It won’t surprise you that some version of “exercising more” is on top of most everyone’s resolutions list. And it’s often the first intention to falter.
As per the Atomic Habits framework, one common mistake we make is setting the bar too high. Who doesn’t feel the motivation behind a “go big or go home” attitude at the outset of a new year? But one thing is for sure, sooner or later our motivation will falter, especially when it comes to exercise. When that happens, it is helpful to remind yourself that when in the context of longevity, the key goal is not to be a high-performance athlete, but to avoid inactivity.
Studies show a direct link between sedentarism and an increase in all-cause mortality, as well as the onset of chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Yet between the short/cold winter days and the continued need to live our lives largely via screens and from our homes, the risk of such inactivity is greater this year than ever.
So what amount of exercise do we need to at least counteract what may otherwise be a ‘lazy’ day? New research based on the tracker data of tens of thousands of individuals shows that about 35 minutes a day of brisk walking or other moderate activities is optimal for longevity outcomes, but even just 11 minutes a day of such exercise can combat the negative effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time. Knowing that you can lower the bar to 11 minutes and still be contributing to your health, drastically removes the friction to exercise on those low-motivation days.
In fact, you could even go further. A Norwegian study following 1,500 older adults (70 -77 years), for 5 years, found a slightly lower all-cause mortality trend in those subjects who performed 4 cycles of a 4-minute High-Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T) routine just two times a week when compared to a group that did low intensity exercise for half an hour each day and another one that performed moderate exercise for 50 minutes twice a week. As head researcher, Dr. Dorthe Stevenson, notes:
“We should [all] try to include some exercise with high intensity. Intervals are safe and feasible for most people. Adding life to years, not only years to life, is an important aspect of healthy aging, and the higher fitness and health-related quality of life from H.I.I.T. in this study is an important finding.”
Thankfully, there are lots of excellent, free video resources to help us implement such high-intensity 4-minute routines. Search for Tabata or HIIT on YouTube and you’ll stumble on a treasure trove; here’s a good one to start with.
Another way to remove friction to your exercise habit is to design your environment so that you are cued to perform it. If you’re working from home and at a desk all day, placing an under-desk exercise bike or elliptical might be great prompts to get you moving. There are many inexpensive options that would work even while watching TV.
Another approach is to focus on the positive expectation. For example, making the exercise fun like with the gamification of this plank board, might propel you to stick with it just a bit longer to beat your score from the day before.
Remember, building an exercise habit is a marathon, not a sprint. The key is to build it one bit a time. You’ve got this.