habits is not a pretty picture. Only 18% of Americans meet the weekly recommendations for cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity. That means five of every six Americans don’t measure up. The current health guidelines published by health.gov calls for at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity along with two weekly sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises. The disconnect between the amount of physical activity we do and what we should do is unfortunate. This is, in part, due to the rise of convenience culture and modern technology in the U.S. In other words, Americans are used to living a convenient lifestyle where most necessities and luxuries are easily available with the tap of a finger. We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient. Unfortunately, exercise has become more of an inconvenience than not and the U.S’s increasing obesity rate (currently: 42.2%) shows evidence of this decline of physical activity. Although the benefits of exercise such as improving one’s athletic performance, losing weight, and gaining muscle have been heavily publicized over the past decade, the situation seems to only be getting worse.
What can we do to change this?
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
What if I told you that we don’t publicize all the benefits of exercise equally?
When we put our bodies to the test, our brains’ hypothalamus and pituitary gland produces “feel-good” neurochemicals called endorphins. They bring about feelings of euphoria and well-being and empower the “reward” circuit of our brains. Thus, they reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and in turn, enhance self-esteem.
According to The National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3.2 million adolescents (aged 12 to 17) had at least one major depressive episode in 2017, making up 13.3% of the age group. On top of that, nearly one in three adolescents (31.9%) will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. These stats have in part made America the third most depressed and one of the most anxious countries in the world. Is it a coincidence that 80% of American adolescents do not do enough aerobic physical activity to meet the guidelines for youth?
Recently, studies have come up with more and more evidence that exercise can help reduce the risks of major depression and anxiety. One of which was a study led by Karmel Choi, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After analyzing over 600,000 participants, they found that exercise can independently reduce the risk for depression:
We saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity (Choi).”
Now, I’m not saying that we have to run a marathon or anything like that to reek the mood benefits. In fact, all it takes is 15 minutes of higher-intensity exercise a day to prevent depression.
MY RESPONSE: WHAT CAN WE DO?
The biggest obstacle between us and our 15min of daily exercise are ourselves.
- Identify what you enjoy doing
- Figure out what type of physical activities you’re most likely to do, and think about when and how you’d be most likely to follow through.
- Set reasonable goals
- Start small! Think realistically about what you are able to do and then build off of that gradually. Tailor your exercise to your needs and abilities rather than setting unrealistic guidelines that you won’t be able to meet.
- Don’t think of exercise or physical activity as a chore
- If exercise is just another necessity in your life that you don’t think you’re living up to, you’ll associate it with failure. Rather, look at exercise the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
- If you think of it as an inconvenience it will be an inconvenience.
- If it comes up in conversation or if you feel like it is an appropriate time, talk to your friends, neighbors, or family about how you started to exercise more and maybe tell them why you started.
- When encouraging others to exercise, avoid promoting the benefits that they have already heard before such as weight loss and physical health. Instead champion the mental health and mood benefits that are not often associated with exercise.
- Invite others to exercise with you. More often than not, others will be more inclined to workout if they have a friend or family member to do it with them.
- This can also encourage friendly competition, pushing you both beyond what you thought you were capable of.
HOW WILL YOU GET INVOLVED?
In the comments below, please share (1) what you do to exercise on a daily basis or how you plan to do so, (2) how this time in quarantine has affected your exercise schedule, (3) some other ways you can publicize the mood benefits of exercise in addition to the physical ones, (4) if you go to a gym regularly and if so, how far away?, and lastly, (5) the goals that you will set for yourself as you get started on your journey.