Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, a fitness expert who heads the kinesiology and community health department, urges people to be "creative, flexible and forgiving when it comes to setting their New Year physical activity resolutions."
University of Illinois Photo
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Throughout the land, glossy new calendars adorn kitchen walls and office desktops. And for many people, the new year prompts thoughts of an old tradition: making - and, in many cases, ultimately breaking - New Year's resolutions.
Predictably, on the heels of holiday-related overindulgence in sweets and treats, the word "exercise" manages to surface on many people's lists. What are the keys to getting a new fitness program off the ground, then staying the course?
"I would urge people to be creative, flexible and forgiving when it comes to setting their New Year physical activity resolutions," said Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko (VOY-tek HODGE-koh-ZYE-koh), a fitness expert who heads the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There are countless enjoyable and creative ways to build physical activity into a daily routine," said the U. of I. professor, who also is principal investigator of the National Blueprint Project, a coalition of more than 50 national organizations with a joint commitment to promoting independent and active aging in people 50 years old or more.
Many of the activities proposed by Chodzko-Zajko are suited for people of all ages and run counter to traditional notions of what an exercise program looks like.
"Many of us grew up with a very rigid conception of 'exercise' that involves participation in a 'formal' exercise program, or joining a gym or fitness club," he said. "This kind of exercise almost always involves wearing special clothes, traveling to an exercise facility, and finding time in a busy schedule to fit it all in.
"Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans fail to achieve the Centers for Disease Control recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week."
And the health consequences of that failure can actually be life-threatening.
"Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for many physical and psychological conditions," Chodzko-Zajko said. "Sedentary living is associated with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many other diseases. Inactivity is also linked to low self-esteem and psychological depression. Many studies have shown that regular physical activity can positively influence all of the above conditions."
In addition to physical and psychological benefits, regular physical activity can often have social benefits as well.
"Some people enjoy participating in group exercise programs where they have a chance to interact with fellow exercisers of all ages and abilities," he said. "Others like to work out with a close friend or partner.
"Regardless whether you choose to be active for health or social reasons, building more activity into your everyday life can be an excellent way to improve your overall quality of life and add fun and fitness into the new year."
One secret to success with any exercise plan - especially for those who find it difficult to stick with a traditional routine - is to stretch the imagination before stretching other body parts.
"Try to come up with creative and enjoyable ways to build physical activity into everyday things that you already do," he said.
• "Add a loop of brisk walking around the shopping mall to your weekend
• "Buy an inexpensive step counter and log the number of steps you walk each day. Some people find that simply jotting down the number of steps they walk every day on a wall calendar or diary provides that additional motivation needed to help stick to a program.
• "For those with sedentary office jobs, take a brisk walk outside during the morning coffee break; or on bad-weather days, walk up and down the stairs of the building instead."
Whatever you choose to do, Chodzko-Zajko said, "do not set unrealistic goals.
"My advice is simply to try to do something physical on most days of the week. Also, learn to read your body's signals. On days that your body feels tired or weary, choose less strenuous activities, or take the day off.
"Once we learn how to read our body's signals and respect its needs, we get a better sense for how to adjust our activity programs to the ebb and flow of our everyday lives."
And for those with the best intentions but worst record for follow-through, Chodzko-Zajko offers these final words of encouragement:
"If you fall off the wagon and experience a few lazy days, don't beat yourself up. You can always pick up from where you left off. It's never too late to start and you can renew your commitment to an active, healthy lifestyle on any day of the year, not just January 1st."
Additional tips on how to become more physically active are available on the National Blueprint Project Web site: http://www.agingblueprint.org/tips.cfm.