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Working Healthier, Not Harder

Working Healthier, Not Harder

The benefits of keeping active in life

By Sabrina Nemis

Cassandra Boville was afraid. She hung back, wishing she was more fit, but not sure she could do it—not sure she wanted to do it.

She’d taken a year off school, after being overwhelmed by the stress of working while studying full-time. It seemed counter-intuitive to add to her schedule, but there was something missing. 

The Running Room was close to her house, she had plenty of time since taking the year off and she could afford the class fee. Still, she hesitated. 

“I thought I did not belong there. My physical activity level was like… I biked sometimes. I certainly had no medals, no awards, nothing under my belt,” she said.  

Spend any time on social media and you might start to believe that most people are working out all of the time. Tens of millions of posts are tagged with #fitnessaddict, #exercise, #bodybuilding and #gym, a mix of motivational and vanity posts.  

Most Canadians, however, are more like Boville: They haven’t seen the inside of a gym since their last mandatory physical education class.  

A lack of physical activity had started to impact Boville’s career. She had an entry-level administrative position in which she felt uninspired. At work, she lacked motivation the way she lacked physical activity. She still had only a spark of the goal-setting drive she would later find through running. 

The inactivity seemed destined to drain away her life completely. She felt directionless. And as time went on, it would only get worse.  

Boville is not alone. Inactivity is a major concern for many Canadians. It’s linked to mental health issues and many chronic physical conditions, especially as people age. It’s also linked to inactivity at work and a decline in the productivity of employees.

Many aging Canadians put off retirement because they can’t afford not to which makes the effects of health on work more important. In 2011, the average Canadian lost more than seven days of work due to health-related issues, resulting in an estimated loss of nearly $200 billion to the Canadian economy, according to Statistics Canada.  

Prioritizing the health of employees is in the interest of employers. Providing treatments for chronic issues such as depression and arthritis can increase worker productivity, according to a study done by Tufts Medical Center and the National Pharmaceutical Council. And an active lifestyle can be part of preventing these illnesses or lessening their severity.  

With the real possibility of being replaced by younger and healthier workers, it’s in the interest of individuals to stay fit.  

Finally, Boville did it. 

“I don’t want to say it took a lot of courage, but it did,” she said. “To be able, for just one minute, to shut up all the voices in my head and be able to just walk through the door and be like, ‘All right, I’m here.’” 

When she first walked in she was confronted by a wall of shoes. There were shoes for everyone—people with flat feet, people with pronation, people with high arches—she hadn’t known so many different running shoes even existed. She wondered if her running shoes were the right kind.

It was a free run day, where runners from classes ranging from beginner to marathon were gathering to run in small groups. An employee placed her with a group that was preparing to run a five-kilometre race.

She found it hard to keep up with them. “I kept wondering why it seemed that everyone was doing this so effortlessly, and I’m feeling an incredible amount of exertion just to barely keep up with them.”

But she finished the run, then she came back and decided to start the Learn to Run program.

This Running Room program takes things slowly. New runners meet at the store and run together. They start off running for one minute and walking for two. Each time they meet, they run a little bit longer.  

Boville persisted. By her third year, she was back on track to finishing her degree part-time while working and she’d even started to bond with her fellow runners. She wasn’t just running for herself, there were people she wanted to run with. “The power of looking forward to seeing them was enough to draw me out to at least show up two days a week, if not three,” she said. Last year, in her fourth year of running, she took on a marathon.  

Motivate me

Most gyms don’t disclose how many customers pay for memberships but then never use them. The story of the hoards of new gym members every January 1 that then quickly dissipates is an apocryphal one, but with a ring of truth. A cunning gym can make money by counting on fewer regular gym-goers than paying gym members. People have difficulty sticking with their fitness goals. There are plenty of barriers.  

Boville finished her degree and started working full time all while she continued to run. Juggling her new active life with the demands of her job was tricky.  

“The balance is hard,” she said. “I would not challenge anyone who would say that finding time is hard, because that’s real.” She points to family responsibilities and needing downtime to destress from work as barriers to staying active. But she said the people she’d met kept her going back.  

She finished the beginner program and moved on to the next. Her feeling of directionless at work didn’t fully disappear, but she felt refocused. The sense of accomplishment didn’t come easily.   

“The first year was hard because everything was uncomfortable, physically speaking,” she said, “because your body is getting used to something new.” 

She wasn’t fully comfortable socially either. She considers herself to be shy and introverted, so although she ran regularly with the same people, she didn’t call them her friends. “People do draw me out to do things,” she said, “but making connections does take a little longer for me than it might for someone else.” 

Whenever she found herself running less, she felt less focused. She didn’t eat as well or sleep as deeply, and she found it harder to stay focused at work.  

Motivation to continue being active can be an ongoing struggle for many. The Internet is filled with lists that promise to help people stay motivated. Gym clubs like Goodlife have sections on their websites devoted to motivation and call their customer service representatives “motivators.”  

Don Morrow, professor emeritus in the school of kinesiology at Western University, said this isn’t the right way to think about motivation at all.  

“I don’t think smoking is about smoking. I don’t think obesity is about obesity,” he said. What’s key to getting motivated is finding out what lies beneath our unhealthy behaviour.  

Morrow says that there’s no point in reading a list aimed at a general audience or even emulating Boville either. The reasons people struggle with motivation are infinite in number and those reasons are connected to each person’s individual life experience. Generalities aren’t that useful. 

Morrow said the best thing to do would be to find a helpful person who can help you find the underlying reasons for the unhealthy behaviour. This person can be a life coach or therapist, or even a close friend or spouse. He said it should someone “who can use good listening skills and isn’t judgmental.”  

He said a person looking to work on motivation should talk with that helpful person about two main questions: “What does it cost you to not be physically active? And what benefits would you gain by being physically active?” 

“It’s not just weighing the pluses and minuses,” he said, “but getting people to step back and have a look in the mirror.”  

From there, he suggests making a concrete plan of action with goals and having the helpful person periodically follow up. It becomes less about checking off 30 minutes a day of activity and more about a journey of self-discovery and reflection.  

In the end, the key to having more productive Canadians is buried far away from the office. It requires individuals to reconsider the root of what makes them happy and how to get there. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Canadians on the move 

Julia Carter likes to head out well before work, when the Colombo streets are quiet. At 6:30 a.m., the haze of pollution, the constant horns and the chaos of daytime traffic are still an hour away in the Sri Lankan capital.  

She wears black Lululemon pants, a purple tank top, a FitBit on her left wrist and carries her puffer in her right hand. She runs slowly but steadily, breathing harder the farther she runs. After a few kilometres, she stops. She brings her puffer to her mouth and breathes in deeply. She’s lived in Sri Lanka for nearly a month and still isn’t fully acclimatized.  

She’s not worried about it though. It’s not the first time she’s had to readjust her health regimen because of a big move for her work. A new place can make her existing habits more difficult to maintain, but a change of scenery also helps her to build new habits. 

Carter is one of an estimated 2.8 million Canadians living abroad, according to a report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. That’s about nine per cent of the total population of Canada.  

Emily Vanderklift moved to Kuwait to teach at an international school in 2012. She wanted to get exercise by going outside, much as she’d done at home in Canada. At first, she walked to the grocery store, but she disliked the frequent street harassment and found it difficult to cross the road because of traffic. 

“A walking and cycling culture does not exist here,” she said, “and it's evident by the nonexistent crosswalks or any consideration to pedestrians whatsoever. I always hated gyms, but I've had to give in.” 

Pamila Florea rode her bike while teaching at a university in Seoul, South Korea, often cycling about 200 km per week. Then she moved to Ecuador. 

“I really wanted to ride here,” she said. “Bought a bike, joined up with some friends... and the altitude and mountains made it impossible. Between the asthma attacks and the knee strain, I had to give it up.  

“I miss riding. It was like meditation for me.” 

Almost a quarter of Canadians have moved to a different province or territory for work. Between Canadians working overseas and those moving within the country, a significant percentage of people are newcomers in a community at some point in their lives.

And most Canadians aren’t that active to begin with. Most people are active in their youth: 84 per cent of those 17-years-old and younger play sports, according to a 2014 report on the Canadian youth sports market by Solutions Research Group. 

According to Statistics Canada the number of people being physically active starts to drop in high school. By their early twenties, only 37 per cent of Canadians remain active in sports. 

This affects not just their physical, but also their mental well-being. A lack of physical activity is linked to more than 25 chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and several forms of cancer. The Public Health Agency of Canada cites research that most of the physical decline between the ages of 30 and 70 is due to inactivity.   

While rates of physical activity drop, number of hours worked goes up. In their early 20s, Canadians work around seven hours a day on average. By their 50s, that number has increased incrementally to more than eight and a half hours per day. Outside of work, time is often taken up by more sedentary social lives, family life and non-active leisure activities.  

Work may take people away from the gym, but in the long run, time away from the gym will take them out of work. Sudden illness can potentially leave them with medical bills and job loss. 

Canadian work life and health are inextricably linked. The amount of time we spend working—or working out—can affect the rest of our lives.   

Over the age of 65, regular physical activity is essential in reducing the risk of osteoporosis and preventing falls that are difficult for aging bodies to recover from. Being active allows the elderly to be independent into their old age.   

Like Boville, before she moved to the Northwest Territories, Carter hadn’t been active since high school. She wasn’t intentionally avoiding the gym, but kept busy with friends, dating and work. She was like many Canadians. 

According to Anne Bowker, an associate professor in psychology at Carleton University, social connections are extremely important for staying physically active.  

“We know that for university students, one of the most important predictors of adjustment to university in first year is making connections,” said Bowker, adding that this is particularly true of keeping physically active.  

University students may struggle to connect with people on campus, but post-graduation can be even more difficult without the structure of on-campus clubs, or weekly classes to foster connections.  

When Carter got her job up north, it was the people she met there who had the biggest influence on getting her into working out. Her coworkers, also transplants from farther south, had a fitness schedule and went to the gym together. As they got to know her, they invited her to join them.  

“It was good to have that camaraderie,” she said. 

Then, a year ago, Carter got a cold. She wasn’t yet living abroad—she was still working in the Northwest Territories. Her cold developed into a chest infection and her doctors put her on steroids. The wheezing and difficulty breathing didn’t go away. After rounds of testing, the doctors told her she had adult onset asthma.  

The asthma kept her sedentary in her free time and sometimes even kept her from going to work. For someone who enjoyed working out, this should have been a crippling blow, but, she said, “it was something that motivated me because I didn’t want to give in and be limited by anything.” 

When Carter first moved to Sri Lanka, she wanted to keep up with her running. She thought she might run at night. Close to the equator, the sun goes down each evening around 6:30 p.m., early enough to run after work, and still have time to wind down before bed.  

But living in an equatorial country comes with intense heat. Most days are above 30 degrees Celsius, with the relative humidity well above 80 per cent. The air pressure that remained in the evening made it difficult for her to breathe. Considering her asthma, she preferred to run in the morning. 

Even running early in the morning, she took precautions. She always carried her puffer with her. She took a double dose before she exercised. She said she started slowly when doing cardio, “just to ease myself into it and make sure I’m not pushing myself too hard.”  

She also regularly tested herself to check up on her lungs and breathing ability. Within the first month, she’d already had to visit the doctor to adjust her medication. Yet she still felt committed to finding ways to be active. “No doctor is going to tell you to stop exercising,” she said. She had come all this way for work and she wasn’t about to get sidelined. 

Last year, Boville decided to take on a new role at the Running Room: She would lead the Learn to Run program at her local store. She would help guide people who were in the position she’d been in only a few years before.  

Many of them worried about the same things she’d been concerned with. “Something we hear, frequently enough from a lot of people, is that they have this image of what it means to be a runner and part of the running community,” she said. “They picture, like, the high school track star team.” 

She would challenge them to reconsider who they were, because the runners coming to the program tended to be diverse, with different levels of experience, different body types and different expectations.  

The ones who stuck with it quadrupled their running time by the end of the program and ran together in one of the local 2.5-kilometre races. It may not have been a marathon, but it gave them a sense of accomplishment that helped propel them forward. 

They moved forward not only in their running, but in other parts of their lives as well, including work. Each person moved at their own pace, like a version of Morrow’s individualized coaching, helping them become more productive at home and work.  

Boville ran with them and helped them celebrate their accomplishment. “It’s pretty unbelievable how life experiences will challenge your beliefs of who you are.”

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