There are many excuses not to exercise, and “I’m too busy” is usually at the top of the list. But Jason Fahy, for one, has struck it off. Fahy describes himself as a retired runner who works as an architect and uses triathlon to test his physical and mental limits. He used to work “excessive hours,” but reached a point where he realized he needed balance. “I now work smart, and keep my working week to between 40 and 50 hours,” the Irishman says. “This allows me to give time to other important aspects of my life.”
Those “important aspects” include triathlon training, usually 12 to 14 hours a week, and spending time with friends.
Long working hours, crazy commutes, spending time with family and general exhaustion all play a part in creating barriers to exercise. But with around 70 percent of the UAE’s population overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization, most of us need to work harder – and be more creative – to fit that vital activity in.
Shorter workouts to the rescue
The fitness industry has recognized the need for solutions and is making working out easier, quicker and more enjoyable than ever before, but while there’s a gym within easy reach for many people in the UAE, actually getting to them can be a harder prospect.
In an attempt to appeal to people with limited time, fitness clubs and studios now offer shorter classes, many of which are high-intensity interval training. Fitness First, for example, has group classes as short as 30 and 45 minutes, in addition to the more traditional one-hour classes. Gold’s Gym promotes a 25-minute workout that can be completed within a lunch break, and Snap Fitness offers a daily 18-minute MyFit signature workout. Les Mills has launched Sprint and Grit, a 30 minute cycling and HIIT workout, respectively, aimed at busy millennials and reflecting recent findings that the body’s benefit from HIIT workouts may top out at two per week. And the 45-minute workout is increasingly popping up: the first F45 studio just opened at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City, while there are already three of the popular functional training studios in Dubai, shrinking the normal HIIT or WOD-style workout by 15 minutes.
Virtual classes, too
Many gyms also run virtual classes outside of the regular peak times, which makes it even easier to attend a group class and in some cases, more enjoyable too. Les Mills has improved on the virtual experience with its immersive class, The Trip. The popular 40-minute indoor cycling class is a “journey through digitally created worlds” and takes place in front of a cinema-scale screen with a carefully selected soundtrack played on a surround-sound audio system.
There is also evidence to suggest that people work harder in the immersive environment without even realizing it.
In a study published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal in May 2017, researchers found that an “instructor-guided workout with digital images synchronized to music could be the ideal combination to reach high intensities with a lower perception of effort.”
They compared the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and enjoyment levels in elite and novice cyclists in audio-only classes as well as immersive classes. Both groups found their enjoyment was greater during the immersive class, while the RPE was significantly lower. They worked harder than they thought and had a better time while doing so.
Wearables and apps
The latest wearables and fitness apps also make working out more convenient. Devices such as the Fitbit don’t just count steps, they remind people to move and send motivating messages when targets are close. Pre-set workouts and virtual coaching are common features of many apps and wearables, such as Jabra headphones, while many encourage online/virtual communities and foster competition between them.
Apparel brands like Nike and Under Armour have their own fitness apps and Les Mills has just launched its OnDemand app in the US, giving members access to its range of workouts at any time of day or night.
For those who still find it too hard to fit regular exercise into their weekly routine, fear not. Scientific studies show that there are health benefits from short bursts of physical activity throughout the day. Those who don’t have 30 minutes to go for a run may find three brisk 10-minute walks throughout the day more manageable and they may actually find it quicker to walk up the stairs instead of waiting for the lift.
A study by professor William E Kraus of the Duke University School of Medicine, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that even brief trips up and down stairs contributed toward accumulated exercise and could reduce health risks, providing the intensity reaches a moderate or vigorous level.
“The most dramatic improvements in the overall risk for death and disease can occur with a relatively small amount of effort, and the more you do, the better the benefits,” Kraus said.
Working out smarter
The professor joined investigators from the National Cancer Institute in analyzing data from 4,840 people aged 40 and older. They determined that those who did less than 20 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity each day had the highest risk of death. Those who did 60 minutes per day cut their death risk by 57 per cent, while those who got at least 100 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity per day cut their risk of death by 76 percent.
The most recent Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November, support the call to find physical activity wherever and whenever possible. They recommend “moving more and sitting less” and concede that any physical activity is better than none.
The guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both spread across the week. Additional health benefits are gained by doing more than 300 minutes of physical activity. The guidelines also encourage adults to do muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
While the fitness industry has tried to make it as easy and enticing as possible to get people into gyms and pounding the pavements, at the end of the day, it’s down to motivation.
Working out where you can
Trevor Brennan, 38, is a father of two young children and travels a lot in his role as the CEO of Les Mills International for Russia, India, Middle East and Africa. It doesn’t stop him from working out an average of six times a week.
As well as weight training and group classes, Brennan also fits physical activity into his day where possible.
“Skipping the car for walking or cycling is a great addition to any workout plan,” he explains. “In the last six months, I’ve spent over 350 hours in the air, which is a ridiculous amount of time sitting down. It’s really important that time is set aside for mind and body to ensure equilibrium. Travelling doesn’t really change this as the hotel room is usually large enough to get my fix. It’s also a good chance to tour the city you’re in on foot – just remember to pack your trainers.”
He says that being healthy and active is essential for keeping on top of his calendar and commitments.
“An early morning flight or battling the school run isn’t a reason to avoid working out. Putting your trainers on at 4.30am is a matter of choice and personal discipline.
“Training is something that you should want to do, rather than something you have to. Find something that you enjoy and you’ll find the time.”
Featured photo courtesy Les Mills Live.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that, according to the World Health Organisation, 70 per cent of the UAE’s population is overweight or obese. A previous version omitted the word “overweight”.
Amanda Tomlinson is an Australian journalist who has lived in the UAE for almost 11 years. She is still finding her feet in her new role as a mother to a 1-year-old boy, but believes that every misadventure is an opportunity for growth. When Amanda is not singing and dancing around the house with her son, she can be found working out with him, traveling the world with him and trying hard to get some work done.