We all need a certain level of physical activity as adults. The World Health Organization (WHO) specifies that adults aged 18-64 need at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity over a week.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of time. Over seven days, you could exercise 30 minutes each weekday and still take weekends off to rest. Or you could exercise for an hour and 15 minutes on both weekends, and devote your weekdays entirely to your job.
But modern lifestyles are so busy that it’s never a simple matter of dividing your day into balanced periods of work, leisure, and rest. Working hours can run longer than usual, and work-related stress can spill over into your personal time.
This makes you feel the need to compensate by increasing passive forms of enjoyment, such as binge-watching, playing more video games, or indulging in junk foods. It becomes harder to find sufficient rest in your remaining time. It creates a negative spiral funneling you towards a sedentary existence.
When you fall into sedentary patterns, it can be hard to rouse yourself, even for half an hour each day. Gradual change can lead to sustained success. Here’s how to ease your way into a more active lifestyle.
Work in small change
In an age of instant gratification, many people are wired to make drastic changes. They feel motivated to take on tough challenges because the thought of being able to post impressive results on social media fuels their status drive with a dopamine hit.
Some people do succeed in extreme challenges. But they are the exceptions to the rule; countless others have tried the same and failed. Besides, if you go along with that sort of thinking, your motivation will be tied to external rewards rather than the inherent benefits of physical activity. It won’t sustain you when the validation from other people’s approval starts to wane.
Don’t try to overhaul every aspect of your lifestyle. Inject change in small doses, like a non-intrusive surgical procedure or a trenchless sewer repair. Find little opportunities that allow you to be more active.
Park farther from your destination, and cover the distance back and forth with a brisk walk; take the stairs instead of the elevator. Each of these seemingly minor tweaks to things you do every day will add a few minutes of more intense physical activity to an otherwise sedentary routine.
Lower the bar
Making small changes to your daily routine sounds easy enough, but does it make a difference? You might be tempted to time yourself, or get one of those activity-tracking apps or devices.
Put that impulse on hold for now. Remember, you’re starting from a baseline of zero. When you’re accustomed to a lifestyle that doesn’t involve any moderately intense physical activity, you have to aim even lower than the 150-minute target.
Psychologist and habit expert Dr. B.J. Fogg suggests that you implement change using a method of “tiny habits.” For instance, you could target doing four minutes of activity in the morning, and do sets of push-ups before you have breakfast or prepare for work. Once you hit the four-minute mark, you can stop, or you can continue if you feel up to it.
This tactic frees you up from the pressure of hitting 30 minutes each day. It reframes the situation. Instead of feeling like you’ve failed to meet the requirement, you feel good about having made some progress so early in the day. And you feel even better on those days when you exceed 4 minutes of morning push-ups.
Naturally, your tiny habits don’t have to involve push-ups. They can be anything that meets the definition of moderate intensity. What matters is that you enjoy the activity and consistently find opportunities to do it within the day.
Cementing those new habits can be done with a technique called habit stacking. It involves identifying your current behaviors and using them as the cues to trigger new ones.
For instance, if you check your mailbox every morning, you can tack on some exercise to that habit. Instead of walking, take a series of lunges across your yard. If you’d rather not look silly while the neighbors could be watching, you can tie exercise to your indoor chores instead. Every time you do the laundry, lift it several times for an overhead press.
Making these habits stick will give you a higher baseline of physical activity. It won’t be the full recommended level at the outset, but it will lead to sustained progress until you eventually get there and never look back.