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THE BALANCED LIFE | How do we get people to exercise more?

I heard her hit the floor so hard,” explains my friend Bill, “that I was afraid to turn around and look. She’s broken her shoulder at the least, maybe worse, were the fears streaming through my brain.

I heard her hit the floor so hard,” explains my friend Bill, “that I was afraid to turn around and look. She’s broken her shoulder at the least, maybe worse, were the fears streaming through my brain.”

Bill was dutifully doing the after-dinner dishes while his wife Joan (true story, fictitious names) was searching behind him in the cupboard above the fridge for a teapot. She was standing on a kitchen chair, likely on tip-toe, extending herself to the max to reach the teapot stuffed into the back of the cupboard. As she pulled it forward the teapot’s lid caught on something and dislodged. Her immediate reaction was to lunge for the falling lid. Joan lost her balance and fell to the floor, straight down, flat on her back. No gradual fall, no arms or legs extended to cushion the blow, just a single, sickeningly loud thud.

“By the time I turned around, she was already getting up, saying she was fine,” recounted Bill. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The fall occurred this year. Joan is 70 years old, and was diagnosed with osteoporosis in her mid-60s. At the time of her diagnosis seven years ago, Bill was completing physiotherapy to rehabilitate his rotator cuff. His therapy was successful in getting his range of motion back, but he had no strength in that arm or shoulder. The therapist recommended Brock’s SeniorFit program. Both Bill and Joan joined the program that year, he to gain strength, she to fight her osteoporosis, and they have been participants ever since.

The SeniorFit program is supervised by Brock Kinesiology students trained to teach a wide range of exercises tailored to participants’ needs, help with equipment usage, ensure safety, and answer any questions. Joan and Bill absolutely, 100-percent- without-a-doubt believe that Joan’s ability to survive her fall unscathed is due to her determined and unwavering participation in SeniorFit. Her program is specifically designed to increase bone density and strength.

During these seven years, they have become close with the professors, staff and many students in Brock’s Kinesiology department, and were asked to do a presentation to the students about their experiences, followed by a question-and-answer session.

“The first question the students asked was ‘How do we get people to begin an exercise program,’” said Bill. He and Joan had no answer, and the students asked the question because they too didn’t understand why so many of us simply don’t commit to some sort of regular exercise.

We all know the benefits of physical activity, both as individuals and to our community. The topic has been the subject of many Balanced Life columns. Succinctly, active individuals reduce their morbidity, that debilitating period we endure between good physical and mental health and death. Canada as a community would benefit from a more active population by saving billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

Then why-oh-why does Statistics Canada report that only 52 percent of those aged 40 to 59, and just one third of us aged 60 to 79 participate in the minimum 150 minutes of moderate (walking a dog that doesn’t stop at every fire hydrant; or doubles tennis) or vigorous (hiking, shoveling, cycling quickly, or singles tennis) physical activity recommended by Canada Health?

The top three reasons offered for not exercising are a perceived lack of time, the fear of participating or inability to participate because of exercise-related injuries, and the belief or experience that exercise simply is not enjoyable.

So is there an answer to the students’ questions? How can we encourage family, friends, and our community to exercise more, and stick with it?

A promotional piece by Victoria State (Australia) Public Health designed to encourage active lifestyles begins with, “If you find something that you enjoy and that makes you feel good and you can easily fit in your day-to-day living, you’re more likely to make a sustainable change.”

There is no one-size-fits-all way to guide, assist, cajole or coerce someone into becoming more active. Interfering in another’s health or lifestyle decisions is precarious business. Comments intended to empower and inspire a friend by encouraging more activity may be misinterpreted as reflections on their current perceived incompetence, adding unnecessary pressure, or causing them to avoid an activity completely.

No one responds to nagging, shaming, or lecturing. Quietly being a role model, being seen to passionately enjoy the participation and benefits of being active, can set the tone. Whether it’s a simple activity such as walking or hiking, or a more competitive option like playing a sport or game, invite others to join you without pressure or coercion.

The key is to meet people where they are, not to drag them to where you might be. It will be very difficult for anyone to stick with a fresh fitness plan if they don’t enjoy what they are doing.

It will be very difficult for anyone to stick with a fresh fitness plan if they don’t enjoy what they are doing

If you’re a gym rat but your friend enjoys the outdoors, begin with a walk along a rocky Niagara escarpment trail. They’ll be increasing cardio, muscle strength and mental agility without the stress of being on a massive metal weight machine crammed amongst a half dozen Arnold Schwarzeneggers in a sweaty gym.

Is your friend a morning person, yet you enjoy ending your day with a home workout while watching the National at 9 PM? Changing your workout schedule to match theirs will significantly increase the likelihood they’ll stick with you and a routine, and the fact you’ve made the adjustment quietly indicates how much you value them as an exercise partner and want to see them succeed.

Don’t forget the power of technology. There are people who are motivated to fitness activities simply so they can justify trading their Tissot or Cartier watches for Fitbit, Garmin, or Fossil health trackers.

Personal and group support for those just beginning to exercise is important in a variety of ways. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are necessary.

Personal support can be praise (keep it genuine) for their positive accomplishments, noticing they have extra energy, or their commitment to a fitness goal. Stay away from the appearance rabbit hole unless the person themselves have clearly indicated a change of appearance is one of their goals. The risk is making them feel inadequate about their previous or not-quite complete change of appearance, or worse yet, misreading that they are beginning an exercise program for health reasons and are quite happy with their current appearance. Ouch.

Concentrate instead on sharing your feelings and health benefits; how great post-workout endorphins make you feel, how well you sleep, and how much energy you now have.

Group support may include training together for a charity run or ride, or sharing an activity like the previously mentioned SeniorFit with others. I recall helping with weekly “training” sessions designed to assist new cyclists ascend the hills they would encounter during The Big Move, and being amazed at how quickly and how much the participants began to encourage and commit to each other. Turning over a new fitness leaf by entering an event provides a motivating timeline to achieve you goals as well.

Don’t overlook competitiveness as a driver. A chess freak or trivia nut may relate to physical activity which has a competitive angle like games and sports, or find an intrinsic challenge in meeting personal goals for the number of push-ups or distance they can run.

Regardless of why someone might decide to become more active, or initiate a fitness regime, recommend that they start gradually and with moderate activities, and keep workouts short. Being successful at entry-level goals builds self-efficacy, that belief that you have the capacity to execute whatever behaviours are necessary to attain specific future performance goals. Reducing the initial time commitment is a proven way to help those new to fitness stay motivated and continue to participate.

There is no doubt that encouraging those around us to adopt a fitness plan also provides satisfaction to those doing the encouraging. We’ve been there, we have seen the benefits, and it feels good to know we may have helped someone enjoy life more.

As the old maxim says, “I don’t exercise to add years to my life, I exercise to add life to my years.”