Get Active, Wherever You Are
You know that physical activity can help you live a longer, healthier life. But did you know you don’t need to join a gym or use costly equipment to be physically active? No matter where you live, work, or go to school, you can find ways to move more and sit less throughout your day. In addition to helping your health, you might have fun without spending a lot of money.
Moving more and sitting less can reduce your risk for many serious conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain kinds of cancer. Some studies suggest that physical activity can have mental benefits as well, helping to relieve depression and maintain thinking abilities as you age. Healthful physical activity includes exercise as well as many everyday activities, such as doing active chores around the house, yard work, or walking the dog.
Activities that cause you to breathe harder are called aerobic activities. These make your heart and blood vessels healthier. Aerobic activities include brisk walking, dancing, swimming, and playing basketball. Strengthening activities, like push-ups and lifting weights, help make your muscles and bones stronger and can also improve your balance.
But even though many of us know that physical activity is a good thing, most adults nationwide don’t meet even the minimum recommended amounts of physical activity. (That’s at least 30 minutes of brisk walking or other moderate activity, 5 days a week.)
Why aren’t we more active? “Lack of time is a common reason for not exercising,” says Dr. Mary Evans, an NIH expert on physical activity and nutrition. “Another important factor is location—having safe places to walk and engage in different activities. That can mean having sidewalks, public parks with well-lit walking paths, a shopping mall where you can walk, or other features that can make activity inviting and easy to do.”
NIH-funded research has found that your environment—where you live, work, or go to school—can have a big impact on how much you move and even how much you weigh.
Some communities don’t have safe playgrounds or sidewalks, so kids tend to spend their free time indoors. Sitting instead of moving makes it hard to maintain a healthy weight. Many adults sit behind the wheel driving to work and then sit most of the day at a computer, taking few breaks to stand up and move around. In suburban neighborhoods, people often have to drive rather than walk to get to grocery stores, shops, and even public transportation.
“Our environments have become less friendly to being active. But studies show that people will walk more if the environment provides them with opportunities to do so,” says Dr. Brian E. Saelens, a health psychologist and behavioral scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “How close are you to a library? Can you walk to a store? Is there a safe path for walking to school? All of these factors affect how active we are each day.”
Having places to walk and have fun can help more people get moving and active. “It’s not just dangerous neighborhoods, broken streets, and crime that can keep people indoors and away from being physically active,” says Dr. Allen Glicksman, director of research at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. “We’ve also found that, from ages 18 to 80, if a neighborhood has someplace nice to walk to—desirable destinations like a book store, grocery store, coffee shop, a place to eat or meet—it can have a healthful effect on how much people weigh and how much they walk.”
Research also shows that taking public transportation—like buses and trains—can help boost activity. In a recent Seattle-area study, Saelens and colleagues found that people tend to add about 15 minutes of activity to their day when they take public transportation, in part by walking to and from the mass transit site instead of taking a car from door to door. “That’s half the recommended amount of physical activity added to their day,” Saelens says.
Having opportunities to connect with others can also have a positive effect. “Many people are more likely to walk if they’ve got one or more buddies to walk with,” Glicksman says. “When you think about what brings people together, what brings people out and active, the answer can vary depending on your community.” In urban Philadelphia, Glicksman and others have found that neighborhood features like access to public transportation, better bus shelters, and even murals in some neighborhoods seem to encourage more physical activity.
When community gardens were created for older adults in Philadelphia, Glicksman says, “we wanted people to garden to help them eat fresh foods and get them out and moving in the nice weather.” When younger adults joined in as well, the gardens had the added bonus of connecting people across generations. The older adults acted as gardening mentors, while the younger people helped with heavy lifting and digging. “Bringing people together is not only a way to encourage more activity; it’s also a way to get people thinking about how we can change our neighborhoods for the good.”
So take a look around your neighborhood, your workplace, or your school. Can you think of changes that might make the surroundings more inviting for walking or exercise?
“Consider: How can we change our environment so activity is an easier choice for us to make?” Saelens says. In many communities, people have gotten together to organize activities and improve their environments to encourage more physical activity. Steps might include improving local parks, requesting safe and usable bike paths and sidewalks, or asking for more physical activity and healthier meals at schools. If you have some ideas for improving your surroundings, discuss them with your neighbors or local leaders.
Although your environment can affect how active you are, you can still look for new ways to use the world around you to add some movement to your day.
“If you’re at work, try climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator. And get up from your chair and move around at least once an hour,” Evans says. Stand up and walk to a colleague’s office instead of sending an email. Try standing instead of sitting when you’re on the phone, or have “walking” meetings with co-workers instead of sitting in a conference room. And take a brisk walk on your lunch break to get some activity in.
“It’s not really necessary to engage in vigorous physical activity like running to have beneficial health effects. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking most days, in at least 10-minute segments, can have a positive effect,” Evans says.
“We have to look for opportunities to fit physical activity into our days,” Saelens adds. “Some people love to put on their sneakers and to go to the gym, and that’s great for them, but it’s not the only way to get active.”
References:Relation between higher physical activity and public transit use. Saelens BE, Vernez Moudon A, Kang B, Hurvitz PM, Zhou C. Am J Public Health. 2014 May;104(5):854-9. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301696. Epub 2014 Mar 13. PMID: 24625142.
Is "Walkability" A Useful Concept for Gerontology? Glicksman A, Ring L, Kleban MH, Hoffman C. J Hous Elderly. 2013 Apr 1;27(1-2):241-254. PMID: 23729951.
Neighborhood built environment and income: examining multiple health outcomes.
Sallis JF, Saelens BE, Frank LD, Conway TL, et al. Soc Sci Med. 2009 Apr;68(7):1285-93. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.01.017. Epub 2009 Feb 18. PMID: 19232809.
Get Active in Your Community
- Start a walking group with friends, neighbors, or co-workers.
- Make the streets safer for walking by driving the speed limit and yielding to people who walk.
- Consider joining a low- or no-cost exercise group or an office sports team such as softball or kickball, and enroll kids in community sports teams or lessons.
- Participate in local planning efforts to develop walking paths, sidewalks, and bike paths.
- Work with parents and schools to encourage kids to safely walk or ride bikes to school.
- Join other parents to ask for more physical activity at school.
- Try different activities to find the ones you really enjoy, and have fun while being active!