New Year health: Ditch the chair says expert

By Dr Tony Westbury
Edinburgh Napier University

media captionDr Tony Westbury, a sports psychologist from Edinburgh Napier University, and ultra distance runner Dr Andrew Murray advise on how to motivate yourself for New Year fitness

The health message has excellent penetration. Few people are unaware of the benefits that come from adopting a healthy lifestyle - doing more physical activity and exercise, eating better, stopping smoking and drinking less alcohol.

But the recent Scottish Health Survey showed very clearly that whilst most people know about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, fewer than four in 10 of us are hitting the target of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. Why are our knowledge and attitudes so out of step with actual behaviour?

People develop habits over time about most aspects of their lives. Habits make our lives run smoothly. For many people, the habit of sitting in the car or on the bus, then sitting at our desk and then at the end of a long stressful day of getting home and sitting in the warm, in front of our TV or computer screen, is just how the day works, we don't have to think too much about it.

The theme that runs through all of this is; we have a well developed habit of sitting down.

Whatever age you are, your body works best when it is given a daily 'dose' of physical activity. When you are out of your chair and active, the body responds and adapts - again, no matter what age you are.

image captionDr Tony Westbury says getting out of your chair makes you active

But how do we break out of the old habits and develop new ones?

The most important aspect of this is your motivation for changing. Psychologists refer to motivation as the 'why' of behaviour - why we do what we do.

It is the most fundamental question.

So why become physically active?

To get healthier, fitter, lose weight ... but motivationally the person who changes their behaviour out of sense of guilt or duty is different to the person who changes their behaviour because they love the activity.

This is why, to have any chance of making your New Year's resolution to become fitter, sticking out those tough early week's you need to find something which is intrinsically fun and enjoyable.

How do you make it fun?

Try something you have enjoyed in the past, try something that it is easy to do, try something you can do with friends, try something that you do not need to make special arrangements for in terms of kit, venue and weather.

Start slowly and weave it into your day.

image captionGet out of the chair as often as possible says Dr Westbury

That is why walking is so important. We can all walk more, by parking a little further from work or the shops, using the stairs rather than the lift, walking to speak to work colleagues face to face rather than phoning or emailing, walking the dog a little further, walking to the shops rather than driving.

I can hear the response: "I don't have time to do these things."

I will be blunt. Look at what activity does to life-span - adding years and quality to life.

You don't have time NOT to exercise.

People often put up barriers to stop themselves developing new exercise and physical activity habits.

Time is the biggest, but others are having no access to facilities, or the expense.

Walking addresses both of these.

Some people feel embarrassed exercising in public.

This can be overcome by recruiting some friends to exercise with you.

A zumba class with friends feels more like a party than an exercise class.

If you have the motivation to change you can work around the barriers.

Here are my top five tips for sustaining your New Year's Resolution:

  1. Find an activity you like doing and enjoy - walking, dancing, gardening.
  2. Start slowly, a few more steps every day. Every step is important.
  3. Have realistic expectations - a little more activity will not suddenly result in dramatic weight loss or a buff physique.
  4. Recruit some friends of family members to support and join you in the new habit.
  5. Reward yourself - A month of walking an additional 1,000 steps per day is surely worth that new CD / handbag etc (1,000 walking steps is about half a mile)

Last thought - look at your chairs differently. They are killers. Admittedly they are slow but they are deadly. Spend as little time in them as you can.

Dr Tony Westbury is a lecturer in sports and exercise psychology at Edinburgh Napier University.