I’m pretty busy these days. I teach 2 courses this semester, am overseeing a few separate research projects (and students), and have a wife and toddler. Not surprisingly, my activity levels are lower than they used to be. Way lower. I still meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines most of the time (150 mins/week of moderate to vigorous physical activity), but that’s still a lot less than I was doing during grad school, and less than I would like (an ideal level is closer to 300 mins/week).
As I was thinking about this the other day, it made me realize just how tough we make it for people to be physically active in our society. Because let’s face it, I’m in an almost perfect situation. I have a job with flexible hours, an affordable membership to a terrific gym in the building next to my office, I have the knowledge and skills to be active, and my wife is extremely supportive of an active lifestyle. And I’m a Kinesiology prof who blogs about the benefits of physical activity, so I have the added incentive – as one of my students put it so delicately this week – of not wanting to look like a hypocrite. When we talk about barriers to activity, mine are about as low as they can be for someone in my life stage. And yet, I’m barely meeting the minimum guidelines for health benefits.
Why? For the same reasons as everyone else. I’m extremely busy at work; I want to spend time with my wife and son; and when I do finally have a few minutes free, I’d often rather read or watch TV or write a blog post. I literally don’t have time to go to the gym most days. Not unless I am willing to skip work or time with my family.
This experience has really brought home to me why it’s so silly to make physical activity a structured event that needs to be scheduled into the day. Literally the only reason I get any physical activity some weeks is because I bike or run to to work on most days. It’s not much (a little over 2 miles from door to door), but that gets me 20-30 minutes of total activity each workday. I also have a standing desk, which doesn’t boost my physical activity, but at least limits my sitting time. In the past I’ve also benefited by having a gym within my office (a great job perk!), which also made it easy to sprinkle a few sets of bench press throughout my day, but I don’t have that particular setup at present.
When physical activity is seen as a discrete activity that needs to be wedged into an already overpacked schedule, then it’s almost impossible to fit it in when life gets busy and/or stressful. But when it is integrated into other parts of your day (e.g. commuting by bike, walking meetings, etc), it makes it a whole lot easier to be physically active. I will note that we seem to be increasingly pushing children towards the “discrete activity” approach – e.g. more organized sport, less walking to school – and I think that is a decidedly bad move. It’s not that there’s anything bad about going to the gym, or playing an organized sport, it’s just a lot harder to sustain that approach when things get busy.
So what can we do? Well, we could make it a lot easier to get around by foot and by bike in North America, for starters (this includes places to lock your bike in winter… our bike racks are under snow banks several months of the year). It might also mean placing workout equipment in more offices, rather than concentrating them all in the gym. And providing access to showers so that people can get cleaned up if they do want to bike or run to work, or do a workout on their lunch break.
I just don’t think we will ever get people to be more active until we make it easier for physical activity to be achieved throughout the day, rather than a single workout that needs to be scheduled in.