While the benefits of consistent exercise are well-documented and, thus, understood by many in our society, the overarching impact of an active lifestyle may be less appreciated. After the industrial revolution, physical demands for most jobs in first world countries evolved to the point where working in offices and cubicles is commonplace and even considered the norm.

In a compelling, long-form article for The Guardian, published last week, Vybarr Cregan-Reid elaborates on some of the historical influences behind the current cultural exercise movement and its consequences, both positive and negative.

Cregan-Reid identifies some of the issues that impede an active lifestyle:

Exercise is movement of the muscles and limbs for a specific outcome, usually to enhance physical fitness. As such, for most of us, it is an optional addition to the working day – yet another item on a long list of responsibilities alongside the fulfilment of parental duties or earning money to put food on the table. But because the principal beneficiary of exercise is ourselves, it is one of the easiest chores to shirk. At the end of the working day, millions of us prefer to indulge in sedentary leisure activities instead of what we all think is good for us: a workout. …

The health effects of being sedentary are as common and recognisable as they are serious. Anxiety, depression, heart disease, breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and the leading cause of global disability, back pain, are all driven by sedentary behaviours.

For our bodies to function properly, they operate on the assumption that we will be burning calories throughout the day, and not in short bursts. It is clear that periods of sedentariness are bad for the human body, and some exercise is always going to be better than none; the issue is not really to do with the types of exercise, but with our approach to them and what we expect them to achieve. We know from the data that the human relationship with exercise is predominantly characterised as both optional and additional to an otherwise sedentary life, which itself causes a ton of problems. As long as physical activity is divorced from the real work of our lives, we will find reasons for not doing it.

Many of Cregan-Reid’s points are spot on, but it is important for readers to keep in mind that the article looks at the big picture. Those feeling stuck in the pernicious habits of a sedentary lifestyle, especially when coupled with a poor diet, may feel overwhelmed and tempted to be hyper-critical toward themselves.

Change happens slowly and lifestyle overhaul requires patience, as simple steps gradually lead to altered behavior. Small decisions, such as walking and taking the stairs more often, can make a big difference in the long run. A twenty-minute workout once a day may prove the be a first stepping stone for an individual who eventually embraces the paradigm about which Cregan-Reid writes. It is critical that readers not try skipping that first step in an attempt to leap towards the final outcome.

To read the full article, click here.