I have really fallen out of my exercise routines since the whole moving house process began, and I am yet to find a new routine to get myself active again.
I have still be doing on my daily walk around the block but I’ve not done any stretching, yoga, skipping rope or even really dancing for over a month now! I’m starting to feel weak and grotty without it but I’m finding it a real struggle to make the time (by which I mean, get up on time in the morning!) and find the right space in this new house.
I recently read a series of New Scientist articles about the scientific evidence for why exactly exercise is good for us. For a while these articles were available for free but they are back behind the subscription wall now, so I thought I’d share what I’d learned for you – dear reader – as an exercise (haha) in re-motivating myself. I have also made some notes in graphics, I find playing around with that really helps me summarise and synthesise what I have learnt, and its fun because it appeals to my creative side!
If you are interested to read the full articles you may be able to access New Scientist through your Library, which is how I usually read it. If you’re in the UK your local library probably gives you access to Libby
Exercise for Health not Calorie Burn!
In the prevailing culture being thin is the ideal and anybody with a larger body is shamed (even more now we are in the nightmare zone of the Ozempic/Wegovy craze (which seems like a terrible idea to me), and “heroine chic” allegedly being back “in”), it is likely that a primary motivator for exercise for many people is either to lose weight, or prevent dreaded weight gain.
When I was younger that was my motivation for going to the gym. Over the last 5 years I’ve realised that exercise is much, much more important for my mental health and just generally feeling OK – that my body isn’t made of jelly and I’m not winded by going up some steps! I try to stay in a place where HEALTH is my number one reason for exercising, which honestly takes a lot pressure of a desire to monitor how many calories I may be burning.
In any case, it turns out that the magical equation for weight loss, the idea that it is as simple as a monitoring your calories in vs your calories out, is actually a myth. The truth is that your individual calorie burn is very difficult to measure.
I had come to understand this just through my own lived experience, especially as I’ve got to my 30s. My body fat does not seem to be measurably impacted by the amount of exercise that I do. It is also something that I’ve learned a lot more about recently since listening to podcasts like Jameela Jamil’s iWeigh, especially the episode with Aubrey Gordon and then finding Aubrey’s own excellent podcast Maintenance Phase.
Scientific studies have shown that calorie burn is not a simple equation because your body’s metabolism will adjust based on your overall activity levels.
It now turns out something weirder is going on. Working out a lot doesn’t appear to burn more calories than doing a little. In fact, going mad in the gym doesn’t seem to burn any more calories than moderate activity a few days a week and taking the stairs, for instance.Why doing more exercise won’t help you burn more calories
Part of the reason for that may be that people go crazy at the gym for a couple of hours but then spend the rest of the day not moving very much at all. Doing more consistent lower level activity throughout the entire day is what scientists believe is more impactful.
This is why I shouldn’t ignore my fitness tracker what when it tells me “it’s time to move” every hour! And I understand now why I see a “calorie adjustment” value in my Garmin app if I have done a workout in the morning, but then not moved so much the rest of the day!
Metabolism is highly individual. Two people with matched body size, body fat, and activity levels might have a difference of hundreds of calories burned by their bodies per day. Researchers still don’t understand why this is, but they do know now that it is not related to activity.
This is all to say, that weight loss should not be the primary motivation for exercising, but there are a huge benefits to be had in other areas.
Your Body Needs To Move!
Our bodies are designed to be active, if we don’t use them they’ll get stiff and we’re more likely to get kinds of health and joint problems.
Studies have shown that vigorous exercise (getting sweaty and out of breath) helps to regulate our hormones and balance our internal processes. We see more health issues with things like inflammation these days because we’ve become more and more sedentary, and the lack of activity is throwing things out of whack.
An Australian study found it takes over an hour of vigorous exercise to cancel the ill-health effects of sitting all day for work. A study of Glaswegian Postal Workers who clock about 15,000 steps (or 2 hours of brisk walking) a day had fantastic cardio-metabolic health. A US study found that just 25 minutes of “moderate-and-vigorous” activity a day found the risk of dying, within the studies 5-8 year timeframe, was 25% less compared with the least active people . A Taiwanese study found that even just 15 minutes a day of moderate exercise (like fast walking) reduced the risk of death by 10%. 
The more you move the healthier you are likely to be, and the longer you are likely to live!
You Don’t Have To Start Running!
It is an age old question, one I ask myself every time I have attempted to turn myself into a Runner. Is running worth it when its just so miserable? And anyway, doesn’t it mess up your joints?
Annoyingly, yeah… maybe it is worth it? But only if you are one of those psychos who actually enjoys it.
A study of 82 newbie London Marathon runners found that training for the race actually strengthened the weight-bearing components of their legs. While there was some damaged to the kneecaps of the runners, this was reversed within 6 months of going back to their usual, less intense runs. Overall it was concluded that distance running can have long-term benefits to the knees and reduce the risk of osteoarthritis, and even common age related issues like needing hip replacements. Another study found in first time marathon runners, even the slow paced ones had a 4 year reduction in the age of their cardiovascular system.
The study in Taiwan found that the benefits of 15 mins of moderate exercise (10% reduced risk of death over 8 years) could be gained in around 5 minutes of vigorous exercise, like running. They really got into the calculations and worked out that for someone between 44 and 80 years of age running for 1 hour typically adds an extra 7 hours to your lifespan. 
If you’re still not sure it’s worth it – and I’m not (my ankles especially just don’t get on with running, I think I have poor dorsiflexion) then its perfectly fine to just walk instead. It will take more time to build the same benefits, but all the same benefits are there to be gained! You just need to walk further and preferable find a few hills to go up too.
I love to go for a walk and try to every day at lunch time, often after work too when its light and the weather is nice. I like to stick on a podcast, or an audiobook, and have a wander around. Now I live with my partner he will come with me on occasion too!
Just Dance (or Jump!)
I made a decision around 2020 when I was trying to get myself out of another exercise slump, and going through a period of feeling horrible about myself (I now can link a lot of that to The Pill), that if I was going to do exercise it would be fun. No more forcing myself to the horrible, smelly gym (lockdown did free me of that at least!). No more trying to convince myself that I could be a runner. No more repetitive HIIT exercises (though those I could at least do while I watched TV!).
This is when I found The Fitness Marshall on YouTube and my life was changed. Those guys were like an answer to my prayers. Caleb has very fun, warm and chaotic personality and his dance workouts are low pressure, often silly and to real music (not boring royalty free tracks). I don’t want to side track this post with gushing about how awesome those guys are – I’ll save that for another post!
To cut to the point, just from my own experience dancing is fun and its great exercise that doesn’t feel like you’re “working out.” According to Science its great to boost your mood as moving your body to a beat makes your feel more in control and confidence. Each time you move at the right time with the music you get a sweet dopamine hit .
If you do it in a group you also get an added boost, but I am happy enough dancing by myself in the kitchen! I have also found that if you’re really unmotivated to move, a little bit of wine or a g&t plus a dance workout works wonders and is very fun!
I think I get a similar experience out of skipping rope (or jump rope for the Americans) – I enjoy it the most, and feel the best, when I get my jumps flowing with the beats of the song. I have a specific playlist I use for this that is a work in progress of trial and error to see what works!
Bonus Spotify playlist!
Strength Training is Best Overall
This is where I have really let things go. For a spell in the summer of 2022 I was back onto the strength training with my little dumbbells which I’d do either to music or a podcast. I would do this Joe Wicks routine a few times a week. I actually had got to the point where I could do 6 burpees! (No full push up ones though, obviously). That felt amazing at the time… but then something or other happened to interrupt my routine and it all went to shit again.
This is, according to Science, a bad idea. Your strength peaks around your 30s, and if you’ve lived a sedentary life with poor muscle strength you can start getting really pathetic sounding injuries from activities like moving your mouse.
Plus being stronger is good for basically everything! Strength is a good way to help with Depression and Anxiety. Stronger legs have been linked to boosted balance and confidence.  I know I definitely feel a lot better about myself when I feel stronger and I can feel my muscles working.
It also may increases your brain power, studies have shown strength increases your grey matter which is especially crucial in old age. Grip strength has been linked to better memory and can now be used as a marker for cognitive decline.
Being stronger also increases your muscle density which helps ward off osteoporosis when you get older. More muscle also require more calories to maintain, which can help reduce body fat and health issues that may be related to that. 
This is another area that I have let slide with my aging 34 year old body, and every year I swear I am feeling it more! I’ve never been flexible, it took about 6 months of daily yoga before I could touch my toes, and I find it I stop regularly stretching I start to stiffen up very quickly.
After reading those articles I now know there are benefits to my cardiovascular system as well as being able to bend down and pick something up without anything hurting! Apparently a study found a link between people who are inflexible and risk factors for cardiovascular disease that was unrelated to participants fitness levels. 
Researchers recommend resistance training and active stretches as the most efficient exercises as they will strengthen and lengthen muscles at the same time. That means you don’t have to add on time for stretches to the end of a workout. You can also train your flexibility, and your strength, in every day life by stretching yourself out and moving more. You can do simple things like squatting down to pick things up to use your muscles, or reaching up high on shelves will stretch your shoulders.
Yoga is great for active stretches and I’ve not practiced that properly in years – since 2020. There was a spell where I had got quite strong, and much more flexible, from a regular yoga routine but I seem to struggle to get myself motivated for that these days. Perhaps instead I can work in the poses that I know, with some strength and resistance exercises, while I have my music/book/podcast/TV playing without feeling I must do “proper” yoga session with all the meditation elements that I find it so difficult to be in the right headspace for.
Perhaps just getting back into those physical actions will lead be back to the more meditative side.
If you regulate your breathing (which you should be naturally doing during vigorous exercise as well as yoga etc) you are taking charge of your own brainwaves by linking them to the rate that air is travelling through your nose. Studies have found that slowing your breathing right down – to three breathes per minute – can actually alter your state of consciousness.
I believe this is something that religious leaders, yoga teachers – and all cult leaders – already understand! I definitely feel better from doing yoga where I actually do pay attention to my breathing along with my movements. Lions breath is a particular favourite breathing exercise that really calms and lifts my mood, possibly in part because it feels so silly to do!
I Better Get It Together
So, yeah.. there are some compelling reasons why I need to get off my arse and move my body again. I need to figure out how to do that in this new house with my new housemates (partner, two cats) and a different routine. I do know that I need to make it easy for myself so I’ll have to somehow workout the best spaces for my dance, skipping, yoga and strength workouts to get set up.
I also need to re-employ my other-side-of-the-room alarm clock to force me out the bed on time to get moving in the mornings again!
- How the way you move can change the way you think and feel. New Scientist, 2 March 2023.
- Steve Haake. Is running or walking better for you? Here’s what the science says, New Scientist, 11 March 2020.
- Teal Burrell. Why doing more exercise won’t help you burn more calories. New Scientist, 16 January 2019.
- Herman Pontzer. How many steps a day do you really need? Spoiler: It isn’t 10,000. New Scientist, 12 June 2019.
- Caroline Williams. The lowdown on stretching: How flexible do you actually need to be? New Scientist, 14 July 2021.
- Helen Thomson. Why strength training may be the best thing you can do for your health New Scientist, 15 April 2020.