Why Our Definition of Exercise Needs a Refresh

It’s time to get creative about movement and think outside the gym.

antoniodiaz / Shutterstock
antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that exercise is good for us. Hailed as a “miracle drug” by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and “one of the best things people can do to improve their health” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity is one of the keys to a thriving life. Exercise is scientifically linked to lowered stress levels, improved brain function, and even decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. And the benefits of physical activity go beyond the physical self. It has the power to transform our mood and even spark our next eureka moment. 

Yet for all that physical activity does for us, finding time for it can be challenging — and even more difficult to keep up with as a lifelong habit. It’s a problem on a global scale: one in four people worldwide are physically inactive, according to the World Health Organization. We know how important it is to get moving, be active, and get the blood pumping, but somehow it never rises to the level of a priority, especially when more sedentary activities — often involving screens — are crying out for our attention at every hour of the day and night. 

Part of the problem is this: our definition of exercise needs a refresh. When we hear the word exercise, we think of schlepping to the gym, running a 5K, or lifting heavy weights. These are all perfectly healthy and valid pursuits, but for many of us, for various reasons, they’re just never going to happen. A narrow definition of exercise only makes it easier to avoid.

But just as with sleep, nutrition, and other building blocks of our well-being, we pay a price when we skimp on physical activity. And when we do make a point to exercise, the benefits go well beyond any generic idea of getting in shape. One study found that people who engaged in aerobic exercise at least five days a week were 43 percent less likely to report upper respiratory symptoms than their less-active counterparts. Another study, published in 2017 in the British Medical Journal, found that people who regularly biked to work decreased their risk of cancer and heart disease by 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Moreover, research shows that making your commute more active could also help you avoid getting sick.

A broad world of movement and exercise is at our disposal. There are plenty of ways that we can get creative with physical activity, and sneak some extra steps into our routines without going to the gym. And these small strategies make a difference. William Kraus, a professor at Duke University and the author of a 2018 study that links small bursts of exercise to longevity, told the New York Times, “The little things that people do every day can and do add up and affect the risk for disease and death.” For example, if you take public transportation to work, you can get off one stop earlier to walk the rest of the way (added bonus: our brains release neurotransmitters while we walk that help us make better decisions and focus). If you drive, you can park at the outer edge of the parking lot. It sounds like nothing, but science shows that all physical activity counts — even the micro stuff. 

Adapted from “Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps,” by Marina Khidekel and the editors of Thrive Global. Learn more and pre-order your copy here.

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