How to Make Physical Activity a Regular Part of Your Life
Safety First: Talk to your doctor before making any big changes to your exercise plan.
If you had a dollar for every time you’ve been reminded of the health benefits of physical activity—how it improves blood glucose levels, lowers your risk of heart disease, boosts your mood, and helps you lose weight and keep it off—you just might be reading this on your own private island somewhere in the Caribbean. So why do so many of us struggle to make exercise a regular part of our lives?
“We know all the positives of exercise—and that knowledge is important—but the behavior changes are challenging,” says Karen Kemmis, PT, DPT, MS, CDE, FAADE, a physical therapist at SUNY Upstate Medical University and president-elect of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “It’s one thing to take a pill twice a day as part of your diabetes regimen, but exercise is different. It’s time-consuming. We don’t necessarily love it.”
And for people with physical limitations such as foot wounds that won’t heal or arthritis, it’s especially challenging. The secret to moving past any barrier, says Kemmis, is to make a SMART plan built on goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. Whether you’re looking to get in shape for a half-marathon or you’re just starting out and simply want to be more physically active, here’s how to make it happen in a SMART way.
Get specific: Decide what type of exercise you’ll do, as well as when, where, and for how long you’ll do it.
A vague goal gives you too much wiggle room and can lower your motivation to push yourself, says Robert Powell, PhD, CEP, CDE, assistant professor of exercise physiology and director of the Diabetes Exercise Center at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Say, for instance, you’ve resolved to log 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking, as recommended by the American Diabetes Association’s 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes. “Telling yourself, ‘I’m going to exercise 150 minutes per week to reach my goal’ isn’t SMART,” says Powell. Sure, you’re setting up a precise number of minutes, “but how, specifically, are you going to reach that number throughout the week? Is it going to be 50 minutes, three days a week? Thirty minutes, five days a week? If you’ve been sedentary, you may not be fit enough to do a 30-minute session, so are you going to break it up into two 15-minute sessions per day?” Decide when, where, and how you will make the 150 minutes happen.
Set a goal that can be measured.
The easiest way to gauge your progress is with numbers. For example, a goal of incorporating strength training into your regimen two days a week, the minimum amount recommended by the ADA’s 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, can be easily measured. But you also need to specify the number of exercises you’ll do in each session, as well as how many times you’ll do each move (what’s known as repetitions). Track your progress with an exercise journal, an app such as Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal, or an activity tracker such as Fitbit, Jawbone, or Misfit.
Make sure your exercise plan is attainable and fits your lifestyle.
If you’re chronically short on time, for instance, you’re only setting yourself up for failure by saying you’ll hit the gym three days a week for hour-long sweat sessions. A more attainable way to reach that particular goal? If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, exercise at a high intensity for a shorter period of time. Research published in a 2016 issue of the journal PLOS One showed that very intense exercise produced health benefits similar to those seen with longer, traditional endurance training.
Something else to keep in mind: All physical activity counts toward your overall goal, says Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. Even seemingly insignificant activities—walking from the parking lot to the office, going down to the basement for laundry, playing with the kids—are valid forms of physical activity, she says.
Pick an activity you can realistically do.
Your exercise goals should sync up with your particular interests, needs, and abilities. Arthritis, for instance, shouldn’t keep you from reaching your exercise goals, but it should be taken into account when planning your moves. “You may have to [exercise] every other day versus every day so you don’t overdo it with your joints,” notes Powell. And make sure it’s relevant. Say your goal is to reduce your A1C, and you’re planning to do 20 minutes of exercise—such as swimming or riding a stationary bike—three times a week to make that happen. “Is that enough of a health change to lower your A1C?” says Powell. (Studies show that a combination of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two to three strength- training sessions per week improves blood glucose and lowers A1C.) If you’re not sure about any aspect of your exercise goal, “talk with your diabetes educator or health care provider to make sure your exercise plan matches your outcome goal,” says Powell.
Set a deadline for reaching your goal.
You should be able to monitor your short- and long-term progress. Set weekly and quarterly goals to make sure you’re on track to meet your one-year goal. “At the end of the first quarter, check to see if you’re one-quarter of the way to reaching your goal,” says Powell. “It’s good to reassess periodically and tweak accordingly.”
3 Goal-Setting Apps
These tools turn goal-reaching into a game
A habit-building app that takes any task you want to complete and turns it into a game where you earn points and stay alive in the virtual world by getting things done
A resilience-boosting app that helps you track your physical, mental, and emotional progress, unlocking new challenges and rewards along the way
A productivity app that allows you to log your workouts, win badges and levels, battle other members, and celebrate when you complete certain challenges
These apps are free for Apple and Android devices.
5 Ways to Stay Motivated
1. Make it personal.
Ask yourself: Why do you want to exercise? Maybe you’d like to get in shape so you can chase your grandchildren. Whatever the reason, “individualize your goal with something that’s important to you,” says Karen Kemmis, PT, DPT, MS, CDE, FAADE, president-elect of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Why? You’re more likely to stick with something that’s personally meaningful.
2. Shift your mindset.
A study in the journal BMC Public Health found that the key to making time for exercise is to connect it with something you value, such as having fun with friends. Think back to activities you enjoyed as a kid—skating, swimming, or jumping rope—and give yourself permission to do those things.
3. Enlist a workout partner.
An exercise buddy will help you stick with a fitness program. But not just any buddy will do, suggests a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Pick someone who’s slightly more fit—it’ll inspire you to keep going.
4. Go public.
You can tell yourself you’ll hit the gym three times a week, but research shows you’re more likely to follow through with your intention if you share it with others. “Post your workout on social media to get that instant feedback,” suggests Robert Powell, PhD, CEP, CDE, assistant professor of exercise physiology and director of the Diabetes Exercise Center at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
5. Reward yourself.
When you reach a mini goal, treat yourself to something that will inspire you to stay on track—a new pair of sneakers, for example, or an activity tracker.