Tips on healthy aging: Try ‘exercise snacks’ to get motivated


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If you’ve been having a hard time getting motivated to exercise, don’t feel bad — it’s your brain’s fault.

As human beings, we’re hard-wired to avoid exertion unless absolutely necessary, explains neuroscientist Jennifer Heisz, director of the NeuroFit lab at McMaster University that studies the effects of exercise on brain health and aging.

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“The brain views all voluntary exercise as an extravagant expense, and only wants you to move if your life depends on it,” she writes in her book, Move the Body, Heal the Mind, which looks at how exercise can help alleviate anxiety, depression and dementia. The preference for inertia is a throwback to the era when humans hunted and gathered to survive and needed to preserve as much energy in between to allow for recovery.

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Another motivation killer is the fact the recommended minimum exercise guidelines — 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, along with two sessions of resistance training and another for stretching — are intimidating.

“For someone who isn’t active, that seems impossible,” Heisz said in an interview. “And many will feel that if they don’t attain those thresholds they won’t get any benefits, which is not true. Going from zero to any movement is better than nothing. You will get benefits.”

Heisz suggests doing “exercise snacks”— a brisk walk around the block, some resistance training at home — because the benefits of those 10-minute bouts will add up.

“We know that once participants start moving, it just accumulates throughout the day. And there is a huge importance to walking for both fitness and memory. It’s something so simple that most people can do, even if they need some help with an assisted device.”

George Anisef, 95, on the floor of the gym with legs extended in an abdominal exercise.

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Heisz offers several other tips on how to get motivated to start moving and keep moving:

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Heisz’s book includes pictorial examples of dozens of exercises that can be done at home, along with suggested weekly workout routines for all fitness levels.

  • The mall can be a fantastic place to walk, with lots of space and things to see.
  • If you feel safe taking the stairs in your home, use them as a training ground.
  • Engaging in a sporting activity that includes other people, like group exercise classes or team sports, can create a rich social circle that is incredibly beneficial for aging, reducing loneliness and social isolation. It can also serve as greater motivation to stay involved. Seniors who exercise with others are far more likely to keep at it.
  • To get you off the couch and into your workout, Heisz suggests the following tricks: Swish a sugary drink in your mouth just before exercising, to trick the body into thinking it will be getting a jolt of energy
  • Before you start, play a song that you love, or some upbeat music — music has a powerful effect on the brain, and will help make the first few minutes of working out easier.
  • Finally, try to focus on enjoying the experience of working out, as opposed to fixating on a specific goal, like losing weight, or working out for a certain amount of time. Enjoying the moment will help ease the pain, and make you more likely to return.

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