Life events can make it harder to head to the gym: study

Starting a new school, a new job, having a baby, getting married, retiring and a death in the family, are just some of the things linked to a drop in physical activity.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read December 1, 2021
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There were some events that had either no effect on physical activity, or inconsistent findings. GETTY

On a normal day, it can be hard to find the motivation to head to the gym for a workout, or get the running shoes laced up for a jog. Now, scientists from the American Heart Association suggest that major life events could amplify the difficulty and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The research, published on Wednesday in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, emphasizes the need to understand how significant events and changes in one’s life impact the level of physical activity people are able to maintain.

“Certain life events and transitions may mark the beginning and end of different phases of a person’s life, and these life changes may lead to periods of less physical activity and more sedentary lifestyle behaviours,”  Abbi D. Lane-Cordova, PhD., an assistant professor in exercise science at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and the chair of the writing group said. “Physical activity is an important heart-healthy behaviour and too much sitting and inactivity is not good for you.”

These events include starting a new school, from elementary to college, a new job, having a baby, getting married, retiring, a death in the family, major illness, or major societal event. 

“This is a particularly important topic right now because, in addition to life’s other major events, the COVID-19 pandemic is another disruption of everyone’s daily routines and activity levels,” Lane-Cordova said. 

Instead of conducting research in the traditional sense of monitoring thousands of people from several age groups over many years, researchers dug into studies that already existed and compiled the results into one document. 

No specific figures were given for the decreases in physical activity, though data regarding ages for each type of event were provided, as was whether activity stayed similar or decreased. 

For instance, starting a new school was only related to people aged about five to 20 years old. A decrease in activity and increase in sedentary behaviour was found for each of these age groups when starting school.

There were some events that had either no effect on physical activity, or inconsistent findings, such as being re-married, divorce, job loss, and even homelessness.

Events with no systematic data published so far include entry to childcare, summer vacation for school kids, and major societal events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers also accounted for the levels of education, people who lived alone during COVID lockdowns, people who do not have access to outdoor space, and pregnant women. 

“It’s important to maintain or improve physical activity when major life events happen, which is often a time when exercise is most needed,” Lane-Cordova said. “There are so many ways people can do this. They could plan family activities that involve exercise, use free videos or websites to exercise at home or take standing breaks while at work. The most important things are to be aware of the positive health and cardiovascular impact of physical activity and make the effort to get moving.”

The writers add that behavioural counselling could be a method to provide support for those going through a major life event, and there are a number of mental benefits associated with regular exercise. 

The AHA’s study mentions that only one-quarter of adults and one-fifth of teens in the United States get the recommended amount of exercise weekly. In Canada, that number is only 17 per cent for adults, according to a 2018 report from Statistics Canada. Canadians need at least 150 minutes, or two and half hours, of moderate to vigorous intensity activity each week, the Heart & Stroke Foundation says.

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here
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