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  • Tegan Taylor

Barriers to exercise and how to overcome them

When you're exhausted from a busy life, getting up early to work out can be the last thing you feel like doing

Have you heard? Exercise is good for you. Apparently it can lower your risk of heart attack, stroke and some cancers, improve your sleep, and boost your mood and your immune system. So if it's so good for us, why is it so gosh-darn hard to get done? Less than half of Australian adults get the recommended amount of physical activity (which depends on your age, for adults but it's about 150 minutes per week). And it's not that we don't want to, either — the ABC's Australia Talks National Survey found two thirds of people thought they'd be happier if they took better care of themselves. So what are the main barriers we're facing when it comes to exercise, and what can we do about them? Time, energy and motivation I threw the challenge out to my friends: who else was finding it tough to fit exercise in? Work, family commitments and mental health were common themes — as were exhaustion and not feeling motivated. "I find it hard to make time without the kids and when I do happen to stumble across some [time], I'm usually feeling too exhausted to want to exercise." — Robbie "Work gets in the way of being consistent with working out. I either have to get up before 5am or commence after 7pm if I want to get in a workout. This impacts on my family time, sleep, meal prep and even just some downtime." — Tara "2+ hours of commuting each day makes for a long day which is exhausting, so no energy or time." — Jo "It's difficult to maintain consistency because my wife is a nurse and doesn't have a set roster. With kids, I have to fit it in when I can." — Jason "I'm just always so tired after work." — Felicity Mental health was also a factor. "After a huge upset followed by extreme depression and comfort eating it is definitely very difficult to find the motivation to do even half of what I used to. — Lisa "I sometimes find it difficult, particularly when dealing with depression and anxiety." — Anna

My sample size is small, admittedly, but these responses fit with the broader population, according to Chloe Taylor, an exercise scientist at Western Sydney University. "Quite often one of the main barriers people tend to pick up on is not having enough time — whether that's a true reflection or that's their perception — sometimes feeling too tired, or even people's own admission of feeling too lazy," Dr Taylor said. "It's trying to fit that exercise into the routine, and when we've got family responsibilities that can be particularly difficult."

The 5 Ws of getting active If you want to fit in more activity but aren't sure how to get started, Dr Taylor suggested you ask yourself a few basic questions.

  • Who: Who are you exercising with? Do you have a buddy, do you like team sports, or do you value the solitude of exercising alone?

  • What: What do you like to do? Do you prefer short bursts of high-intensity exercise or longer, gentler sessions?

  • When: When is going to work best for you? Our bodies usually perform better in the late afternoons, but you might find early mornings or late evenings fits into your schedule better.

  • Where: Do you prefer to be indoors or outside? Do you feel comfortable exercising around others, or in somewhere more private?

  • Why: Why is exercising important for you? What's your motivation?

"Your overall goal might be to improve your health and fitness but if you can make it even more personal, this can help with motivation," Dr Taylor said. It's important to have specific goals that you can achieve over a set timeframe to help with motivation and confidence."

It's not just you But the responsibility for getting Australians more active shouldn't just fall to individuals. Part of the problem is that our lives keep us more sedentary than they used to a couple of generations ago, according to David Dunstan from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. "Our social and physical environment is really shifting a lot, in terms of work hours and work creeping into our leisure hours as well," Professor Dunstan said. "We've got evidence that shows office workers can spend up to 75 per cent of their day essentially sitting."

Neighbourhood planning was also a factor, Dr Taylor said, pointing out that there were usually fewer opportunities for incidental exercise in lower-income outer suburbs and regional areas. "We know that people who live in the outer suburbs, in the regional areas, are at greater risk of being overweight or obese," she said. "There are some theories to suggest that might be due to the community design. They don't have the access to public transport and to fitness resources and facilities ... There's a high reliance on driving." The link between exercise and neighbourhood, income and socioeconomic status also came through in the Australia Talks National Survey. The survey found highly educated people and the highest earners enjoyed the best health, and people in the inner-city electorate of Curtin (WA), or beachside Flinders (Vic) and McPherson (Qld) were more likely to exercise than those in the outer suburban electorates of McMahon (NSW), Blaxland (NSW) and Gorton (Vic). People with higher education were also more likely to exercise: 72 per cent of those with a high school or lower education level said they exercised at least once a week, compared with 81 per cent of those with a graduate degree.

Professor Dunstan said workplaces, councils and policy makers all had a role to play in making it easier for people to be more active throughout the day. At the council level, creating environments with more green spaces and better connected pathways would help people get outside more, he said, and he encouraged employers to think creatively about how to incorporate movement throughout the workday. While the recommended amount of exercise is that 150 minutes per week, Professor Duntan pointed out that any increase in activity is linked with improved health. "You actually get the greatest benefit, in terms of a public health perspective, from shifting people who are doing nothing to doing something," Professor Dunstan said. "Yes, once you get to the 150 minutes you really increase the magnitude of the benefits, but you get the greatest benefits from taking totally inactive people and getting them to doing something."

Overcoming barriers Back to my mates — while many faced roadblocks to being active regularly, others had practical tips on how they have overcome them. "Gym with childcare and booking in advance so I can't talk myself out of it at the last minute. Also having a dog that needs walking. External motivation basically — don't want to let others down." — Beth "Because I like early mornings and being alone I go alone early in the morning ... I have also found listening to a reeeeeaaaalllly good podcast series when I walk means I want to walk so I get to listen to another ep." — Vicki "Just do something. One little thing. Just being able to say you did something gives you so much more drive to do it again. Best part is when you start, you usually do more than you were going to do anyway." — Danny "I go to yoga after kids are in bed because I chose a place with 7:50pm classes. But honestly it's such a mission motivating myself after a big work day!" — Gemma "What helps is going with friends — we have a chat group to remind each other." — Teresa "Half an hour every night after dinner while we watch TV with the kids, we do an app exercise on our phone. Hard to find excuses for not doing it." — Cathy "I've been embracing running into/home from work. It's time I'd have to spend away from family anyway, and I'm lucky enough to live close enough to be able to run in. And that there's showers/lockers at work." — Joel "Go on lunch break/make it a part of work day. Put it in office calendar so you remember to go. Gym close to work as possible also best idea ... quick and easy to get in." — Patrick "I used to find it extremely difficult to 'fit in' to my day but when I made the decision that 'enough was enough' I just made it happen. Exercise is just part of my everyday now and there are no exceptions. Once I got my brain in to gear and believed it could be done then it all started to fall in to a pattern. There are tonnes of things that pop up from day to day, but knowing that exercise is just part of my day now I find that everything else can — generally — fall around it." — Erin "I've experienced what happens to my mental health when I don't [exercise]. It's a powerful motivator." — Michelle Article from ABC Health & Wellbeing

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