If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk. —Hippocrates, Greek physician
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the benefits of regular exercise, for both body and brain
- Plan a regular exercise program that works for you
Regular Exercise: Health for Life
The importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established: Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep better.
As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life. Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. As you’ll see in the section on brain health, below, exercise is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health and memory—both of which are especially important when you’re in school.
The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. The following video describes how much activity you need:
Physical Fitness and Types of Exercise
Physical fitness is a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded. It also means being in good enough shape to handle unexpected emergencies involving physical demands—that is, if someone said, “Run for your life!” or you had to rush over and prevent a child from falling, you’d be able to do it.
There are many forms of exercise—dancing, rock climbing, walking, jogging, yoga, bike riding, you name it—that can help you become physically fit. The major types are described below.
Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles, and raises your breathing rate. For most people, it’s best to aim for a total of about thirty minutes a day, four or five days a week. If you haven’t been very active recently, you can start out with five or ten minutes a day and work up to more time each week. Or, split up your activity for the day: try a brisk ten-minute walk after each meal. If you are trying to lose weight, you may want to exercise more than thirty minutes a day. The following are some examples of aerobic exercise:
- A brisk walk (outside or inside on a treadmill)
- A low-impact aerobics class
- Swimming or water aerobic exercises
- Ice-skating or roller-skating
- Playing tennis
- Riding a stationary bicycle indoors
Strength training, done several times a week, helps build strong bones and muscles and makes everyday chores like carrying heavy backpacks (or grocery bags) easier. When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories, even at rest. Here are some ways to do it:
- Join a class to do strength training with weights, elastic bands, or plastic tubes (if your college has a gym, take advantage of it!)
- Lift light weights at home
Flexibility exercises, also called stretching, help keep your joints flexible and reduce your risk of injury during other activities. Gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes helps your body warm up and get ready for aerobic activities such as walking or swimming. Check to see if your college offers yoga, stretching, and/or pilates classes, and give one a try.
Being Active Throughout the Day
In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. Being active helps burns calories. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity level:
- Walk instead of drive whenever possible
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some housecleaning every day
- Park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class
Benefits of Exercise and Physical Fitness
Exercise, even after age fifty, can add healthy, active years to one’s life. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly lower the risk of death. Simply walking regularly can prolong your life.
Moderately fit people—even if they smoke or have high blood pressure—have a lower mortality rate than the least fit. Resistance training is important because it’s the only form of exercise that can slow and even reverse the decline of muscle mass, bone density, and strength. Adding workouts that focus on speed and agility can be especially protective for older people. Flexibility exercises help reduce the stiffness and loss of balance that accompanies aging.
Diabetes, particularly type 2, is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the world as more and more cultures adopt Western-style diets (which tend to be high in sugar and fat). Aerobic exercise is proving to have significant and particular benefits for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes; it increases sensitivity to insulin, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, and decreases body fat. In fact, studies show that people who engage in regular, moderate aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking, biking) lower their risk for diabetes even if they do not lose weight. Anyone on insulin or who has complications from diabetes should get advice from a physician before embarking on a workout program.
Brain: Mood, Memory, Creativity
In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. The following video explains why and challenges you to give it a try:
If you still aren’t persuaded, check out this slightly longer but excellent Tedx Talk, which describes how aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning, memory, and creativity:
Activity: Develop an Exercise Program
- Plan a regular exercise program that works for you
- Sometimes getting started is the hardest part of being physically active. The important thing is to find activities you like to do, so you’ll stick with them. Watch the following video, which can help you understand how much activity you need to do on a regular basis and how you can get going on a sensible routine. The video includes personal stories from people—even busy people like you—who have discovered what works for them.
- List 3 physical activities that you enjoy doing or would like to try doing on a regular basis.
- Identify any special requirements or equipment you need before doing them (for example, gym membership, running shoes, etc.).
- Set a realistic, weekly exercise time goal for yourself (150 minutes or more per week is ideal, but start with what you can really do).
- Using a digital or printed calendar, plan and label the days of the week, times, and places that you plan to exercise. Specify the activity or activities that you intend to do. (For example: Monday, 6–7 a.m., 30 min on stationary bike, college gym; Wednesday, 2–3 p.m., 60 min speed-walking with Maya, Riverside Park; Saturday, 1–2 p.m, lift weights, college gym.)
- Track your progress for one week, recording the amount of time you actually exercised. If you engaged in any unplanned physical activities (say you ended up riding your bike to school instead of taking the bus), include those, too.
- Write about your experience in a short journal entry (1–2 pages) and reflect on what you learned:
- What kinds of exercise did you engage in, and which did you enjoy the most?
- What was your weekly time goal? Did you meet it?
- What worked or didn’t work?
- What might you need to change in order to make exercise a regular habit?
- Follow your instructor’s instructions for submitting assignments.