“What should I do for exercise?”

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When the topic of physical activity arises, a common question I get – especially if the patient knows I used to work as a personal trainer – is some version of, “What should I do for exercise?”

Before I get to my answer, a little history: Back when I was in nutrition school and working on the side as a trainer, I began my relationship with a new client by asking about their exercise-related goals. With their answer in hand, I researched the best (in theory, anyway) physical activity approach towards achieving said goals. Whether or not the client enjoyed my exercise prescription was largely immaterial. I offered a means to an end, and they were going to do what I suggested whether they liked it or not.

Furthermore, my clients hardly seemed to mind my approach. They expected trainers to have a no-pain-no-gain mentality, an element of an exercise-as-punishment culture that is so harmful yet prevalent, and I was giving them what they thought they deserved. Clients wanted clear and crisp answers, and I was providing them. Whether I was right, wrong, or somewhere in between seemed a distant consideration to the reassuring comfort that came with being told what to do.

At this point, I should add that I was a fairly horrible personal trainer. With hardly any experience, little oversight, and no mentors, I was on my own to take what I had learned in academia and apply it to the real world. Humans, it turns out, are way more complicated than straightforward case studies in a textbook. Clients became burnt out, got hurt, lost interest, or dropped off for other reasons, and they almost always blamed themselves instead of my flawed approach.

If that sounds similar to how dieters tend to place the blame for weight regain on themselves rather than on the diet, know that the parallel stands out to me too. Just as I cringe at the way I used to train clients, I am embarrassed and ashamed of how I practiced dietetics at the beginning of my career. The difference is that I have been a dietitian long enough to have outgrown those painful beginnings, whereas I worked as a trainer for such a short time that just when I was beginning to recognize my mistakes, it was time to move forward in my career.

When patients ask me about exercise, I now know that the straightforward answers they want and expect – the very kind of answers that I used to provide as a trainer – are not all that helpful even if they would be welcome. Just as is the case when it comes to our relationships with food, our relationships with physical activity are nuanced and unique. The answers come about through discussion and collaboration. Here are five factors that I encourage my patients to consider:

  1. Enjoyment: My decision to lead with a factor that is often shoved towards the end of the priority list or set aside entirely – yet in my eyes is so essential to consider – is a conscious one. If you do not like doing an activity, how likely are you to sustain it? If you repeatedly put yourself through an unpleasant experience, what kind of ripple effects will that have in the rest of your life, whether it be seeking out rewards, being in a bad mood, etc.?
  2. Risk: We can get hurt doing literally anything, but some activities are riskier than others. Injury risk also depends on the person in question. For example, some people can run their entire lives, whereas a friend of mine had to give it up due to a recurring injury that arose whenever he attempted to resume jogging. Risk extends beyond musculoskeletal concerns and includes other factors, such as a maximum heart rate that a cardiologist may suggest their patient not exceed.
  3. Access: If you enjoy swimming but cannot afford a pool membership, or you like walking but live in a mosquito-infested area without sidewalks, or you are into a team sport without a league in your area, you will face more challenges than someone with ready access to the facilities and opportunities they need.
  4. Goals: Choosing activities that advance us towards our goals increase our chances of achieving them. An aspiring strongman will get little benefit from participating in cycling brevets, whereas someone with osteopenia in their hips may be better off skipping both of those pursuits entirely and instead going for a walk.
  5. Options: Remember that physical activity is comprised of more than just “exercise” in that the latter typically conjures images of things like elliptical machines and dumbbells, whereas the former is broader and can include gardening, cleaning, shopping, dancing, hiking, chair yoga, isometric contractions, and anything else that engages the body.

So, what should you do for exercise? Look for a mode that you enjoy, have ready access to, makes you physically feel good, and helps you towards your goals. Whatever your answer is, that is what you should do for exercise.

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