Fitness: How much does exercise inspire other healthy habits?

Try monitoring several lifestyle markers as you boost your activity levels. Take note of your diet, sleeping habits, blood pressure, heart rate and time spent with your feet up.

A study suggests that those who start racking up more minutes of exercise are also likely to post lower blood pressure readings, get more sleep and eat more fruits and vegetables. Bill Keay / Postmedia files

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There’s no doubt exercise is good for you. If anything, the benefits of regular physical activity aren’t stated enough, with improved longevity, vitality and quality of life all positive outcomes of being active. Another benefit to exercise that hasn’t received the attention it deserves is its ability to spark individuals to adopt healthier habits.

Eating well, sleeping well, maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking, drinking in moderation and reducing sedentary time are all habits worth embracing. When combined with regular exercise, the health benefits are even greater, including slowing down the physical and mental decline often associated with aging. Yet too few Canadians exercise regularly, and even fewer can lay claim to an impressive list of healthy lifestyle behaviours.

The idea that exercise is a gateway to positive lifestyle changes isn’t new. Common sense suggests the fitter you are, the more likely you are to choose healthier foods, sleep better, move more and shed some of those unwanted pounds. This has been proved time and time again by novice exercisers who suddenly can’t stop talking about the success of their new diet, the number of steps they take daily and the sleep stats logged on their new smartwatch.

But up until now, there has been very little hard data supporting the theory exercise is a catalyst for healthier behaviours, which is why an article posted in the BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine open-access journal is sparking interest. The article’s authors reviewed the lifestyle stats accumulated by 34,061 individuals who participated in the Vitality program, an interactive online wellness platform that incentivizes healthy choices like exercise, medical checkups, sleep, healthy food choices and stress-reducing activities. The more healthy choices members make, the more points they accumulate, which they can trade for discount coupons to participating retail outlets (grocery stores, fitness clubs) or add to the point total of their corporate team vying to outperform colleagues on other teams.

The researchers wanted to use the copious data collected by Vitality to determine “whether earning physical activity points was followed by improvements in engagement with other health-promoting behaviour and health markers.” They also wanted to see if there were differences in healthy uptakes between those who accumulated the greatest number of exercise minutes (150 or more) per week and those who accumulated the fewest (less than 59 minutes) over the same time period.

Turns out all but the already active exercisers in the Vitality program increased the number of minutes per week they were active. And while they were racking up all those exercise minutes, they were also eating more fruits and vegetables, getting more sleep, spending less time being sedentary, cutting back on alcohol, experiencing less stress and posting better health markers (such as lower blood pressure readings).

“The improvements were greatest in those with the most to gain, those with low baseline physical activity levels,” said the researchers.

One of the unique aspects of the data collected by Vitality is activity monitors were worn by participants, resulting in a more accurate representation of exercise minutes than self-reported stats. Also worth noting is all lifestyle changes occurred in real-world conditions, not in a lab, which makes them more relatable to the average Joe and Jill.

“Our study extends previous findings that health behaviours such as physical activity, healthy eating and abstaining from alcohol and smoking tend to co-occur in individuals and the presence of one healthy behaviour is followed by other healthy behaviours,” reported the research team.

Why does establishing an exercise routine result in other lifestyle improvements? No one knows for sure, but successfully introducing an exercise habit builds confidence, especially among those who have struggled to maintain a regular workout schedule. Mastery in one domain often reinforces the ability to master another, so once someone has achieved a previously elusive fitness goal, they’re motivated to take on another challenge, like cutting down on high-calorie foods.

The message to remember in these results is change begets change. It’s also notable we’re capable of pursuing and achieving more than one goal at a time. Taking this new information into account, monitor several lifestyle markers as you boost your activity levels. Take note of your diet, sleeping habits, blood pressure, heart rate and time spent with your feet up. Chances are if you make a commitment to boost your exercise minutes, you’ll be motivated to complement your efforts by making other healthy changes. Use an activity monitor to keep track of your stats and an old-fashioned notebook to chart your progress, with the end goal being an improvement in the most important health marker of all: feeling better every day.

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