How Exercise Makes You Better at Life

But I don’t have time. It’s the most common excuse you hear for not engaging in regular physical activity. While this may be true if you are working multiple jobs and struggling to meet your basic needs, it is simply not true for the majority of people. A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked a diverse sample of 32,000 Americans about the use of their time. It found that, on average, Americans have more than 4.5 hours per day of leisure time, the vast majority of which is spent sitting in front of screens. This finding was consistent across income, age, gender, and ethnicity.

Even if you insist that you are too busy to move your body because you work an important and intense job, it’s worth re-framing physical activity not as something you do separate from your job, but rather as an integral part of it.

Why? Research shows that regular physical activity increases creative thinking and problem solving, improves mood and emotional control, enhances focus and energy, and promotes quality sleep. There is no line of work that doesn’t benefit from these attributes.

Consider a study from Stanford University that asked participants to engage in mentally fatiguing tasks. One group took a break during which the participants sat and stared at a wall. Another group went on a six- to 15-minute walk during their break. Afterwards, both groups were tested for their creative insight. The participants who took the short walk demonstrated a 40-percent increase in creative insight over those who didn’t. And this effect isn’t confined to adults. Other studies have found that when youth engage in regular physical activity, their academic performance improves.

If movement could be bottled and sold in pill form it would be a trillion-dollar blockbuster drug—used for everything from enhancing performance to improving well-being to preventing and treating disease.

In addition to facilitating your brain’s performance today, physical activity simultaneously helps your brain perform better tomorrow. Movement promotes long-term brain development by triggering the release of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is like fertilizer for the brain. It fuels a process called neurogenesis, which spawns new brain cells and makes connections between them. The link between physical activity and BDNF helps explain mounting evidence that regular movement prevents and delays cognitive decline. To date, there is no better prevention for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s than regular physical activity. In short, if movement could be bottled and sold in pill form it would be a trillion-dollar blockbuster drug—used for everything from enhancing performance to improving well-being to preventing and treating disease.

It is for all these reasons that I prioritize physical activity in my coaching practice, and why I made it a pillar of staying grounded during frenetic times. Once my clients begin to view physical activity as an essential part of their jobs, they are more likely to make it a regular part of their lives. This shift in mindset provides them with both the permission and motivation to spend time moving their bodies. They go from seeing movement as something that is purely self-serving to seeing it as indispensable.

Shifting your mindset to view exercise as a part of your job is a good start, but you still need to execute on it. There are two main ways to integrate movement into your life: You can set aside a protected time for physical activity such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, gardening, climbing, dancing, going to the gym, or yoga. Or you can build movement into the regular flow of your day.

At a minimum, you want to be consistent about at least one of these ways. Ideally, you’ll use a combination of both. When it comes to movement, my golden rule is: Move your body often, sometimes hard; every bit counts.

The following practices will help you to integrate movement into your day and also learn how to get the most out of formal periods of exercise.

Practice: Move Throughout the Day

That we even need to “exercise” is a recent phenomenon. Before the industrial revolution, we worked on farms. And before that we were hunters and gatherers. If you think of the human species up to this point as existing over a 24-hour, it wasn’t until 11:58 p.m. that we stopped moving regularly. We’d be wise to get back to the basics of our species, even if only in small spurts throughout the day.

For a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers from the University of Colorado and the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute set out to test the effects of a variety of movement protocols on office workers. The participants came to a lab in which they simulated a six-hour workday under three conditions: During one visit, participants sat for the entire six hours other than to take bathroom breaks. During another visit, the participants went on a 30-minute walk to begin the day, and then sat for five and a half hours consecutively (again, getting up only for bathroom breaks). In the third visit, participants walked for five minutes every hour, in essence repeating cycles of sitting and working for fifty-five minutes and then walking for five.

The Practice of Groundedness is available wherever books are sold.

Participants fared better on nearly all measures of well-being and performance when they had some kind of movement baked into their day, whether it was a single thirty-minute walk or six five-minute walks. Their self-reported mood and energy levels were higher, and their biological markers of health were better. There were some differences between the two movement conditions, though. During the simulated workday that included repeated five-minute walks, the participants reported greater overall satisfaction and more energy. They also reported feeling more consistently upbeat throughout the day, whereas on the day participants took a single thirty-minute walk, their energy peaked earlier. The researchers concluded that while all movement is good movement, breaking up your day with five-minute bouts was the best overall.

The aforementioned studies focused on walking, but there seems to be no reason that the same benefits wouldn’t be true for other forms of movement, such as push-ups, squats, or yoga. Whether done in two-minute, five-minute, or ten-minute bursts, the message is clear: movement throughout the day adds up—every bit counts.

Practice: Get Aerobic

Aerobic fitness refers to your body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently. Higher levels of aerobic fitness are associated with just about every positive physical and mental health outcome imaginable. Though it’s easy to get excited about the latest and greatest trends, from high-intensity interval training to ultramarathons, at the end of the day, regular brisk walking gets you most, if not all, of the way there—fit for a long, healthy, and satisfying life. This was the conclusion in a special edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) in 2019 that was dedicated to walking.

The main study in the BJSM issue surveyed more than fifty thousand walkers in the United Kingdom across a variety of ages. It found that regularly walking at an average, brisk, or fast pace was associated with a 20-percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 24-percent reduction in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Another 2019 study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined nearly 140,000 men and women in the United States and concluded that walking briskly for at least 150 minutes per week was linked to the same 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.

Walking has also been compared to more intense forms of exercise, like running. Though experts believe running may be marginally better for you, that’s only if you run regularly and you don’t get injured, the latter of  which more than 50 percent of runners (me included) have struggled. If you enjoy and are able to stick to more strenuous forms of aerobic physical activity, by all means, do those. Regular running, cycling, swimming, and dancing are all extremely beneficial. But do not fret if you find yourself frequently injured or lacking the time, equipment, access, or motivation to participate in higher-intensity activities. If you walk regularly over the course of your lifetime, there’s compelling evidence that it might be the only aerobic exercise you need.

Practice: Strength Training

Contrary to what you may think, strength training is not just for the tank-topped muscle heads at your local gym—it’s for everyone. Some of the largest research consortiums, such as the American Heart Association, recommend strength training at least twice a week regardless of age or gender. As with aerobic movement, in addition to supporting increased muscle mass, lower body fat, and better range of motion, strength training also promotes sound mental health and cognitive performance.

While strength training can be undertaken at a gym and involve all kinds of equipment, for many people that environment is intimidating, at least at first. The good news is you don’t need to have a gym membership to strength train. There are plenty of movements that can be performed with a twenty-five-dollar kettlebell or nothing but your own body weight.

Taken together, these movements work all the major muscle groups, use your full range of motion, and can easily be adapted to different environments and fitness and skill levels. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I—and many of my coaching clients—did variations of these movements for multiple months at home or outdoors in uncrowded spaces. You can do a few sets of each individually or combine them in a circuit. If you have a kettlebell or weights, you can add those if you wish to increase the challenge.

  • Squats
  • Push-ups
  • Step-ups
  • Lunges
  • Glute raises
  • Wall sits
  • Planks
  • Sit-ups
  • Dips
  • Curls (if you don’t have a weight you can use a full backpack)
  • Burpees

This was excerpted from The Practice of Groundedness, by Brad Stulberg. It is available wherever books are sold.

Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of  Peak Performance and co-founder of The Growth Equation.

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