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Keeping Active Amid Life Changes

Jan 10, 2012

Written by Cherilyn Hultquist, Ph.D.

Throughout life, change of any magnitude can be equally stressful and exciting. Whether it’s a new career or a retirement, more or less leisure time becoming available, moving to a new location or any one of life’s big or small challenges, physical activity can be an anchor to help a person cope with change. Maintaining a regular exercise regimen has many known health benefits and can help one establish a new daily routine, manage stressors, create a social network and explore new surroundings.

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us are creatures of habit, and any type of life change can disrupt our comfortable routines. Finding time to exercise on a regular basis will be one of the quickest and most beneficial ways to settle into a new routine. For some, exercise may be the only familiar part of their day. The key is to find activities that are easy to commit to on a daily basis. This can be achieved a number of ways, including finding a convenient location for exercise like a local gym, community center, walking trail or even your home. By identifying specific places to exercise, people can plan the rest of their day around physical activity instead of hoping they can fit it in before the day is over. Also, it is important to try to keep the same block of time set aside to exercise most days. Having a set routine doesn’t mean exercise will be boring; rather, designating certain days for cardiovascular exercise, strength training and/or mind-body exercise (e.g., yoga or Tai Chi) will offer not only variety but also a well-rounded program.

Recommending exercise as a mechanism to manage stress has been popular among health-and-fitness professionals for many years. While the specifics are not fully understood, exercise can have both an immediate and a long-term effect on one’s mood, perception of stress and feelings of anxiety. Not only is exercise a way to do something positive on a physical level, it can serve as a temporary distraction to stressors that are present or provide time to think about and navigate any change at hand. When using exercise as a mechanism to manage stress, it is important to find a mode that will not compound the stress. For example, identifying ahead of time if a group or solo environment is better, if the location is easy or difficult to get to or if the exercise requires coordination or specific equipment can all help when the goal is to keep stress levels low. In addition to aiding in reducing stress and anxiety, exercise can also boost self-confidence through a sense of accomplishment and improving one’s physique. The good news is that any type of exercise can produce these results.

Another benefit that regular physical activity can provide during a time of change is an opportunity to expand a social support network. This can include meeting new people with similar interests or connecting with family and friends for accountability during times of transition. Social support is often associated with better adherence to exercise recommendations, particularly among women. Some ways to expand a social network include joining community groups that offer exercise programs such as walking, running and hiking clubs or consistently attending group exercise classes the same days and times each week. Most people are habitual with exercise, so it is likely that faces will start to become familiar. Many community groups or churches offer leagues for older, active adults including swimming, tennis, racquetball and volleyball. Not only will leagues provide social interaction, participation can also drive other aspects of health and fitness as regular practice sessions and outside training will likely be involved as well.

Whether someone is in a new environment or simply has time to explore a location where he or she already resides, many communities have designated areas for physical activity. Typically, city or county government offices have information about these locations and upcoming events. Discovering bike paths, hiking, and walking trails, historic neighborhoods/locations and parks will help an individual connect with and take pride in the community. Another benefit of exploring outdoor activities is that people can move in ways that are impossible in other environments. For example, practicing yoga or Qigong at a park, navigating the uneven terrain of an unpaved trail, jogging into the wind or kayaking on a lake will all provide additional physical challenges for the body that enhance results and cannot be replicated indoors.

Life will rarely stay the same, making change inevitable, but using physical activity to help cope with change clearly has many benefits. As with any successful exercise program, activities need to be enjoyable, accessible and occur regularly, all of which will help to establish a new daily routine amid change.

View the full fall 2010 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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