Whether you feel like an imposter in the weights section, or you’re worried you might make an injury worse — plenty of us can find exercise confusing or intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. Here’s what you need to know about the “right” way to get more physical activity for a longer, healthier life.
Anything is better than nothing
The right way to exercise is by starting. Physical activity is defined as any movement that requires a bit of energy expenditure. It could include incidental activity like cleaning the house and gardening, or activities that require more exertion like playing a sport or exercise. Exercise is a type of physical activity that is planned, structured and repetitive, with the goal of improved or maintained fitness. It could be a daily walk, exercise class or going to the gym.
You should aim to do some physical activity every day, a good goal is 30 minutes. Any movement is better than none so it’s ok to start small and work your way up to regular exercise. Everyone should reduce the amount of time they spend sitting or lying down for long periods and break it up with a bit of movement. This could be as simple as standing, stretching or going for a quick stroll.
What the guidelines recommend
The Australian physical activity and exercise guidelines recommend that over a week, adults aged 18 to 64 should aim to get 150 to 300 minutes (2½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1¼ to 2½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities. You should also incorporate strength training at least two days a week. Adults aged 65 and over should get 30 minutes of moderate activity per day, including activities that will work on fitness, strength, balance and flexibility.
Use the “talk test” to measure whether you’re meeting the recommended amount of moderate and vigorous movement. If you can talk without puffing while you’re moving, you’re exercising at a low intensity. If you can talk comfortably (but not sing) then you’re exercising at a moderate intensity. If you can’t manage to say more than a couple of words without pausing for breath, then you’re exercising at a vigorous intensity. Muscle strengthening activities can include resistance training using weights, resistance bands or body weight, carrying heavy loads or doing heavy yard work.
It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach
The guidelines are an important baseline but how you meet them should be personalised, whether that’s a week’s worth of yoga or a mix of workouts.
“In terms of ticking off what you need to do, it’s very much individualised to each person,” says Accredited Exercise Physiologist Sam Rooney. “Essentially you have the option to mix and match based on what you enjoy, what you have time for and what your ability allows.”
When finding physical activity that works for you, Rooney also says safety and sustainability is important.
“With social media there’s so much information out there and it can be hard to work out what is the best and what is legitimate,” Rooney says. “Often when it comes down to health and fitness basic is often best but unfortunately, it’s boring, so it doesn’t seem to get as much spotlight.”
Whether you’re running or cycling or doing the latest boxing class, if you’re moving and you’re hitting those guidelines then you’re getting the job done.
How to exercise right if you have a health issue
There’s a misconception that men dealing with a chronic condition or health concern can’t or shouldn’t exercise.
“There’s a misconception that they can't exercise, that it's dangerous or it's going to damage them and that's typically not true,” says Robert Newton, Professor of Exercise Medicine at Edith Cowan University. “If they remained sedentary all of their issues when they only get worse.”
“A lot of people tend to let injury and illness get in their way, especially as they age, the old stiff back or dodgy knee or something playing up, that can typically be overcome if you see the right person,” Rooney says. “Exercise is normally the answer to get rid of those niggles, same with a lot of medical conditions. It can help manage them if it’s done right.”
It’s a good idea to see your doctor before starting your physical activity program if you’re over 45, you’re at a higher risk of heart disease, or physical activity causes pain in your chest, severe dizziness or leaves you very breathless. Your GP can prepare a chronic disease management plan, which includes up to five consultations with an exercise physiologist to ensure you’re exercising safely and effectively.
The right exercise is also one you can stick with
Sustainability and consistency are important if you want to reap the rewards of physical activity and there are a few strategies that can help you keep up movement habits for the long-term.
Change your mindset
Do you consider exercise as optional extra rather than essential? It’s time to change that mindset and view movement as both preventative and a prescription for a range of health issues.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that exercise is leisure, that it’s a nice to do,” Prof Newton says. “The reality is that the opposite is true — being physically active is absolutely essential for maintaining health, mental and physical.”
Phone a friend
Training with a friend or group can help keep you accountable and stop you hitting the snooze button when you’d rather sleep in than sweat it out. If you’re new to exercise or it’s been a while, looking within your own network can be a great place to start.
“See what your friends are doing or what your co-workers are doing, talk to them about it because you’ll get a bit of insight on a personal level rather than a sales pitch level,” Rooney says. “If it’s something you can join in with you’re much more likely to enjoy it — we know exercising with a friend or in groups of people is much more enjoyable and sustainable.”
Get expert advice
“Some people use a trainer or exercise physiologist for the same reason, it’s for that accountability,” Rooney says. “Speaking to a professional, whether that’s attending a gym and meeting a exercise physiologist for a one-on-one appointment or whether that’s just reaching out to Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) to be pointed in the right direction. Someone who’s got the knowledge without the sales pitch.”
Set realistic goals
Strive for small, achievable goals and focus on measuring them over time rather than being driven by daily fluctuations.
“Whether that’s weight, or strength or how far and fast you can run,” Rooney says. “If you’ve had poor sleep, or stress or you haven’t eaten well the results are going to be very different on a day-to-day basis.”
Whether it’s social media or the people surrounding you, comparison can set you up for some unrealistic expectations when it comes to exercise.
“People often go ‘I’m doing all this exercise but that person is stronger than me or that person is fitter than me’ I always say look at where you started and look at where you are, if there’s some sort of progress, and if you’re consistent there will be, then you’re already winning,” Rooney says. “Just do what you do for yourself and enjoy the process.”