Even when you know that your heart health depends on physical activity, following through can be tough. Barriers, real and imagined, often get in the way of the best of intentions.
Here, Johns Hopkins cardiologist Chiadi Ndumele, M.D., M.H.S., shares the advice he gives his patients for moving past the most common exercise roadblocks.
Health guidelines recommend getting moderate-intensity exercise for 150 minutes a week or a minimum of 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. But it’s easy to quit almost before you get started if your exercise plans are too ambitious for what your body can do.
Start small, advises Ndumele. Try walking 5,000 steps a day, for example, with a goal of building up to 10,000 steps a day. Work with your doctor to find the right starting place for you. Using a pedometer or fitness tracking device, available inexpensively in many stores and online, can be a fun way to follow your progress, and as you see your stamina gradually grow, you can do more.
It’s true that we all have only so many waking (and walking) hours in the day. Only you can decide how you use them. “It’s important to spend time investing in yourself,” says Ndumele. “As much as you do for everyone else, for your work, for taking care of your family, you also have to schedule in time to specifically focus on yourself.”
He suggests purposefully allotting time for your heart health. For some people, actually setting aside time for exercise on a daily schedule is the ticket. For others, it’s even more basic: recognizing that they deserve to be on a priority list in the first place.
Figure out where in your day you’re most likely to fit in exercise and stick to it. By setting the wake-up alarm half an hour earlier? Taking a walk during part of your lunch hour? Skipping one evening TV show to climb up and down the stairs instead?
You don’t have to get in 30 minutes of exercise all at once to see heart benefits. Try starting with two sessions of 15 minutes each.
“It’s important to recognize what we mean by physical activity,” Ndumele says. “It doesn’t require cross-training or paying for a gym membership. Even brisk walking can meet the requirements for reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.”
What’s key is finding some kind of movement you like. That might be dancing, swimming, riding bikes with your kids or working out to a video you find on YouTube (though it might be wise to ask your doctor or a fitness expert if the workout suggested on a particular video is safe for you). Creative small steps add up, too. Park in the farthest spot from the store entrance. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Modern life is very sedentary for many of us, Ndumele says. Long hours, long commutes and lack of access to a gym are very real challenges. “You have to recognize that in spite of such structural challenges, physical activity is in your best interest—and within your control,” he says.
Something great happens the more you work out: the better your body and mood will feel and the more you’ll want to exercise. In fact, try keeping a short journal to note how you feel after exercising—it can be a great motivator to get out and do it again.