Forget the spandex: Being active is much easier than you think

5 tips to keep you moving, reduce your minor aches and pains, and increase your well-being.

Getting up and moving doesn't have to involve spandex or pounding away on a treadmill or comparing your woefully inadequate self to the hardbodies at the gym.

What really counts, said University of Alberta physiotherapist Chris Zarski, is to get past the idea that being active means having to actually work out-which most of us find about as attractive as a pile of dirty gym towels.

"It doesn't have to mean going to the gym," said Zarski, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. "You can start with small changes to become more physically active."

And in case you were wondering, yes, we do need to be more active for our own good.

"People suffer with common aches and pains-headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain-without realizing there's something that can be done without taking medications. Physical activity boosts our self-esteem, helps us to concentrate, sleep, look and feel better. And it lets us take a break from a stressful world."

Get social to get active

We should be putting in 150 minutes of activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more, according to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. But it doesn't have to be a tough slog, Zarski said.

"Be active as a group, find a friend and make a team goal. Do what you want to do."

The idea of being active tends to be tripped up by our own assumptions, Zarski believes.

"From the time we're kids, we go to the school gym for gym classes, so we think that's the only place to be active. And mainstream media tends to focus on major events like the Olympics, so as a society, we think of that as exercise. But that's unattainable for most of us."

Focus, instead, on making exercise manageable. The options, once you start considering them in the course of your day, are endless. Zarski suggested checking out activities for any age offered by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"Make it part of your routine. Go for a brisk walk three times a week after dinner. Rake the lawn, and then do your neighbour's. At your desk, take a break every 15 minutes, do some stretching. Do a few exercises while watching TV. Start a community walking or running group, take a dance class. You can bike or walk to work. Take the dog for a walk."

We can also step up our overall fitness and keep aches away by sticking to a few good habits, Zarski suggested.

Here are five tips to focus on to help you stay active and increase your overall well-being.

1. Pamper your posture

Poor posture causes neck, shoulder and upper back pain as the muscles get weak or tight. It's easy to melt into rounded shoulders and crooked necks as we hunch over a computer, but it's bad form, Zarski said.

"Instead, imagine you are tall and proud. Get into good posture throughout the day. Hold your chest up like a peacock, ears in line with the top of your shoulders, and make sure your shoulder blades are back, down and in, and your chin is tucked in."

2. Stretch it out

The most common sore spots are the neck, forearms, buttocks and thighs. Stretching helps us stay flexible and it can help relieve pain-but be careful not to overdo it, Zarski said.

"Stretching should never be painful. It should feel strong but comfortable." Hold your stretches for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, and start with sets of two to three.

3. Boost your strength

Strength is important for maintaining basic functions like balance, but you don't need to lift weights to get there. Often, your own body weight is enough. Target key muscle groups in the legs, behind and arms, and use everyday props like a chair and the wall to do simple resistance exercises. Try heel raises, standing wall push-ups and sitting to stand out of your chair.

4. Don't be a fall guy

As our bodies weaken, our balance can falter. That increases our likelihood of taking a tumble; one out of three older Canadians falls each year, Zarski noted.

"Falls aren't a normal part of aging and we shouldn't just accept the fact."

This means working your lower body, and one of the easiest and best ways is by simply standing on one leg as you wait in line at the store or wash the dishes. Try doing some mini-leg squats and bicep curls with a soup can as you watch TV.

5. Take heart

"Any way we can improve our heart and lung function is going to improve our quality of life," Zarski said. "Get a light sweat going. Push yourself enough so that your heart rate is up but you aren't out of breath.You should still be able to carry on a conversation."