A recent surgeon general report indicates 60 percent of American adults do not exercise regularly and 25 percent do not exercise at all. This seems somewhat surprising, since a preference for a sedentary lifestyle is not an innate human trait.
As we all know, most children are quite active, sometimes even too energetic. While in high school, the majority of students are still reasonably mobile, but then activity starts to stall after graduation. Experts studying this slowdown have reported their findings in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Those who enter college become less active during their first year; reasons include time constraints, pressure of classes and befriending less active individuals. In addition, some high school athletes may not be gifted enough to compete on a college level, so they give up training and quickly put on weight, known as the “freshman 15.”
Those who do not attend college seem to follow a similar downward spiral. In fact, researchers discovered that almost any alteration of a life situation was associated with a decrease in exercise. This occurred when people got their first job, changed jobs, got married or had children. Exercise was often the first thing eliminated from the schedule when people became busy.
Psychologists have found that individuals who set “goal-intentions” (“I will exercise in my free time.”) often fail to succeed. The problem stems from goals that are too general and easy to put off. Much more useful are “implementation intention” goals that are specific and difficult to avoid, such as “I will walk on the treadmill 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” As a result, exercise becomes a fixed part of your routine and as automatic as brushing your teeth.
One’s surroundings can also greatly influence the workout experience. Exercising indoors and alone can be calming for some, whereas outdoor workouts, while engaged in conversation, are energizing and enjoyable for others. Some prefer to plan their own regimens, while others like having a personal trainer guide and motivate them. Many find music or TV help make the experience enjoyable and time pass more quickly.
Exercise must be consciously planned and inserted into our lives, if we are to avoid joining the culture of inactivity. Anthropologists tell us our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to walk up to 20 miles a day to survive. The muscles in our bodies are designed for movement, so don’t let them deteriorate into useless flab.
Dr. Graceffo is a retired psychiatrist and nationally ranked distance runner. His column appears weekly in The New Times.