How to Overcome the Biggest Hurdle to Getting Active

Sometimes I hate scientific studies.

More specifically, I hate how the popular media writes about them.

Longtime readers know I’ve railed against this many times. The recent one involved the ridiculous story about how no amount of alcohol is safe.

And this week I found another “groan worthy” headline: “You really, really want to go to the gym but still avoid it. New research may explain why.”

That’s courtesy of the Washington Post. But dozens of other news outlets have similar takes on this new study out of the University of British Columbia.

Researchers designed a study to focus on something called the “exercise paradox.”

The idea comes from how so many people want to exercise and understand that it’s essential for a healthy lifestyle. Yet many of these folks don’t follow through.

The researchers proposed that it’s because the brain wants to conserve energy, so it chooses the path of least resistance, so to speak.

Participants submitted to monitoring with an electroencephalogram, or “EEG.” This machine tracks the energy impulses in your brain. The participants then used a computer program to move a person toward images representing either physical activity or inactivity. So think about moving a simulated person toward a picture of cycling or watching TV.

What the EEG recorded surprised the researchers. When folks selected the physical activities as instructed, even if they were active themselves in real life, they had higher electrical activity. In other words, their brains had to work harder to make the decision for physical activity. They didn’t see this when folks selected the sedentary activities in the same setting.

Although this is a novel study, it really doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: You can’t blame your brain, only your own lack of motivation.

Whether our brains choose to conserve energy as a byproduct of evolution or as a consequence of today’s sedentary society doesn’t matter. What matters is that we must overcome it.

You see, motivation is the key that these articles overlook. In fact, electrical and hormonal impulses in our brains feed our motivation loops. If you push yourself to exercise, you create dopamine, which in turn feeds your motivation. Exercise also stimulates serotonin release, which increases feelings of happiness. It’s why runners often report a “runner’s high” – they have lots of these hormones pumping through their brains.

Plenty of exercises provide health benefits. Everything from stronger bones to weight loss and cardiovascular health improves with movement. Here are a few favorites I’ve recommended over the years…

1. Walking. Just 30 minutes a day helps stabilize blood sugar, strengthen your cardiovascular system, and improve your brain function. Keep a moderate pace and get outdoors if you can, so you make use of that sunshine to get some vitamin D. If you can’t do a full 30 minutes, break it up during the day – try a short walk at lunch and one after dinner.

2. Yoga. I love yoga for its ability to combine flexibility with balance training and mindfulness breathing. Working on balance and strength helps reduce fall risk. Plus, yoga reduces stress and anxiety – a growing problem we’ve discussed before (read more here).

3. Racket sports. Playing sports like tennis, badminton, and squash offers a great boost to your health.

A nine-year study from the U.K. surveyed more than 80,000 adults about their health annually, including how often they participated in certain sports. Researchers accounted for factors like long-term illness, diagnosed heart disease, and alcohol use. They still found a link between sports and longevity.

Those who participated in racket sports had a 47% lower risk of premature death. Swimming and aerobics came with 28% and 27% lower risks, respectively. Researchers say the numbers reflect an overall lower chance of early death if folks participate in aerobic-type exercises like these.

4. Dancing. I’ve written before that I’m a dancing fool. And for good reason… Dancing works as great aerobic exercise. Plus, it offers a great boost for keeping our brains sharp. That’s because keeping the rhythm and remembering routines helps work our memories and reflex responses. It also provides a way to socialize and fight loneliness, a contributing factor for dementia.

In fact, a 21-year-long study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a link between dancing and dementia risk. The study found that frequent dancers had a lower risk of dementia. That’s compared with folks who engaged in other leisure activities like biking or swimming.

My point is, headlines like these don’t let you off the hook from exercising. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and start improving your health today.

What We’re Reading…

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 27, 2018