I was lucky this year to take my family to visit my sister over spring break. She and I were reminiscing about the (more challenging) times when our kids were babies and she mentioned a routine that got me thinking. After her daughter was born, she decided to go outside with her every day for at least 15 minutes. She saw this as an opportunity for a daily change of scenery and much needed activity. On the days when they went outside, they would have a “good day,” in which she recalls feeling refreshed and in good spirits. On the days she did not get out, she describes feeling stressed and confined. Those 15 minutes of getting outside for some fresh air and movement made a world of difference in her life and that of her family.
Movement is one of the pillars of health. Physical activity is essential, yet it is often overlooked as a necessity and underappreciated as a medical intervention. Physical activity has innumerable health benefits and should be encouraged for everyone. Exercise, a structured and purposeful form of movement, is often recommended only for weight loss. Although physical activity can help with weight control, exercise and movement in general serve a more profound role than managing a number on the scale. In addition to improving signs and symptoms of numerous chronic medical problems, physical activity has been shown to simply improve quality of life. When physical activity is embraced as part of a regular routine and becomes an important part of a person’s life, that is when the vast benefits are truly realized.
We humans are not meant to be sedentary. Sedentary behavior is the time we spend sitting or lying down and too much of it is associated a shorter life expectancy. The good news? Physical activity helps you live longer. Physical activity improves attention and memory. It decreases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Physical activity reduces the risk and symptoms of depression. It reduces anxiety and helps manage the symptoms of chronic problems such as fibromyalgia and sleep disorders. Regular physical activity decreases blood pressure, cholesterol, and the chance of developing type 2 diabetes. If you are physically active, you are less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Physical activity even decreases your risk of cancer.
There is not one form of activity or exercise that is overall superior to another. Many organizations have published guidelines regarding physical activity. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for adults, spread throughout the week. They suggest increasing aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes a week for additional health benefits and muscle-strengthening activities twice a week. How you specifically get this physical activity, however, is less important. Any amount of physical activity is better than no physical activity but, in general, the more you do the greater the benefit. Find what works for you, your life, and your schedule. Look for the kind of activity that is sustainable and will become meaningful to you. Take a walk with your significant other after dinner and catch up on your day. Walk your dog. Wake up early and meet your friends to walk the neighborhood and visit. Join a gym if that excites you. Find the local community of runners. Try a yoga class. Swim. Mix and match your activities. Rather than planning an exercise regimen, think about just getting moving. One size does not fit all when it comes to physical activity. The important part is that you DO it…whatever that may look like in your life.
Physical activity is a great way to spend time in nature. It is easy to become disconnected from nature in our modern lifestyle, but time spent outdoors has proven to be beneficial to our health. Hospital patients with views of nature have better medical and surgical outcomes. Research has shown that as little as 5 minutes in nature improves self-esteem and mood. Blending exercise with time in nature can make it all the more enjoyable. Physical activity outside can strengthen the body and lift the spirit.
Now that Spring has arrived, I encourage you to embrace your physical ability, whether you are already in a routine or need to get started. I am reminded of the quote “exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate.” Recognize that being active is about health, longevity, productivity, and mental clarity. Being active is a gift, not to mention a really cheap medicine. Allow yourself to create a new habit and reap the health benefits that regular physical activity has to offer.
Dr. Nicole Cotter is a board-certified Integrative Medicine doctor in Shreveport, Louisiana. She graduated from LSU School of Medicine. She completed residency in Internal Medicine and fellowships in both Rheumatology and Integrative Medicine. She is the owner of Integrative Medicine of Shreveport-Bossier (www.integrativemedicinesb.com), a consultative practice where she partners with patients to create personalized health plans that integrate complementary medicine with conventional to care for the whole person.