Well this one has been a long time coming. But I assure you, its well worth the wait!
What happens when we enjoy an active lifestyle for a consistent period?
Does our focus shift to simply the power of ‘doing’?
Do our relationships with food and/or our bodies change?
What does physical activity mean to us?
Way back in about June last year (thats what I get for writing this on New Years Day), I put out the call for people who have been enjoying an active lifestyle for a consistent period exceeding twelve months to participate in research. This research was designed with the aim of testing some theories I had around things we commonly experience when sustain our physically active lifestyles for a significant period of time. I made some key predictions around the results (which can be found here) and went about analysing some amazing conversations with thirteen people who were each extremely generous with their time and willingness to be ‘open books’ when it came to discussing personal experiences.
Analysing the responses and identifying the commonalities was a long, fascinating slog, but it was well worth it, because I know that there is nothing like this sort of research currently out there.
So are there common traits among people who are consistently active for a period longer than twelve months?
Not necessarily. But there seem to be common experiences which all speak of the awesome stuff that can happen when we simply focus on ‘doing’, and doing something that is relatable, enjoyable and meaningful to us.
There was also a common theme to the responses, and that was the compassionate, insightful manner in which people discussed their experiences, with each person demonstrating not only great self awareness, but also self-acceptance. This was further demonstrated in the words of advice they had for others for whom a consistently active lifestyle was a goal.
- The ages of respondents ranged from 30 to 51 years, with the average age 39.76 years
- A majority of the respondents had been consistently active for period ranging between 2 and 5 years, with some in the 5 – 10years+ range.
- There was an equal spread between those who were active between 3 and 5 days per week (7 people) and those active between 5 and 7 days per week (6 people).
- There was a range of activities undertaken, with most doing a mix of gym work and sports-specific training.
Trainers, Coaches and Self-guided training
- Respondents who reported working with a trainer at the outset of their active period had worked with between one and six different trainers. Most of these respondents had worked with 2 or more trainers.
- All respondents except 2 who reported working with a trainer/s also reported that they no longer engaged the services of a trainer. Some had transitioned to a sports-specific coach, and the remainder trained independently.
- Those who still engaged the services of a trainer only did so either once a week or on occasion where they wanted to ‘check in’ and receive guidance.
- This question aimed to explore whether people who have been active long-term still need to rustle up some motivation to train.
- The majority of people reported that there will still times where they had to find some motivation to train.
- Respondents seemed to have a good understanding of when and why there are times when they need to be motivated to train (“when mentally and physically tired”, or as a side-effect of anxiety and depression).
Rest & Recovery
- This question aimed to explore if there was a shift from what I call that ‘rat-on-a-wheel-must-workout’ mode that sees us quite often get injured or burn out, to a more measured approach which valued the role of rest and recovery. This also would signify a transition from training from a position of fear or punishment, to one of nurturing one’s body through movement.
- A majority of people placed a significant emphasis on rest and recovery, with some citing that ‘it is as important as the work.’
- Others felt they perhaps were not placing enough emphasis on rest and recovery, with some acknowledging that they are learning to put it first and lose that fear of ‘missing’ a day.
Food and Nutrition
- 12 out of the 13 respondents reported experiencing a shift in the relationship they had with food.
- 7 out of the 13 described a shift to working with food as fuel for their training and athletic pursuits.
- 11 out of the 13 described a transition to a more ‘peaceful’, less conflicted relationship with food, with some acknowledging existing emotional ties to food, previous disordered eating, or an understanding of what foods seem to suit their body.
- The responses spoke of a real self-awareness of themselves and food. Those who acknowledged their emotional ties to food did so in a manner where they also discussed the subsequent importance for them to avoid triggering scenarios such as monitoring food, food restriction or dieting of any form.
- Others spoke of an ‘everything in moderation’ approach, stating the importance of enjoyment of food and not restricting anything.
- Those who reported a conflicted relationship with food also reported a higher level of dietary restriction.
Shift in Focus and Goals
- Approximately half of the respondents reported starting their physical activity with a specific goal of weight loss.
- Other initial motivations included a desire to achieve improvement in sport-specific performance; wanting to explore potential and improve symptoms of anxiety; keeping up with the physical demands of children; improve health, and the desire for a new challenge.
- All respondents bar one indicated a shift in focus from weight loss to performance, enjoyment of simply being active, and to overall wellness.
- One respondent reported that whilst their shift was to performance and fitness, they still felt pressure to lose weight as a result of the nature of their chosen sport.
- Respondents described their shift in a manner which demonstrated an appreciation for how their body performed, using terms like ‘I now just enjoy being: ‘fit’, ‘strong’, ‘healthy’ ‘increasing my performance.’
- This question was framed around physical changes experienced as a result of their active lifestyles, with no guidance or examples as to what constituted a ‘physical change’.
- 10 respondents reported a weight loss of 30kg or more. A small number reported regaining some to all of the weight lost but with no real consequence as a result because of their belief that their initial loss was not done in a sustainable manner, or that they had perhaps found their ‘set point’.
- All people who reported weight loss also placed an emphasis on other changes that were reported by all respondents such as increased muscle, better movement, increased strength, and improved quality of sleep. This indicates that whilst it may be a by-product of the activity, weight loss was not necessarily the most valued physical change among the respondents.
Changes in Health
- This question was also framed very loosely without any examples due to the subjective value of what constitutes ‘health’. The concept of health needed to remain relevant to respondents as individuals.
- A very common trend in responses was the value they placed on what physical activity has meant to their mental health and overall well being:
“I feel wonderful, my mind is clear, depression has gone away, I am more optimistic, more confident….generally more social and look forward to embracing my life.”
- Some people discussed how their increased physical fitness and strength enabled them to attempt previously difficult activities.
- Others talked about what their fitness meant in terms of enjoying activities with their families, particularly their children.
- Better movement was also highly valued.
Body Image and Relationship with Body
- This question was framed in a manner to explore what changes, if any, respondents have experienced in the relationships with their bodies or body image.
- Many described experiencing poor body satisfaction at the commencement of their active period, and talked about ‘longing’ for a different body (“I longed to be petite”) or extreme dissatisfaction with their bodies (“I have spent a lot of my life hating my body and feeling fat no matter what shape or size I was”).
- Others reported previously using exercise as a means of punishing themselves and/or their bodies.
- All respondents reported an increase in body satisfaction:
“My focus is no longer on my body…I have embraced my shape and am proud to be curvy.”
“My view of my weight has also changed. Now its all to do with physics….I’ve removed all of the judgment of my weight. I’m simply not interested anymore.”
“Yes – I don’t hate it. It’s amazing what the body can do if we only give it a chance and give it what it needs to be healthy.”
- There was a common theme in the responses of an appreciation of what they could physically accomplish and how their bodies perform (“I know it can accomplish so much.’).
- Many respondents mentioned they had learned to not only appreciate the functionality of their body, but also their need to nurture it.
- Some people still reported a conflicted relationship as a result of still feeling outside pressure to be thinner.
- This section was again left open to what has meant the most to each individual respondent in their active lifestyle.
- Each response provides an amazing insight into the ‘power of doing,’ and how physical activity really means so much more to us than aesthetics. It is also a great illustration of why the promotion of benefits of physical activity really must go beyond the aesthetics.
- Along with the common theme of improved self confidence and mental health was the positive impact and flow-on effect their lifestyles had on other friends and family members. Many mentioned that they had inspired one or many others to simply enjoy activity in a manner that was relatable and enjoyable and above all, sustainable.
- Some responses are featured:
“…the impact and education for my boys! I like myself and am proud of what I have achieved.”
“Confidence development and much more satisfaction in life and lifestyle.”
“Confidence, balanced mental health and new positive friendships.”
“I’m living a great life, my emotions are stable, I feel more mental ‘together’, physically I feel great being able to move.”
“I believe it has improved my self esteem and given me power from within that I try to harness everyday.”
“My confidence has made life much easier. I don’t stress about how I look. I don’t mind shopping for clothes. Its because I respect it [sic my body] and I’m comfortable with it.”
“Self confidence and being able to move with strength and endurance. I no longer need to sit on the sidelines.”
“…both my mind and body have received the direct benefit from this training. I no longer feel limited by what I can do.”