Is Exercise a dirty word?

In my clinical practice, I place a great emphasis on the need for people to undertake a healthy lifestyle. One of the key pillars of a healthy lifestyle is exercise.

Is Exercise a dirty word?

In my clinical practice, I place a great emphasis on the need for people to undertake a healthy lifestyle. One of the key pillars of a healthy lifestyle is exercise. In the past, whenever I would mention the word exercise I would often see the body cringe, people averting eye contact, pushing further back in their chair or even crossing their arms in front of them. Why does the word exercise generate such strong effects in some people? Is it because people have a picture of exercise in their mind, an unrealistic ideal of sunburnt muscular bodies, toiling in a gym with barbells and dumbbells? Is it because people have tried to engage in gym-based exercise and ‘failed’ due to muscle strains, lack of mentoring or motivation? The answer is perhaps different for each person but I feel for many, using the word ‘exercise’ can be a negative rather than positive aspect of medical consultation.

Regular physical activity can bring many health benefits

Exercise is often defined as planned and repetitive physical activity for the purpose of conditioning part of the body, improving health or maintaining fitness. The language we use as health care practitioners can have an unwanted impact in certain situations and exercise is a classic example. I have learnt that talking to people about their level of physical activity is a much more helpful approach.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by muscles that require energy expenditure. This is an important concept as physical inactivity is thought to be responsible for 6% of deaths globally. Indeed, physical inactivity is thought to be a risk factor for many chronic conditions including diabetes, hypertension and ischaemic heart disease.

Physical activity is a much broader definition of activity and includes exercise, working, house chores, walking and recreation.

Regular physical activity can bring many health benefits including:

  • reduced risk for chronic conditions (including breast and colon cancer)
  • increased mental wellbeing
  • improved bone health
  • energy expenditure which may help with weight reduction or maintenance

A conversation with someone about increasing their physical activity is much more effective than trying to convince someone to increase, or start doing exercise.

Shopping at the market healthy vegetables and fruits

Increasing physical activity is simple. All it requires is understanding a few concepts:

  • doing any physical activity is better than doing none
  • try to be active on most days of the week
  • aim for 150-300 minutes moderate-intensity physical activity OR, 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week
  • do muscle-strengthening activities 2 days per week

(Ref: Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines 2014)

Moderate intensity activities take effort to do, but you are able to talk while doing them. Examples include brisk walks, household chores and light gardening. Vigorous-intensity activities require more effort, make you breathe harder and you are usually unable to talk while doing them. Examples include jogging, cycling, and heavy gardening. Muscle-strengthening activities include household chores that involve lifting, gardening (digging) or bodyweight exercises (push-ups, squats, etc.).

The key is to be active. Alarmingly, 56% of Australians are reported to have low or zero levels of physical activity. Make a positive move today and start being active. You don’t need to exercise to be physically active.

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About the author

Dr Roy is a medical practitioner with over 25 years’ experience working in tertiary and primary care. He previously trained and worked in Victoria but currently resides in tropical north Queensland, teaching the next generation of doctors.  He is passionate about education, for health care profes ... more

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