We Don’t Have to Choose Between Prioritizing Health and Enjoying Life

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“I wish I had done it sooner.”

I’ll never forget those words; they motivate me every day.

The fourth anniversary of my dad’s passing was this week and I tend to be extra reflective around this time each year. I hadn’t really thought about his own health and fitness journey until now, but it feels relevant and worth sharing. I talk a lot about how physical activity doesn’t have to be what many of us think of as traditional exercise, and how we’re never too ‘old’ or ‘out-of-shape’ to figure out what works for us; he was a great example of this.

He’d lived most of his life as a heavy smoker without concern for health beyond external factors like weight. He’d “had a good time”, as he’d tell it. But that stuff can catch up. He had a heart attack at 58. He wasn’t overweight. He didn’t live a particularly inactive life. He’s probably not the person you’d look at and predict would have a heart attack, but weight alone isn’t a sole indicator of health, is it? This was when things snapped for him that the outward appearance wasn’t a reflection of internal health. Just because he wasn’t “overweight” didn’t mean the food, cigarettes, and lack of appropriate activity weren’t negatively affecting him.

 The first thing he did was quit smoking. As happens with many people when they quit smoking, he gained a bit of weight, and I think it was the first time he really felt self-conscious about his body. Even though he knew of the added health benefits, I will admit that his motivation in becoming more intentionally active was out of vanity. He bought a weight machine and started using it regularly. He also realized that his love of nature made walking a perfect intentional activity, too.

Over time, he did lose that bit of weight he had gained and loved to show off his biceps (🙄 haha), but he FELT better, and he knew it. I’m not sure he’d phrase it this way, but beyond the physical benefits, the movement really helped his mental health, too. He stuck with it over time because he found activities he enjoyed and made him feel good, and expanded his social circle. It didn’t happen overnight, but he built it into his life… a new lifestyle.

It led to a different *quality* of life – for him, but for all of us because of the benefits to him. When my sister and I both lived in DC for a while, they’d come visit and we’d traipse all over the city for hours. He wouldn’t have been able to do that with us pre-heart attack. It opened doors and gave us some priceless memories.

Now that I’ve talked a bit about his story, let’s delve into some technical stuff. I wanted to dissect physical activity versus exercise, general weekly needs, and when we may have specific needs. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous activity – or a combination of both – for those without any existing medical conditions. Ideally this time will be spread throughout the week.

So let’s break this down. 150 minutes per week is 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week. Here is where most people stop, right? You think “ugh, now I need to find an exercise program that is 30 minutes, 5 days a week”. NOPE! This is where we delve into the difference between exercise and physical activity, and how the time can be accumulated.

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Physical activity is any movement contributing to energy expenditure; it also increases physical fitness. There are many ways to move our bodies, and exercise is a subset of physical activity. If we are aiming for at least 75-150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per week, but also have a broader sense of what that encompasses, we can find *enjoyable* ways to increase our activity. We can even turn some of these daily physical activities into exercise, which further contributes to our physical fitness.

So what is exercise? Exercise is *structured* physical activity aimed at improving health and/or skill-related components of physical fitness. The health-related components of physical fitness are cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition. The skill-related components are balance, agility, coordination, power, speed, and reaction time. One thing to note: the requirements for health-related goals may be different for those with diagnosed conditions. For example, a person with cardiovascular disease will require more cardiorespiratory activity to reach health-related components of physical fitness. In the future, I plan to do a post to go over activity requirements and what to avoid for common chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, etc.

Back to types of activity. Weightlifting is exercise, yes. Jogging, yoga, Pilates, and Crossfit are exercises, yes. BUT! Intentionally cleaning with increased vigor is also exercise. For example, vacuuming at a leisurely pace would be included under physical activity, but not necessarily exercise; speeding up the pace and engaging body to maximize the vacuum’s push-pull movement turns the physical activity into exercise. It’s all about intensity and energy usage.

Remember that intensity is relative to you! It’s possible to exercise at an intensity too low to count toward activity requirements; it is also possible for normal daily activities to rack up moderate to vigorous-intensity minutes. Understanding where we are now and aligning that with our goals can help determine the level of intensity we are aiming for, and then we can choose activities or exercises that get us there. Some people enjoy reaching the physical activity requirements through structured exercise – and that’s great – but the thing I always want to stress is that it’s not *necessary* if you don’t have skill-related goals.

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For the most part, health-related physical fitness can be met through activities that are not structured workouts. I’ve created an infographic with some common activities and their correlating level of intensity based on information from the American Council on Exercise. You can also check out more examples and information from The American Heart Association here and here.

Let’s break this down further with an example. Meeting the 150-minute requirement could look like:

–       Monday: 10-minute increment of moderate to vigorous activity

–       Tuesday: 30-minute brisk walk

–       Wednesday: 10-minute increment of moderate to vigorous activity

–       Thursday: 30-minutes of lawn care

–       Friday: 10-minute increment of moderate to vigorous activity

–       Saturday: 60-minute hike with friends

–       Sunday: Rest

Weekly Intentional Moderate Activity Totals: 6 days, 150 minutes

When we see it broken down by day, it’s not quite as intimidating. The most important thing to understand is that activity can be split into 10-minute+ increments and spread throughout the day and week; we don’t have to go out of our way to do things we don’t enjoy for an hour at a time, most days of the week.

My dad was a great example of this. His physical activity was comprised partially of exercise through using his weight machine and taking longer walks, partially through daily activities like taking care of the lawn, walks with my stepmom, parking further from an entrance than necessary (okay, this was partially to park away from all the other cars to “protect his” 🙃), and opting to do things that generally involved movements like auto and air shows. My point is, he wasn’t really scheduling anything – he found traditional and non-traditional ways to get moving that made him happy and fit seamlessly with his existing lifestyle – and made him so much happier.

I was already well into my own fitness journey when he got sick in March 2017. The devastation of what was going on often left me unmotivated to workout, but I kept doing it because I felt like I owed it to him knowing he’d have given anything to be able to workout. It happened quickly. He was diagnosed with cancer on March 30th and was gone on August 26th. Afterward, I struggled to do anything physical. Where it felt like a disservice to him *not* to stay active when he was sick, I couldn’t muster the motivation once he was gone because it felt… unfair. It took a few months, but I eventually heard his voice say, “I wish I had done it sooner.”

That snapped me out of it. I needed to get back to it – it’s what he’d want – and I knew I’d feel better for it. Not just physically, but mentally.

What I realized was, at the end of the day, one thing he never regretted was the time he put into improving his physical fitness after the heart attack. He wasn’t upset that he had “wasted” his time on improvement; he was upset he didn’t do it sooner. It wasn’t about whether it made a difference to the illness. His new lifestyle gave him a renewed sense of life; he enjoyed his time more than he ever had while also improving his health.

So I must respectfully disagree with the idea of consistently living for today without any regard for tomorrow. That idea assumes doing positive things for our health can’t *possibly* be enjoyable at the same time. It’s a trick. Don’t buy into it. We can take care of ourselves from the inside out while still enjoying life today AND caring about the quality of life tomorrow. That’s the root of balance.

But when things get tough – because they will – we need to have a “why” to help keep us going. Cravings are real. The desire to be self-destructive, even when we are aware of it, is real. I have plenty of days where I’m disciplined and can push myself to do things that honor my long-term needs over the short-term, but some days the only thing that drives me to get that movement in or add those veggies into my meals is hearing his voice, “I wish I had done it sooner.”

What’s your “why”?

Is something preventing you from starting or continuing your own journey?

About shauna@reyoutotalhealth.com

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