Sunday 18 August 2019

Be well: Finding time to get fighting fit

The first step to getting healthy is to find 30 minutes in your busy day for regular exercise. ÁILÍN QUINLAN shows you how to do it

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In association with the Health Service Executive

Being active is not just great fun - it's also very good for us. The question is: how much daily exercise do we need, and how on earth do we manage to fit it into already crammed schedules?

According to the HSE, adults should aim for at least 30 minutes daily of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week - this means your heart should be beating faster and your breathing should be harder than normal.

The physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity are acknowledged to be huge - being active helps release chemicals in the brain called endorphins, which in turn reduce stress and have a positive effect on mood, not to mention the benefits to the heart, lungs, muscles and bones.

"Doing 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week is very good for your health," observes Dr Sarahjane Belton, lecturer in physical education at Dublin City University School of Health and Human Performance.

"Making that threshold means there's less risk of coronary heart disease and depression. It brings a high level of muscle fitness, weight control and better-quality sleep."

While 30 minutes a day is just the minimum, she emphasises, the evidence is there for the benefits.

"This amount of regular exercise has a protective effect," she says, explaining that it "reduces your risk of developing conditions such as type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer - and also has a significantly positive impact in terms of improved sleep, better weight control, better quality of life and better mental health, among other things".

Form a habit

"Research shows that if something becomes habitual, it's much more likely to last in the longer term," explains Dr Molly Byrne of the School of Psychology at NUI Galway.

People often decide to take up exercising in the new year, she points out - but the big issue is: how do you sustain it?

Making exercise into a habit guards against a fall-off in motivation, says Dr Byrne. The best way to do this, she explains, is by incorporating a new activity into something you're already doing.

So try turning your commute into a workout, for example. Bike to work instead of driving, or simply get off the bus a few stops earlier than usual and leg it the rest of the way to the office.

Do it first thing in the morning

Get your exercise session out of the way first thing in the morning if at all possible, and get yourself set up for the day. That way you'll start the day on a positive note and feel the benefits of an early morning adrenaline rush.

The daily strain on our reservoir of self-control is another reason why an early morning workout can be a good thing, says clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne. "We have a limited amount of self-control, and the stress we experience during the day can gradually erode our will to exercise. This is why studies have found that it's better to exercise first thing in the morning. The longer the day goes on, the more time and energy people expend and the less self-control they have left."

Enjoy what you do

It's crucial to choose a form of exercise you enjoy, advises Dr Molly Byrne: "Once you enjoy it, you'll continue to do it. Things you don't enjoy don't last, no matter how high your motivation can be - you won't manage to sustain it.

"This is the basic Pleasure Principle - if it's too difficult, you won't keep doing it."

If you enjoy company, walking with somebody you like can make your exercise session an enjoyable activity.

Too time-poor to exercise?

Try going to bed earlier, suggests Aileen Flynn, clinical specialist physiotherapist at the Beacon Hospital, Dublin. Resetting your sleep schedule is a big help when it comes to getting more out of the following day, she explains.

"Going to bed earlier helps you get out of bed earlier the next morning and commit to 30 minutes of exercise before starting your day."

It's also a good idea to have your workout gear laid out so you're all ready to go. Some fitness enthusiasts even believe in wearing their workout gear to bed to speed things up the next morning - but we think that might be taking things a bit far!

Get a grip on the little things

Get organised! The simplest things can help you fit in those 30 magic minutes - why not brown-bag it and bring a homemade lunch to work so you don't have to spend 20 minutes queuing for a sandwich?

Have breakfast organised the night before if you're an AM exerciser, or make the effort to pre-prepare dinner so it's waiting at home once you arrive in from your evening gym workout - all of this can help you squeeze those precious minutes into your day, advises Aileen Flynn.

Think outside the box

Remember, exercise doesn't have to be all about sports, explains Dr Sarahjane Belton. The physical exertion involved, for example, in ballroom dancing, mowing the lawn by hand, digging the garden or brisk vacuum cleaning can keep you on your feet and ensure your heart is pumping and your body's warming up.

But it's really important to plan it, she recommends: "If you don't think about it, you won't do it!"

Start small

Aim for small and gradual rather than radical or significant changes in your day, Dr Molly Byrne advises.

Start, for example, by cycling or walking to work twice or three times a week and gradually increase the days you do this. This is far more sustainable than attempting a really big change such as suddenly deciding that you're going to work out in the gym five evenings a week.

If you're beginning from the position of a very sedentary lifestyle, Dr Belton advises that you try working up to your daily 30 minutes by giving over 10 or 15 minutes every day to a brisk walk, even if it's only around the car park.

Then build up to 30 minutes - and beyond - over the following weeks.

Go local

Find a gym close to home or work, and if you're an outdoor lunchtime exerciser, try using surrounding streets, the local park or even the car park at your workplace as a workout zone to maximise exercise time. You need to look at what's on your dootstep and readily available when time really is of the essence. You'll be surprised at how many facilities are right outside your front door.

Make it sociable

Exercise can be a lonely endeavour if you do it by yourself, so it may be worth teaming up with a like-minded workmate or exercise group.

Find a workout buddy, join a work-related Pilates session or take part in a Saturday morning park run where you're surrounded by equally enthusiastic fitness seekers. Dr Malie Coyne explains, "Sharing goals and having a fitness buddy can be a great motivator - as would joining a class where you are surrounded by fitness-minded people."

Making a commitment to a group of friends that you'll exercise with them can act as a strong incentive to maintain a new programme of physical activity, adds Dr Belton. "The simple fact of not wanting to let people down can act as a carrot to motivate you to keep fit!"

Ask for help

Would your employer facilitate an onsite exercise class such as yoga or Pilates? A lunchtime class onsite could be a great support to those attempting to fit in their 30-a-day.

It's an increasingly popular idea with employees: "I give lunchtime and morning Pilates classes at the Beacon Hospital, which are attended by many people working in the Sandyford area of Dublin," says Aileen Flynn.

Does exercise ‘snacking’ work?

A relatively new concept, this takes the form of multiple bouts of brief, 'snack-sized' portions of exercise, which can be more efficient in controlling blood sugar levels than a traditional, continuous workout.

A 2014 study in which researchers compared blood sugar in participants who exercised for 30 minutes continuously and later broke their activity into three small 'exercise portions' performed shortly before breakfast, lunch and dinner showed that this format controlled blood sugar better than the single session.

According to the research, the short bouts, or 'exercise snacking', resulted in lowered blood sugar for about 24 hours - and they did so more efficiently than a 30-minute continuous session.

"You can do your exercise all in one bout or you can break it down into smaller pieces," explains Dr Sarahjane Belton of Dublin City University's School of Health and Human Performance.

However, she advises, if you decide to get your 30 minutes in through exercise snacks, it's recommended that you do no less than 10 minutes of exercise per bout.

"Basically, we say that people should try to get in 30 minutes a day, but when you're working and have kids to look after, this can be difficult," she admits.

Trying to fit even three 10-minute periods of exercise into a typical packed schedule might not be easy to sustain - so if you're really stuck for opportunities to exercise for longer periods, don't worry. Breaking your exercise bouts down to as little as five minutes a time six times a day "is far better than nothing if that's what you can fit in", Dr Belton reassures. If you are breaking down your daily exercise into very small bouts of activity, make the best possible use of those minutes, she advises.

"It's important to remember the need for intensity of movement.

"These are minutes that count, so it's important to exercise hard enough that it makes you breathe a bit harder than normal and that your body temperatures increases slightly. That shows you're doing moderate to vigorous exercise!"

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