If you’re part of the 80 percent of Americans who don’t get regular exercise, we can help. You know you need to “do something” and your doctor may have even prescribed regular exercise. But there you sit: no motivation to move and unsure of where to start. It’s just easier to ignore the whole uncomfortable, frustrating process.

Let’s start with the reasons to become more active. Your heart muscle needs exercise to effectively do its job. More than 250,000 deaths per year in the United States can be attributed to a lack of regular physical activity.

Your fitness level is the most important predictor of death, exceeding other key risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Heart attack patients who joined an exercise program had a 25 percent reduction in their death rate.

Okay, that’s one reason: you don’t want to die.

You don’t have to be a super athlete to gain heart benefits. The most gain, in terms of avoiding death, occurs when a person goes from being sedentary to moderately active. Less benefits are gained when a person goes from moderately active to very active. However, more activity translates into greater weight loss and quicker overall conditioning.

A second reason is, you don’t want your heart to be older than you are. A healthy heart is a key indicator of your overall health and ability to remain independent as you age. In a previous article we talked about your “heart age.” Go back and look at your heart’s real age here. Becoming old before your time means losing your independence, losing the ability to care for yourself and it could land you in the hospital or a nursing home.

People who are more active tend to develop less heart disease, and have fewer heart attacks and strokes. Even if heart disease develops in active, fit people, it occurs at a later age and is less severe.

Staying independent is not that difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has very minimal recommendations for physical activity: 30 minutes of modest activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. The 30 minutes can even be broken into three, 10-minute sessions. Come on, you can do anything for 10 minutes. Modest activity means any activity that’s as intense as a brisk walk (three to four miles per hour). Similar activities include cycling, swimming, house cleaning or yard work.

Still not convinced to get off the couch? Here are five more good reasons:

  • Fewer heart attacks and strokes. Researchers estimate that heart attacks and strokes could be reduced by 40 percent if most Americans just met the minimum CDC standards.
  • Prevents high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. This is true even if you are middle-aged or older. The benefits start almost immediately.
  • Improves oxygen use. Regular exercise is strongly linked to heart health because it improves muscular function and strength, and makes it easier for your body to take in and use oxygen. As oxygen usage improves, normal activities can be performed with less fatigue and breathlessness. Exercise improves blood vessels’ capacity to expand in response to activity and be more effective at delivering oxygen throughout your body.
  • Reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Who couldn’t use less of that?
  • Lessens the effects of other major heart-disease risk factors. Regular exercise promotes weight reduction, helps reduce blood pressure, reduces bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol and helps the body use insulin more effectively, thus lessening your chance of becoming diabetic.

Lots of options

If you’re not fond of sports, you can accumulate 30 minutes of daily exercise with any activity that makes you move your body and burn calories, such as climbing stairs or yard work.

Make brisk walking a lifetime habit. It’s enjoyable, free, easy, social and great exercise. All you need is supportive shoes. Walking can easily become a regular and satisfying part of your day. Walk your dog, walk your child, walk at the mall, walk as you talk on your cell phone, join a walking group or start one with your friends or neighbors. Walk in place as you watch TV, take the stairs, dance in your living room, take a walk after dinner instead of having dessert.

Stay motivated

It happens to everyone: Even the best plans to exercise can be wrecked by your busy life. Here are some tips to help you stay motivated, and adjust your plans when life intervenes.

  • Gotta love it! For exercise to become a daily habit, you have to look forward to it. AFMC’s Wellness Director Toni Naramore says, “Don’t expect to love the exercise; you fall in love with the results and the process. The results you attain are what motivates you.” Always choose activities you enjoy.
  • Mix it up. Try new activities until you have several that you can rotate doing throughout each week. Variety will fight boredom and push your body in different ways for total body conditioning. Revisit the activities you enjoyed as a child.
  • Have a plan B when the weather, events or a temporary injury keeps you from exercising. Bad weather? Stop by the mall on your way home from work for a brisk walk and climb some stairs. Twisted ankle? Work on your upper body strength with hand weights. Just don’t want to exercise? It’s okay to skip a day now and then.
  • Set specific goals such as exercise 45 min. a day, rather than a vague “get more active.” Realistic goals help you build the habit of daily exercise. Once you meet your goals, set new ones.
  • Track your progress toward meeting your goals in a journal, a chart taped to the refrigerator, a cell phone app that tracks your steps/calories, or on Facebook.
  • Choose activities that fit your personality. If you’re social, join a dance or exercise class, or walk with friends. Try yoga or Tai Chi. If you’re competitive, join a sports team or find a cycling club. If you like to be alone, try hiking or swimming.
  • Get an exercise buddy. Research shows that if a friend is meeting you for fitness activities, you’re more likely to show up.
  • Make exercise a priority. “Fitness is not recreation,” Naramore says. “It is a necessity for health and longevity. It’s as important as anything else you do.” Plan time in your daily schedule and write it down, like a doctor’s appointment. It’s that important!
  • Share your goals with everyone. Tell family and friends so they can reinforce your efforts and provide motivation. Post your reasons for getting fit where you can see them every day.
  • Reward yourself when you meet a fitness goal. Then set a new goal that pushes you to do more and be stronger.
  • Pay attention to your fuel. You can’t be active if you don’t have enough fuel/food on which to operate. For energy, pay attention to your complex carbohydrates and protein, such as half a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread. Drink water before and after exercise.
  • Don’t give in to negative thoughts about yourself or your fitness goals. Stay positive about your reasons for exercising (a healthy heart is the first reason). Focus just on today’s fitness plan and be proud of yourself when you accomplish it. Every morning is a new opportunity to get fit. Do it for your heart’s sake.