The exercise conundrum

We all know physical activity is supposed to be good for us, yet approximately 40 percent of the American population reports not exercising at all. How come?

The New York Times reported a couple of days ago on some intriguing research that might shed a little light on this riddle: When people avoid exercise, maybe it’s because some forms of physical activity leave them feeling bad rather than good.

How this works seems to be complicated. In a series of studies, the researchers found that people had different reactions to the increasing intensity of exercise. Some felt better the harder they exercised; others felt worse. The majority of them felt bad when they surpassed their “ventilatory threshold,” or the point at which they were breathing too hard to talk – and this threshold was different for everyone.

In another study, volunteers were asked to exercise for 20 minutes at a level that felt unpleasant to them. In one session they were given a five-minute cool-down afterwards that restored their sense of well-being. In the other session, they were told to stop exercising without cooling down. When asked later which of the two workouts they preferred, most chose the one that left them feeling more pleasant.

In some ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. People tend to pursue activities that make them feel good and avoid those that don’t.

The more intriguing part is that we seem to be learning that exercise, like weight management, may not be a one-size-fits-all matter of “just do it.”

While the vast majority of people derive health benefits from regular physical activity, there clearly are differences in how it’s perceived and experienced.

Some people seem wired to enjoy exercise more than others do, and research suggests there indeed may be individual variations in how the body responds physically and emotionally to exercise. Some runners, for instance, experience the fabled “runner’s high,” while others don’t. Then again, perhaps individual behavior is largely to blame for why so many people don’t engage in exercise.

Or is it more complicated than this? Reader responses to the New York Times article provide a wider perspective on what might be going on in people’s lives to make the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity so difficult for many of them.

One person lived in San Francisco for many years, didn’t own a car and walked everywhere. Then he moved to Florida, to a town where “a car is needed for even the smallest errand,” and watched his weight, cholesterol and blood pressure soar. Others described neighborhoods with no sidewalks, streets that are poorly lit at night, bike paths littered with glass, and gyms and fitness centers that are either unaffordable or only open during the day.

Some commenters wrote that for many non-exercisers, the problem is in getting started. What they need is help, patience and encouragement, one person wrote. “There is so much anxiety tied up in this issue for people who are out of shape, they don’t know where to start and the idea of exercise feels overwhelming and genuinely terrifying.”

And what about the tendency for issues such as arthritis, chronic insomnia, low-level depression or long, stressful work hours to undermine people’s willingness to be more physically active? One commenter, who had frequent severe migraines and also worked long hours, wondered, “How is one supposed to exercise?!?! and eat? and sleep? and be a person… of sorts?”

Several commenters also complained about the sniffy elitism that can pervade the conversation about exercise – for instance, value judgments about what constitutes “real exercise.” Don’t shame people for not being able to engage in a high-intensity workout, wrote one woman, who said she’s over the age of 60 and has painful arthritis. “Judging other people’s exercise habits doesn’t make them want to exercise more, it just makes them feel bad.”

Someone else pointed to the unrelenting hideousness of phys ed classes in junior high that were rigid and competitive rather than fun. “Maybe that is why I came to hate exercise and it still feels like punishment,” she wrote.

So what’s the answer? It seems to come down to making physical activity more rewarding and less of a struggle. How this is supposed to be accomplished might be different for everyone – and, as with the national effort to reduce the incidence of obesity, some of the solutions will likely have to take place in the environmental and policy sphere. Figuring out why some people genuinely enjoy exercise and find it pleasurable and why others don’t might be a good start, though, at understanding these differences and coming up with effective strategies to help.

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