There are very few behaviors that when engaged in consistently can reliably increase the quality of our lives and our longevity. One such activity is exercise.

More and more research is pointing to the physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity for individuals of all ages. Increasingly, we are finding that even small amounts of regular physical activity, such as walking for two hours each week, can confer a big advantage to our overall well-being.

Most know the importance of regular physical activity, yet don’t do it consistently. Research shows that the people cite a lack of time, failure to find a place that is available and safe to workout and generally “not liking” physical activity as key reasons for not exercising. Committing to a regular physical activity regime requires changing habitual behaviors and finding internal motivation to do this.

Research shows that people do best at changing their behavior when they have a specific and personally meaningful reason attached to the behavior change. Knowing that regular physical activity will make you healthier and be good for you may not provide the specific, quantifiable motivator required. However, affirming that regular physical activity, such as walking daily for 40 minutes, can decrease your chances of getting breast or colon cancer can provide the specific and personally meaningful motivator you need.

We each will be motivated to change behavior by a different reason. The more specific and personally meaningful the goal is to us, the more likely we are to be able to integrate in a new behavioral routine into our daily life. If you are having difficulty finding your personal “hook” to integrate physical activity into your daily routine or looking for a boost of motivation to continue doing so, consider the amounting research on the specific benefits of even modest regular physical activity. Find your specific and personal “hook” from the list below and use it to affirm your regular physical activity.

Documented benefits of regular physical activity include:

» Decrease in obesity and diabetes: There is strong positive correlation between consistent physical activity, such as regular walking, weight loss and the primary prevention of Type 2 diabetes. In fact, some studies show a 40 to 60 percent reduction in the incidence of diabetes in high-risk populations when regular physical activity is introduced. Ongoing physical activity also plays a role in the management of those diagnosed with diabetes; studies show walking for two hours a week can lead to a 39 to 54 percent reduction in premature death for these individuals.

» Decrease in cardiovascular disease: Increasingly, research shows that modest regular physical activity, such as walking for an hour a week, confers a protective advantage against developing cardiovascular disease. Adults who engage in regular physical activity have a 20 to 35 percent lower risk of death due to a cardiovascular cause than those that do not exercise regularly. Individuals with cardiovascular disease can also use physical activity to attenuate or reverse the disease. Research now shows that individuals with cardiovascular disease have a better prognosis when they engage in regular physical activity.

» Protection against certain cancer: Routine physical activity leads to a decrease in the risk of developing certain kinds of cancers, namely colon and breast cancer. In addition, studies have found regular physical activity improves the overall quality of life and health status of those with cancer.

» Alleviate depression: Physical activity plays an important role in increasing mood and decreasing depressive symptoms. It is believed that the endorphins that are released during physical activity elevate mood.

» Decreased level of anxiety: Regular physical activity has been found to be effective in reducing daily stress and anxiety symptoms of individuals with acute anxiety and panic attacks. Ongoing exercise can decrease the mental distress and physical complaints that accompany anxiety.

» Increased attention: Ongoing physical activity can improve attention and executive functioning. Studies in the classroom with students with and without ADHD show an increase in alertness and concentration with regular physical activity.

» Improved sleep: Consistent physical activity helps regulate sleep quality and quantity. In fact, the majority interventions for insomnia focus on daily physical activity to better sleep.

» Enhanced well-being of seniors: The importance of physical activity during the senior years is gaining increased recognition. Seniors who are physically active maintain better memory and executive functioning. In addition, regular activity may protect against certain kinds of dementia. Consistent physical activity for seniors: enhances balance, can prevent the progression of osteoporosis, and aids in recovery from illness and surgery.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.