Thinking about making exercise part of your life? Just lace up your shoes and get out there, and don’t give your brain time to hem and haw about it.
That’s what successful middle-aged exercisers say they do. Their approach is outlined in May’s issue of Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
In the words of two women in the study: “I don’t think about it. Just do it,” and “If you think about it, you can talk yourself out of it.”
Active people ignored their brain’s chatter and made exercise a non-negotiable part of their day, write researchers from Canada’s University of Alberta, including Sandra O’Brien Cousins, PhD, professor emeritus of physical education and recreation.
Everyone’s Got an Excuse
Cousins and colleagues heard everything but “the dog ate my sneakers” in their in-depth phone interviews about exercise with 40 Canadians (20 men and 20 women) aged 42-77.
Job pressures, tired feet, health concerns, age, boredom, bad weather, and even worries about a flasher in the neighborhood were cited by participants.
It’s not that the exercisers had fewer stresses. They just worked out anyway, without thinking about it. They even avoided mental pep talks about fitness, deciding to be active, no matter what crossed their minds.
“Active people claimed that they, or someone else, could easily talk themselves out of their planned and regular physical activity” says the study.
Physical inactivity has been associated with the risk of obesity and chronic medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Few Americans are exercising these days — at work or in their leisure time. A national health objective for 2010 is to decrease the rates of no leisure-time physical activity to 20%. According to the CDC, the prevalence of no leisure-time physical activity peaked in 1989 at approximately 32% and was stable until 1996, after which it declined an average of 1% per year to 25% in 2002.
Younger participants were more active than older ones. Middle-aged men had more physically demanding jobs and therefore only contemplated leisure-time physical activity. Middle-aged women were more active in getting leisure-time exercise.
Health and self-care were strong motivators for women age 40-55. They said they wanted to enjoy exercise and feel successful at it.
One woman said she exercised first thing in the morning “so that you can’t talk yourself out of it.” Another said she wished her husband would come along but exercised by herself anyway.
Age could be an obstacle or an inspiration. “As you get older, your health gets worse, so you have got to keep up activities to stay healthy,” one woman said.
Middle-Aged Men: Good Intentions
The middle-aged men in the survey could be best described as “high active” at work and “low active” at play, says Cousins.
Men knew about the benefits of exercise. They said they wanted challenge, adventure, and goals, even if a little pain was involved. But work, family, tiredness, and commitments got in the way.
“It’s easier to sit around,” said one man. Another said society’s high speed made him want to slow down in his free time.
Several men were “intenders,” say the researchers. For instance, one man had positive, detailed ideas about taking up his old hobby — horseback riding — but he said he needed “the adrenaline rush in order to want to do it again.”
That’s not to say that all men were idle. “The pros of physical activity far outweigh any cons that may arise and actually, I don’t say anything — I just do it,” said one active man. “I don’t stop myself from doing anything.”
Older Women’s Outlook
Procrastination was expressed by seven out of 10 women age 56 or older. “I should do this; it would be good for me,” one woman said.
“But older women were mainly thinking about it and were not setting definite plans to participate,” says the study.
Declining health, crime, big dogs, and age were some of the obstacles cited by the older women. Some also said they were afraid to overdo it.
A 79-year-old woman who skied and played tennis in her youth blamed her inactivity on “laziness of age.” Another 79-year-old woman said she tried to walk her dog for 20 minutes per day and do posture exercises but only did so “spasmodically.”
Now, she’s due to change her ways. “I’m supposed to be starting these special classes for heart attack victims soon,” she told the researchers.
One older woman was highly active. “I am happy with the way I am,” the 77-year-old said. Another woman — who used to swim and play tennis — said her health was good but her friends are “too slow” to keep up with her.
“Anyone with brains knows you need to get up and move when you are old, especially now that you hear so much about it,” said the 77-year-old.
“You need to be active,” she continued. “Maybe in the time of my mother they didn’t care about their figures or knew that being heavy is bad for you. They never went and walked around the block or anything. They just sat around.”
‘Investment Talk’ From Older Men
Men age 56 and older tended to be skeptical that they could benefit from exercise at their age, says the study.
“They seemed to assume self-stereotypes about being too old, and cannot see the point of investing time and effort in exercise by that time of life,” write the researchers.
Many studies have shown that it’s never too late to reap the rewards of exercise, which may help the heart, bones, and brain, as well as the muscles and waistline. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.