Do you find it tough to motivate yourself or find the time to exercise? You’re not alone. Half of the Canadian male population isn’t getting enough exercise, citing lack of motivation and time as the most significant barriers.

These findings come from a new Canadian Men’s Health Foundation report. They are based on a national study of over 2,000 men aged 19 or older by Intensions Consulting. 

As a researcher and an associate professor at UBC in the School of Kinesiology with a PhD in health psychology, these results are a big part of why I do the work I do. My current focus is the connection between physical activity and mental health. Learning and seeing the positive effects of movement on daily psychological functioning is fascinating. It’s important for people to understand how daily movement can build resilience, mental strength, and the ability to cope with stress. 

Exer-whys? The key to aging and handling stress better

older couple dancing and laughing

The beauty of exercise is there are so many different ‘whys.’ 

While it may be evident that exercise can lead to a longer lifespan, it can also lead to a longer healthspan. 

The concept of a healthspan boils down to the idea that it’s not only about how long you live but also how long you live healthily.  Someone might die at age 80 or 97, but how will those last years look? Ideally, you’ll spend them feeling great and in good health, but this is not the reality for many.

Bodies are worn down biologically with age, and daily movement helps cells age better. Chronic stressors, like finances, relationship problems or the deteriorating health of a loved one, can lead to reduced physical health, which can be evidenced deep into the cells through accelerated biological aging. 

However, people who move their bodies even while experiencing chronic stress face fewer of those negative health effects. People with the added benefit of strong social connections combined with exercise are even more resilient in their psychological coping and thus have a reduced risk for physical health problems. 

Movement for mental strength

In one study, adult caregivers who were providing long-term support to a family member with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia were asked to complete regular exercise for six months to see how it would impact their physical and mental health. The caregivers were providing at least 10 hours per week of unpaid care to their family members.

They were given free YMCA passes and a schedule from a fitness coach. Slowly moving from a low to a higher intensity level, the physical activity they took part in changed their fitness and chronic stress levels. It also lengthened their telomeres, which are a marker of cellular aging. These results were published in the research journal Psychoneuroendocrinology

In another paper published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, caregivers who exercise saw lower depression levels, decreased caregiver burden, and an increased sense of mastery. In contrast, the caregivers who did not exercise did not change over the six months. 

A third paper published in Affective Science showed that six months of exercise led to a decrease in rumination, a more positive mood, and an increased sense of control throughout their days. In other words, exercise changed how they dealt with and felt about their days.

What this shows is that exercise can:

  • Decrease a sense of chronic stress
  • Lower depression levels
  • Improve positive mood
  • Increase sense of self-control
  • Decrease rumination throughout the day
  • Improve everyday functioning

Why calling it ‘movement’ and not ‘exercise’ helps

a group of men running on a dock

People usually think about going to the gym when they think about exercise. And when you think about the gym, think about the travel there, the time spent there, the shower, the return home, and somehow exercise has become a 2-hour chore for many. 

But what would it mean to you if you simply called it movement? Because, at the end of the day, that’s what exercise is, and movement can happen anywhere. 

I’ll tell you what that means for my own life. As a gay man, I used to find the gym a bit daunting. Gym spaces can be quite hyper-masculine. It took me until my mid-thirties to be able to overcome the anxieties around heterosexual male-dominant spaces. I was able to start going to the gym in my 30s but still always felt slightly uncomfortable in the space. My best movement started happening outdoors, however. 

Going for a walk, swimming, and dancing are all forms of movement. There are various ways to move your body. Rethinking exercise as movement can help with the lack of motivation many men feel when thinking about the daunting task of exercise

Even brisk walking is enough to reap the mental benefits of movement. There is a lot of research showing that brisk walking helps with mental and physical health concerns. 

Another recent trend is ‘exercise snacks’. You don’t need to dedicate an hour-long session to exercise, but you can do five minutes here and five minutes there. This is an easy way to reach 20 or 30 minutes of daily movement suggested by experts.

Go slow if that’s where you’re at. All of the above benefits will still happen if you work at a pace that gets you a little sweaty and makes talking harder than usual.

The problem with social media

It doesn’t help that much of what we see on social media are extremely fit-looking influencers at the gym. Is following a popular fitness influencer or ‘fitfluencer’ a benefit or a hindrance? The research is emerging, and some people find it aspirational, whereas others are negatively impacted by them mentally. 

Aspirations are great, but much of what you see on social media is not helpful and often isn’t scientifically valid. The push for everyone to engage in high-intensity interval training as the only way to benefit from exercise, a push often projected on social media, is not based on science, for example. Fads like full-fat or full-carb diets can also be problematic as there is minimal scientific merit to them. 

If anything, many people who look at those folks on social media end up hating themselves once they swipe away from the app. We don’t have to follow these people to find the motivation to move more. 

It may inspire a handful of people, but it seems less likely. 

An easy way to reach movement goals

Some people love group exercise like CrossFit, others don’t. You shouldn’t force yourself to do something that isn’t enjoyable. The best way to turn your fitness goals into a habit is to enjoy it. 

You’re not going to do it if you don’t enjoy it. 

When people talk about exercise, they think about the physical benefits, but the psychological impacts or benefits are often overlooked. Things like decreased rumination, depression and anxiety and increased self-control are large concepts that aren’t often considered when thinking about physical activity. 

Take the first step, literally

Regular movement is one of the best strategies for keeping yourself viable for as long as possible. 

People who take part in regular movement are better at handling stress. They’re able to stay calmer and maintain a stable mood. 

Starting small can be the best way to ease yourself into a movement routine. A brisk 20-minute walk is very beneficial for mental and cognitive health. And if you cannot find 20 minutes, try 10 to start. See what that feels like, and if it feels good, plan to increase it by a few minutes every week. 

Do things that cause you to be short of breath and make you work up a bit of a sweat. Those are the things that are most beneficial over the long term. Initially, it might just be a slow walk for people who aren’t walking much.

Movement is essential to maintaining your physical and, just as importantly, mental health. 

What gets you moving? Share your movement story with us, whether you’re starting out or a seasoned pro.

Move For Your Mental Health

Park far away, take the stairs and move more for Men’s Health Month this June.