Physical therapists are a gold mine among healthcare professionals. Who else spends an hour, 3 times per week, for 4 -6 weeks with you and listens to you? Sure, sometimes pain is involved, but they make it feel worth it. They understand the science behind your problem, but they also take the time to understand the emotional, mental, relational, and functional aspects of your problem. They educate, cajole, cheer, and encourage you. They smile, laugh, and cry with you. It’s often a lifelong relationship. So, who is better than a physical therapist to help you address some of the lifestyle choices that are harming your health, primarily physical inactivity?
We have all heard how important physical activity is for good health. Research has correlated increased physical activity with a decrease in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and depression. Our family doctor tells us every year we need to exercise more. But does he/she realize how hard that is? Do they understand my knees hurt? Do they understand how many times I’ve tried and failed? Increasing physical activity isn’t a switch you can just turn on and suddenly you have this wonderful new habit. It involves effort, repetition, and pain. Gee, that sounds just like the physical therapy I had for my frozen shoulder, but it was worth it because I now have full use of my shoulder! So, why not go see your physical therapist for help with this problem, too? After all, they are the movement experts. And did you know that you can be evaluated by a physical therapist in every state in the US without a referral from your doctor? Just call them up and get started!
And about that word “habit.” Haven’t you heard someone say, “just make going to the gym a habit” or “you just need to develop healthy lifestyle habits”? Well, that’s probably not going to happen for a really long time. You need to understand the difference between a habit and a routine. A habit is a learned behavior that has become almost involuntary. Growing up, every time I walked out of a room my mother would ask if I turned off the light. As a result of that repetition for years, it has become a habit to turn off the light every time I leave a room. I don’t consciously think about turning off the light. My arm just reflexively reaches for the switch. In fact, it is so automatic that I sometimes turn out the light while there are other people still in the room! Habits can be wonderful. There is no effort or debate with myself about whether or not I’m going to do that activity. It just happens!
But let’s be realistic, I’m not going to go out and walk a mile every day for 3 weeks and suddenly I have a healthy new habit and life is good. What happens when it’s raining? What happens when the kids need to get to their activities, work is busy, and the in-laws are coming this weekend? We ditch the walk without even thinking twice.
A routine is an intentional activity that requires effort and is repeated frequently. Walking 1 mile every day requires you to plan a time, check the weather, dress appropriately, take the walk, shower afterward, and then get on with the rest of your day. If you miss a day, it’s not the end of the world. You will not deteriorate into bad health with one missed day. However, haven’t you found that once you miss that one day, it gets easier and easier to let other things get in the way and you skip more and more days? If only mom was still there to nag!
Your physical therapist is going to help you plan a routine to increase your physical activity based on your physical health and current life situations. They are going to discuss your goals, your interests, your health, your stumbling blocks, and your past efforts. Together, you will select an activity and make a plan for turning it into a routine. They will address those aches and pains. They will make sure you start small with something manageable. They will problem solve the obstacles as they arise. They will cheer and encourage you.
Not all routines will become a habit. That old saying of doing something for 21 days and it becomes a habit, don’t believe it! This is going to take time, effort, and repetition. Call your physical therapist and let them help you.