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One in two Australians have not exercised in three months

In 30 years in the fitness industry, Michelle Bridges has learned a thing or two but changed her tune on a few things as well.

Some things, sadly do not surprise her.

New research, funded by Medibank, found that 51 per cent of Australians haven’t exercised in the last three months, while separate research from the new Heart Foundation’s National Physical Activity Plan revealed only 20 per cent of adults meet the national guidelines for enough exercise (30 minutes, five times a week). Only 7 per cent of Australian children get the recommended one hour a day of exercise. 

“Part of me isn’t [surprised] but the other part of me is quite saddened by it,” Bridges says. “But the other part of the statistics that came from that is that two out of three people feel disconnected or socially isolated.”

Australians also said lower exercise costs (38 per cent) and having free, social exercise programs nearby (52 per cent) would encourage them to exercise more.

Off the back of the research, Medibank today launched the Free + Active initiative which aims to tackle physical inactivity by engaging 1.5 million Australians in free exercise programs by the year 2022.

“How we are going to do that is roll out hundreds of different programs – exercise programs, mental health programs, community, local, free social programs to get people up and moving across the country,” Bridges says. “To kickstart that Medibank aligned with parkrun and will be rolling out 40 new Park Runs over the next 12 months.”

Parkrun are free, five kilometre group runs around Australia that people can walk, jog or run. It is available to all ages and people with prams or dogs are also welcome.

“And they’re really fun,” Bridges adds. “They’re every Saturday morning and it gives people a chance to become a little bit more active with a little bit more consistency and also to connect.”

Connection and consistency are key to people reaping the many health benefits of exercise, but creating consistency is also the greatest hurdle for many people, Bridges believes.

“If you don’t know what to do to get started, honestly it’s as simple as putting your shoes on and going for a walk. That’s a great place to start,” Bridges says. “Teaming up with your sister, mum or best friend and commit to three days a week, we’re going for a power walk for half an hour before we get ready for work.”

We ought to keep exercise and our approach to health as simple as possible, especially when starting out, Bridges says. 

“We get paralysis by analysis – we overthink it so much … and then you’re frozen and you don’t do anything,” she says, adding that another tendency is to overcommit, trying to change everything at once. 

“It’s too much and they fall in a heap and go ‘I can’t do it’ and that chips away at their self-worth, their self-confidence and they start telling themselves that they’re not good enough … and that is far more dangerous than being a little overweight. That’s the stuff that chips away at your self- worth and self-confidence.” 

To avoid this, she suggests dropping the excuses (“Some people have been telling themselves stories about why they can’t exercise for so long they become ‘truths’.”) and starting with one change. It could be anything from quitting soft drink to cutting down or cutting out sugar in your daily cuppa to committing to a local Park Run on Saturday mornings and simply walking the course.

“What’s one thing in your environment or lifestyle that you could inject or remove?” Bridges asks. “You get that down-pat for a couple of weeks before you select something else. I find that seems to work better because then people don’t feel so overwhelmed.”

In her years training thousands of people, Bridges has learned that once we sort our heads, our bodies are no longer obstacles. The physical activity then works to reset our minds to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s all in our heads. This is why I love physical activity so, so much because it’s a moment in time where you get to disconnect your head and it’s beautiful because you see people come out of a session and they feel fantastic and all their problems are still there and all their work commitments and responsibilities but the way in which they see them is with a different, fresh set of eyes because they had a moment in time to switch their head off,” she says.

“For those 10, 20, 30 minutes you’re not thinking about anything else and that’s what’s so beautiful about physical activity.”

How Bridges’ has changed her tune

When she wrote Crunch Time 10 years ago, for instance, she says she believed that weight gain and loss was as simple as calories in and calories out.

“In some regards, that’s true but… I’ve learned more about the human body and the way it works and how we can really throw our hormones out of whack when we put on a lot of weight,” the 46-year-old says now. “What that can do to our biochemistry. That’s definitely changed my headspace around that – in some instances it’s not just as simple as calories in and calories out.” 

Now a mum to Axel, nearly two, she also has a different approach to her own health. 

“I cut myself more slack these days. I don’t train quite as much as I used to – I used to train like an athlete and I loved it. I can’t go back to that because of my many other responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything,” Bridges says. “If i’m just not feeling it and thinking ‘oh my god I’m so tired’ instead of not doing it, I’ll go but I’ll cut myself a break and do some yoga strength moves, some pilates moves and maybe not as hard as I might have. But don’t get me wrong, yoga is still damn hard.”

Along with the the Free + Active initiative, The Heart Foundation is launching MyMarathon which encourages people to sign up for 42.2 kilometres which can be completed over 4 hours, 4 days or 4 weeks. Michelle Bridges will be attending a new parkrun at Brimbank Park in Victoria, this Saturday.

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