Exercise is missing in our culture, and I think I know why! It is my job to lend a voice to prevention medicine through the lens of behaviors in exercise. My life’s work has been in designing health systems and health programs that promote true prevention. As a health behavior change expert in exercise, I am paid to anticipate, understand and problem solve all the reasons someone may not exercise. Through my education and professional experience, I have found that part of the epidemic of physical inactivity is a system and cultural issue. Our cultures and our systems of living are built in a way that makes it very difficult for us to chose exercise. Exercise is time consuming, it is inconvenient and it is not always fun. Many of us have a negative visceral reaction when we think about exercise. It is something that we begrudgingly do, if at all. Even when we break through the barriers of motivation and we convince our selves that it is in our best interest to exercise, systems have a way of making it near impossible to follow through.
Let me explain with a story that I think you will relate to. Just the other day I broke my three day marathon of conference paper submission writing to spend some time in nature and take a yoga class. At the end of the day a colleague asked me what I had been doing all day and I lied. I got nervous and it just came out. I said that I had been doing work on a lecture series. I was too ashamed of not being busy and productive to tell the truth, that I had taken time out to exercise and be well. Taking time to exercise and be well is not always celebrated as a positive attribute in our culture, in fact it can seem selfish and lazy to some people. In that moment I was afraid that I would look like I was not doing my job.
Addictions to being busy as a barrier to exercise
As a researcher, a guest lecturer, and a full time PhD. student, my time is limited. Not only am I busy, but I am also expected to be busy, so that when I am not busy I feel like I should be busy. Anyone else get this feeling? I seem to have this deep seeded ideal that having time to exercise (or do other things that are healthy for my body and mind) means that I must not be working hard enough. We see this in the American Culture in many different places. Even as an exercise physiologist where it is my job to instill exercise consistency in others, I still struggle to be consistent in exercise myself. The reason is shame. The shame I feel when I am not busy doing work or school related things far outweighs the shame I feel when I fail to do the very thing I preach to others.
Check your choices
Have you ever opted for a shorter lunch break at work so that you could be more productive, but then felt resentful to the person who chose to take a full lunch break? Have you ever though that fitness is a luxury that you yourself just do not have time for, but envied and resented the people that do seem to have the time for it? Have you ever felt shame for taking time for yourself instead of doing what other people expected you to do? We contribute to this culture of busy work that prioritizes productivity over personal health in so many ways. It is time to turn this around. Encourage your employees and your co-workers to take their lunch breaks. Encourage your friends to skip out on plans if they need to take care of themselves first. Encourage yourself to go against the grain and tell the truth when you have taken time to work on your personal health. Like anything worth fighting for, shifting to a culture that prioritizes personal health will take the grassroots efforts and top-down change. I am committed to being that change in both arenas, and I am asking you to join me in the effort. You deserve to be healthy, but you have to align those choices at every step of the way.