The what, why and how of exercise for men

People exercise for many reasons, and at varying levels of intensity. Some love going full-tilt with triathlons, marathons or weightlifting. Others love playing team sports, while some prefer swimming, yoga, Pilates or simply walking. 

Current Australian health guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week. However, less than half of the Australian population do enough exercise to maintain good health.

The health benefits of exercising are broad and well-known – let’s explore them.

Benefits of exercise

After cigarette smoking, physical inactivity is the most important factor you can change to lower your risk of chronic disease, including some cancers.

Research shows more physical activity throughout life:

  • Reduces the likelihood of early death caused by cardiovascular disease
  • Reduces the number of new cases of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
  • Lowers body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Reduces the risk of, and helps to recover from, some cancers

People who are not active are almost twice as likely to die from a heart attack compared to those who are active.

Exercise can also help boost your mood, reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and even improve your sleep.

So, it sounds like physical activity should be on everyone’s to-do list, but many still struggle to start, or commit to, an exercise program. 

Barriers to exercise, and how to overcome them

According to Better Health Victoria, the most common reasons given by men for not being physically active are: insufficient time because of work or study commitments, lack of interest, age (‘I’m too old’) and ongoing injuries or illness.

All those reasons have merit, so how do you overcome them?

Healthdirect — Australia’s national virtual public health information service — suggests the following ways to break through any barriers you come up against.

  • Motivation: You may struggle with motivation for exercise. Start slowly, set small goals, and use a mood monitor to keep track of any change in your mood.
  • Cost: Local community centres often have affordable exercise groups. And if you have private health insurance, you might get financial assistance for gym membership.
  • Anxiety or feeling intimidated: You might feel uncomfortable joining a group exercise class. This is perfectly normal. Take a friend with you for the first time, or download an app to exercise in your own home.
  • Time: If you are short on time, break exercise into small chunks. Instead of doing 30 minutes in one go, do three lots of 10 minutes in a day.
  • Physical: If physical obstacles such as injuries are making it difficult to exercise, you may benefit from seeing a health and exercise professional

How can people in regional or remote areas overcome barriers to exercise?

People who live in regional or remote areas often face an additional barrier — access to things like fitness centres, sporting teams to join or training partners to work up a sweat with.

However, there are still many ways to be physically active outside of a city, says Rob Newton, a Professor of Exercise Medicine at Edith Cowan University.

“Really safe and effective exercise does not require fancy equipment and expensive gym memberships,” Newton says. “A great exercise program can be set up using no equipment, or items which are readily available at home. For example, I recommend using an old backpack and filling it with plastic bags full of sand or gravel so you can adjust the weight and then use it as resistance. Backpacks are generally strong and have numerous handles, so it is easy to hold them in different ways for a very large range of strength training exercises.

“Very effective strength training can be performed with just your body weight, such as squats, lunges, push-ups etc., and this will produce improvements in muscle size and strength. You can then add further resistance as you become stronger using equipment such as the weighted backpack or other resistance such as dumbbells or barbells.

“Aerobic training can include walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming, rowing etc., which can be performed anywhere there is open space. 
“And for those with access to the internet, there is a huge resource of exercise programs and apps for your smartphone or tablet (which) includes strength training, aerobic training, yoga and even meditation and relaxation. 

“Access and bandwidth to the internet can be an issue for those in rural and remote areas, however, exercise programs can be developed by fitness professionals or even an accredited exercise physiologist and sent to you via email or even post. Accredited exercise physiologists can be found through Exercise & Sport Science Australia, and many will provide telehealth consultations which may be rebatable through Medicare.”

What types of exercise should you do?

The good news is, you can choose whatever you like! 

You don’t need to be a 'gym junkie' to improve your health — while gyms suit some people, they're not for everyone. The most effective way to stick to an exercise routine is by choosing movement you enjoy and that works the major muscle groups — it could be playing cricket, surfing, running with music, or going on a long hike.

Whatever activities you do participate in, try to make it a consistent part of your life. In Exercise & Sports Science Australia’s Exercise and Men’s Health eBook, it’s stated that adults (aged 18–64) should be active most days, preferably every day. Each week, men should try to do:

  • 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity (i.e. a brisk walk, round of golf, or swimming),
  • 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous physical activity (i.e. jogging, cycling, playing soccer or football), or
  • An equivalent combination of both

You should also include muscle-strengthening activities at least two days each week.

How to get going if you don’t know where to start

If you’re motivated to start exercising — that’s great! But a chat with your GP for pre-exercise screening before you hit the gym or lace up your jogging shoes is recommended, especially for certain men, according to Better Health Victoria

“If you have a medical condition, are overweight, are over 40 years of age or haven’t exercised regularly for a long time, see your doctor for a check-up, advice and support before increasing your physical activity levels,” the service states.

“Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of experiencing a health problem during physical activity. It is a filter or ‘safety net’ to help decide if the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks for you. Ensure you read through the pre-exercise self-screening tool before you embark on a physical activity or exercise program.”

Once you’re good to go, take some ‘baby steps’ and try to make physical activity part of your regular routine. Often, getting started is the hardest part — there’s an old saying that states ‘the hardest part of going for a run is putting your sneakers on’.

So (as long as your GP or an exercise professional has given you the green light), lace up, get moving and reap the rewards! 

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