Exercise can be fun or a chore. Whether you are physically rushing around in your job, voluntarily pounding the treadmill, or simply making walking part of your daily routine, whichever way you look at it, experts agree it is vital for your overall health, writes Katrina Phelps.

Exercise experts may vary slightly in what they recommend as the minimum amount of exercise we should be doing but generally at least 30 minutes a day is a good guide. And while most people are aware of this, there are still many people who just aren’t exercising enough.

UniSA Professor of Exercise Science Kevin Norton and his students regularly run 40-day exercise programs and he says a lot of the participants are professionals who have been inactive for many years.

“Our participants are people who are sedentary or near sedentary, and certainly have been doing less than 150 minutes of exercise a week which is the recommended minimum exercise,” Professor Norton says.

New health guidelines released earlier this year by the Health Department now say that 150 minutes a week – which equals 30 minutes of exercise five times a week – is really the minimum amount that should be done, and that people should actually aim for 60 minutes, five times a week.

Lack of time is one of the most common reasons people fail to follow these guidelines.

Ross Hamilton, who ran the 40-day exercise programs while undertaking an Honours degree, says lack of time is frequently cited as the greatest contributor to insufficient levels of activity, however after the program, this tends to change.

“Their change in mind-set would definitely be one of the most significant modifications seen across the intervention period,” Hamilton says.

“This positive change was reflected in the improvements seen in individual perceptions of self-efficacy and other psychometric variables.

“The greatest improvement though after seeing the participants three days a week for six weeks, is the willingness to be involved and work hard in the sessions.

“They become more confident in their ability to perform the exercise tasks.”

Forty-day challenge participant Veena Hillier signed up after her routine of exercising two to three times a week had dropped off completely because of work commitments.

“At the time that I signed up, I was looking at returning to regular exercise as well as increasing the frequency of my exercise as a lifestyle choice,” she says.

“I was also looking for a task master who would make me do the hard yards yet assist in developing my self-motivation.

“I am now more committed to taking responsibility for my exercise routine and am prepared to brave the elements outside which was always a stumbling block for me.”

Fellow challenge participant, public servant Julian Hayward, saw the program as an opportunity to break through some self-doubt.

“Having had 13 knee operations, it was an easy out for me to use my knees as an excuse not to exercise,” he says. “I saw the program as a means of breaking down that barrier. I used peer pressure to my advantage, not wanting to let anyone down by not fully participating.

“Before my knee operations I was running six days a week, and since then while I would occasionally walk into work by parking my car outside of the CBD, I found it to be a chore and didn’t really enjoy it unless I challenged myself but then I would end up with sore and swollen knees.

“This program has shown me that walking is not the only exercise that I can undertake. There are many and varied exercises that are easily available to all of us.

“Increasing your level of fitness does take an element of commitment but we are talking 40 minutes a day, and the benefits are lifelong.”

Once participants have been involved in a 40-day fitness program, the reasons that motivate them to continue regular exercise include participating in a variety of fitness activities such as outdoor and fun activities; exercising within a supportive group environment; and ongoing health and fitness testing.

In particular, Prof Norton’s research has shown that group programs and asking people to exercise every day are more motivating for participants.

“People tend to do more when they know they have to do something every single day,” Prof Norton says.

“I guess the take home message is aim to do more. Schedule in your weekly exercise – the benefits are worth it.”

In the 40-day programs, the focus is on exercising for fitness rather than weight loss. At the start of the program participants were tested for a health age and a fitness age.

“The average change in fitness age is 13 years, and the average change in health is about three years,” Prof Norton says. “These are impressive changes in 40 days.

“Our ongoing testing at three, six and 12 months also shows good results. For a lot of people, knowing that they will have testing at 12 months keeps them motivated to keep on being active.”

Six months after completing the 40-day challenge, Hillier exercises an average of four hours a week, including a Sunday morning workout with two of her fellow 40-day challenge participants.

“We usually catch up on a Sunday morning for an exercise session, which I never would have done prior to completing this program,” Hillier says.

“I have definitely been more aware of getting in regular exercise, including when I’ve gone away a few times.”

Prof Norton says that when looking for volunteers for these programs, 70 per cent of the people who come forward to participate are females.

“It seems that women are looking for guidance, camaraderie, the social aspect and support in a non-threatening environment,” he says.

“Women seem to like the variety, the social interaction and the professional leadership so they know they are in good hands.”

Women’s preference for exercising in a group environment has prompted UniSA’s Dr Carol Maher from the School of Health Sciences to create a social media tool to encourage new mums to exercise.

The Facebook app allows people to create a team of friends who each track their individual exercise. Jocelyn Kernot, a UniSA PhD candidate, is now running a trial of the app, Mums Step it Up, with 120 mums.

“The app aims to foster a friendly competitive environment,” Dr Maher says. “You don’t see every single activity of your friends but you see what their best day was and there’s a tally board of where everyone sits against the rest of the team.

“Our previous research has shown that a team setting is more motivating. It’s also about accountability and influencing your friends in a positive way.”

She also says that as pregnancy and becoming a parent is a major life transition, it’s a time when mums have to change how they exercise because what they did before often doesn’t work any more.

Dr Maher says major life transitions such as beginning parenthood, retirement and finishing high school, are good times to set up new, healthy habits.

“When people go through major life transitions, their physical activity changes,” she says.

“It’s a time when people really need to reassess and if necessary, find a new exercise program that fits into their new life.”

Whichever method is used to increase people’s participation in fitness activities, for long-term change, people have to enjoy what they do and need to get something positive out of it says Associate Professor in Exercise and Sport Psychology, Gaynor Parfitt.

“There are so many variables, we are all different,” Prof Parfitt says. “For example, while some people may find that going along with their friends to the gym motivates them, for others, especially people who are overweight, the thought of group exercise might be very unappealing. We have found that people are good at self-regulating suitable exercise intensity and that this is perceived to be more pleasant than when the exercise intensity is prescribed. 

“For behaviour change, the main thing is that people need to like it or like the benefits to keep them coming back.

“It’s like if you go to a restaurant and really enjoyed the meal, then you’ll probably choose to go back. Exercise needs to be the same – you need to enjoy it so you will keep doing it.”