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Why Be Physically Active?

It’s pretty hard not to have heard that there are “physical activity guidelines”, and that we should all be doing regular moderate or vigorous activity to benefit our health.

And this is true.

Our bodies are meant to be mobile - even our brains function better when our bodies are active. It’s not just our heart or lungs, but also our thoughts and feelings.

This is powerful medicine. If a pharmaceutical company could put exercise in a pill it would be the most expensive pill they ever put on the market - because it would put a lot of their other products out of business.

And there, in fact, lies one of the reasons why our focus on activity is a little out of whack. There’s money to be made out of people who want to lose weight. So there are countess advertising campaigns selling exercise programs as weightloss tools… and even more campaigns selling tablets or shakes or secret herbs that will zap the fat faster or better or more easily.

It all soaks into our minds whether we want it or not.

But what if there’s a better reason for being active?

Can we throw out the damn scales?

What is exercise even achieving if it isn’t weight loss or the subtly sneakier “avoid putting weight on”?

What if we set our goals on how ABLE we are?

Can we be active simply because we want being active to be easier? Because then all the regular things we have to do every day will be easier too. We have bags to carry and buses to rush for and kids to scoop up, and we expect to keep doing those things and lots more for many years. Our ability to be physically active makes all those things easier.

There’s a whole lot of health benefits for getting active. The truth is, “because it will make life easier” is a little bit hard to pin down with statistics. So here are some of the researched and proven benefits - and keep in mind these are benefits of engaging in regular physical activity. This list is NOT about results of weight management.

Regular physical activity can:

  • Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes,

  • Reduce incidence of hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Reduce the risk of cancers, particularly breast and colon cancers

  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke

But wait, there's more! Some things don't fit neatly on a list. Here are a few that need whole sentences :)

1. A physically active person who does have a cardiac event is more likely to survive and recover well afterward.

2. We know from many studies that regular physical activity improves both short-term and long-term psychosocial wellbeing - it reduces feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. It’s not one-size-fits-all, but there is good evidence that activity can directly reduce symptoms of depression.

3. Physical activity can cause the release of endorphins, which can improve mood. (This may be part of how it reduces depression, but the effect on depression is more than just endorphins.)

4. The risk factors for chronic diseases include things we cannot change, like our age, family history and gender. But physical activity is a risk factor that we can change, and studies have found that the benefits start to kick in relatively quickly.

5. In addition to prevention of disease, physical activity may provide extra benefits for those who are already suffering from chronic health conditions. In some conditions, regular activity can stop the symptoms getting worse.

6. Some of the biggest health gains are made by people who change from being inactive to engaging in moderate amounts of physical activity. So this is not just for "athletes", and it's not about pushing yourself super-hard. Researchers have concluded that simple activities such as walking for half an hour a day on five days a week may increase life expectancy by up to 3 years.

7. Continuing physical activity into old age improves independent mobility. Maintaining strength and balance reduces the risk of falling, which prevents fractures and other injuries. It is much easier to maintain these abilities, than to try to improve them after a lack of activity has allowed them to fade.

(Benefits data checked against Australian Medical Association Statements.)

Clearly, being active is good for humans. I think everyone knows this, even without five dot-points and a numbered list of reasons. But I also think we could maybe use a little encouragement. Does thinking about the national health costs of a sedentary lifestyle get many people out for a walk? I don't think so.

There's a rising recognition of the importance of self-care, and that's where we need to find our peace with movement. Take a walk because the park smells so much nicer than the office. Join a dance class for the delight of talking to adults who aren't just giving you another job to do. Swim because earplugs let you tune out and ignore the busy world for a while.

Maybe it isn't about finding an exercise we love, so much as finding an activity that shows some love to ourselves.

But I digress. The question was, why be physically active? The answer, in my opinion, is not just the long list of known physical and mental benefits. It's that all those things and more can be bundled up and served in one phrase: it will make our life easier.

Being active makes us better at being active. Moving makes us better at moving. When we are good at things, we find them easy. What we do every day will be easier, starting now. And it will become more obvious the older we get, when we are doing our grocery shopping at 85 because our body is used to walking and carrying... so it isn't too hard for us.

Moving more than we have to makes it easier to do the things we have to do.

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