In February, I went for a jog with a running group with a difference. Each person had a cancer diagnosis, and was dealing with it in a hugely positive fashion, through the power of exercise. As we ran, I heard stories of incredible fortitude, bravery and positivity. 5K Your Way, the small charity behind the group, helps to empower these individuals, who are literally facing the challenge of their lifetime. This prompted me to reflect on the power of exercise to help those facing great challenges in our society. This is what part of the Good Society looks like.
In the Good Society, individuals, communities and wider groups need to overcome challenges faced on a personal, community and societal level, for each individual to live their most fulfilling life and to drive society in a positive direction. This requires tackling the obstacles we encounter with energy, determination and positivity, harnessing these qualities through teamwork and leadership.
Why is physical activity important to this? The three panelists, including myself, at last week’s Physical Activity in the Good Society Forum webinar explored the power of physical activity to bring about the Good Society — through examining the attributes exercise bestows, whilst also considering its difficulties and how we can overcome them.
Simidele Adeagbo was the first African and black skeleton athlete in the Winter Olympics, competing for Nigeria; alongside this she has worked for Nike for 15 years to bring innovative and challenging marketing campaigns to Africa. She also is involved in programs to develop leadership for girls and young women across Africa.
Charlotte Roach was a Great British runner and triathlete training for the 2012 Olympics when she suffered a near-fatal crash on a training ride. She returned to the highest levels of triathlon, but after retiring struggled to find motivation to exercise. This led her to set up Rabble, an organisation that makes exercise fun, which, pre-COVID, had over 50 groups in the UK.
As for me, I was was diagnosed with advanced cancer aged 24. Despite a bleak prognosis, I used exercise as a means of dealing with my treatment. I walked, ran and cycled my way through chemotherapy. In January 2020, I started cycling from Bristol to Beijing on a tandem, sharing the power of exercise and adventure with others with a cancer diagnosis.
Simi explained how sport can be a powerful shaper of character attributes; through developing assertiveness, leadership and teamwork skills and self-confidence, sport can be a powerful way of empowering women and driving gender equality (1). Studies in America have shown that greater athletic opportunities for women led to longer enrollment in school and a great number entering STEM professions, traditionally a male-dominated sector (2). Simi also asserted the power of sport as an enabler and platform for social change, with sportspeople like Tommie Smith and Colin Kaepernick protesting racial injustice and Simi herself viewing her involvement in skeleton as a form of advocacy.
Yet Charlotte contrasted this with the feelings of inadequacy that can be associated with sport from a young age, particularly in the educational setting, suggesting that whilst sport can be a positive driver for change for some, it is important to consider how to make it an inclusive and positive experience for all.
I focused on the power of exercise to help each individual to deal with challenges that they face through developing physical, mental and emotional strength and resilience. This can help us through medical challenges, depression and stressful lives, tackle obesity and even to age healthily, which is particularly pertinent to large aging populations in more developed countries (3).
Physically, exercise promotes muscle growth, aids weight loss, decreases blood pressure, increases the health of many organs (4–6). It also reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer (4). It can also lead to improved outcomes and recovery times following surgery and increase the efficacy of chemotherapy (7–10).
Mentally and emotionally, physical activity can play a key role. Physical activity causes the body to release dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin — a potent selection of hormones, which are perhaps the most powerful antidepressant of which we know (11,12). Physical activity improves our concentration and memory, whilst giving us the mental space to unwind and relax, and “turn off” from the constant bombardment of demands we face. Further, physical activity gives us more subtle benefits: the ability to take control of an uncontrollable situation: a stressful job, a cancer diagnosis, and do something small yet positive to improve our life, even in the face of challenges. It can also form an important part of one’s identity — we can be a “runner”, “dancer” or “footballer”, in addition to the other hats we may wear — “workaholic”, “cancer patient”, “single mum”. This can give us balance and alternative pillars for self-worth and satisfaction.
By helping people overcome physical and exercise challenges we will also help people become positive forces to grow, step by step, our Good Society.
So if physical activity can build leadership and self-confidence, improve our health and help us deal with the challenges that the lottery of life throws at us, why is it so difficult to do?
Charlotte shared her own experience. Following her retirement from elite sport, she struggled with sport — without a goal, she lacked motivation, it wasn’t fun, “and I realised this is what it felt like for everyone else”. It is vital to find a physical activity that is enjoyable for each and every individual — and to not stop searching until you find one. Charlotte highlighted the benefits gained from exercising with others — the social interaction, being part of a community and the motivation gained.
Negative attitudes towards exercise are often formed at a young age, particularly through the way sport is done at schools, with many describing the fear of being the ‘last to be picked’ in team sports and are a key barrier to a lifelong love of physical activity. Busy, stressful lifestyles often end up precluding exercise, a sad irony given the power of exercise to alleviate stress.
How does one make a start? Experiment with different activities — cycling, kickboxing, softball — until you find something that you enjoy, and then slowly build it up. “Take it day by day” Simi advises. Consistency is key, and habits are built for life. It has to be enjoyable and sustainable. Opting for a get-ripped-quick strategy and training hard for a week could leave you injured, or at risk of burnout.
However, this highlights one of the paradoxes of health and exercise in Western societies in particular. Some of the most popular influencers promote health and wellness. Many millennials and members of Gen Z have never been more concerned with exercise, healthy eating, wellness (13,14). And yet obesity rates have never been higher (15). There is clearly a disconnect.
Where does this leave role models? Charlotte said there are many elite athletes promoting a healthy lifestyle, but the demands and time available to a full-time athlete are very different to the vast majority of the population, with responsibilities stemming from work, family and other commitments. The majority of the exercise industry is premised on an unrealistic goal, Charlotte suggested — it is so important to have role models who are realistic and positive for the groups targeted.
Cultural factors can also place constraints on exercise, particularly women in more conservative societies. Simi suggested harnessing the power of interconnectivity through apps and phones, to exercise remotely or to be part of online groups and communities, with a trail firmly blazed by COVID-19 exercise apps and online yoga. She also described her experience of how sport can challenge established norms — not without its risks — such as through championing female athletes in more socially conservative areas.
So, what needs to change to enable happier and greater participation in physical activity in the Good Society?
Again — find a form of physical activity that you love, and don’t stop searching until you find something.
The education system in many Western countries needs to introduce exercise to children in a less pressured, performance-orientated environment, with the focus being on discovering, and sustaining, the joy of movement, developing a lifelong love of physical activity, and a means of building self-confidence rather than feelings of inadequacy.
The age of interconnectivity through the internet and our phones could herald global change in how we interact through exercise. People can now monitor and track many aspects of their health and fitness, be part of local or global communities, and participate in sessions with others from around the world.
Lifestyle choices are geared towards a sedentary way of life in many Western countries. Indeed, it tends to be “developed” countries which tend to live more passive lifestyles; as more of the world urbanises and becomes richer, this could become a challenge facing a larger number of people.
Until it is easier, quicker and more enjoyable to cycle and walk many people will be restricted to sedentary lifestyles. If exercise can be incorporated into a daily routine such as a commute, it becomes second nature and sustainable. How can our cities be planned differently to welcome bikes and make cars less attractive? How can electric bikes change the nature of urban transport?
Finally, there must be balance. And this is where different factors coalesce. Despite the enormous upheaval caused by COVID-19, positives can be found. For those fortunate enough to work remotely, perhaps this will usher in a new era when it is much easier to go for a walk between meetings or at lunch. But for those unable to work or without a working-from-home option, how can balance between work, play and a healthy lifestyle be achieved?
By integrating physical activity into our lives, we can be more effective and efficient individuals, better able to bring around positive change in the societies of which we are a part. Physical activity brings cold hard gains to productivity, fulfillment and happiness.
It may not be straightforward, but it shouldn’t be rocket science. After all, in the words of Charlotte: “exercise is just a fancy word for movement”. Go out and move.
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