By now I hope that most people have come to understand the great importance of being active and exercising. We’ve seen beyond a doubt, what the sedentary lifestyle that we’ve created can do to our health. Although modern medicine has created numerous ways to keep us alive, the rate of heart disease isn’t decreasing, and the occurrences of diabetes rises yearly. Being active, exercising, and eating well are the biggest contributors to staying out of the doctor’s office.
A question that Michael, a client in our 10 Weeks to Health program, asked me a few weeks ago, stands out in my mind. Michael has a lot of weight to lose, a fatty liver to deal with, prediabetes, and would like to see lower cholesterol numbers. He is taking the 10 week program seriously and has added exercise and healthy eating to his life. A few weeks ago during a session, he asked me a question which I have been asked hundreds of times in various forms. “What about walking to the store, or walking my kids to school – does that count as exercise?” My answer 6 weeks ago was different than what it would be today.
Then, I would have said that any activity – walking minimally at moderate intensity for 10 minutes or more — can be put into the equation. Shorter bouts of movement are in the category of activity, but not exercise.
Now, according to new federal exercise guidelines, even a few minutes of movement can count toward the minimum, recommended aerobic exercise goal of 150 minutes per week. “Studies show that the total amount of energy expended is what’s important for health, not whether it comes in short or long bouts,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Lee studies the role of physical activity in disease prevention. She also says, “This certainly is an encouraging message for people who are inactive.”
The flip side of this story is just how damaging being sedentary can be. The health risks of sitting, lying, or reclining for extended periods of time during normal waking hours are substantial. This sedentary behavior has been linked to greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and death from any cause. If you tend to sit for long stretches, set an alarm on your phone or watch (about every 30 minutes) to help remind you to get up and move around, says Dr. Lee. The more you can move, the better. Even a little exercise can make a difference. In fact, the greatest health benefits seem to occur when people transition from being inactive to active, even if they still fall short of the recommended exercise goals. It is recommended to get at least 250 steps in each awake hour of the day.
Benefits of exercise
This is a good time to review the numerous benefits of exercise, all proven beyond a doubt by good science, as brought by the Harvard School of Medicine.
Blood pressure. Exercise may lower blood pressure for up to 13 hours afterwards. Done on a regular basis, it may lower systolic blood pressure (the first number in a reading) by an average of 5 to 8 points.
Anxiety and depression. Exercise appears to ease anxiety symptoms right away. Over the long term, many studies have shown that effective physical activity can reduce the risk of depression and treat depression itself. Anxiety and depression are increasingly being recognized both as a cause and a consequence of cardiovascular disease.
Insulin sensitivity and diabetes. Activity can improve your body’s response to insulin, the hormone that helps control blood sugar levels. Better insulin sensitivity may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for cardiovascular problems.
Sleep. Getting more physical activity may help you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. Your sleep efficiency — percentage of time in bed actually sleeping—will also be helped by physical activity. Other possible benefits include less daytime sleepiness and a reduced need for sleeping pills. People with insomnia, as well those with obstructive sleep apnea, have reported these benefits.
Weight Loss. Excess weight is yet another common problem linked to heart disease. And while the benefits take longer to accrue, exercise may help people avoid the weight gain that often occurs as people age. To lose weight, you’ll also need to eat fewer calories. If you do lose weight, being active helps prevent those pounds from creeping back on. If you don’t lose weight, don’t give up on exercise! According to the guidelines, the health benefits of physical activity are generally independent of body weight. You will still reap those benefits, no matter how your weight changes over time.
Meeting the goal
You can meet your weekly, physical activity goal by getting just 22 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every day. Aerobic activities include those that get your heart pumping faster than normal. Or you could exercise for an hour a time two evenings a week, and squeeze in another 30 minutes one day during the week.
Strengthening exercises should be done twice weekly in addition to your aerobic exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym or buy weights. Use your own body for resistance (pushups and sit-ups) or you can use stretchy resistance bands.
Here are a few examples of moderate intensity aerobic exercises that will bring great benefit to your heart, lungs, and mind.
- Walking briskly (4.5 kmph or more)
- Recreational swimming
- Bicycling slower than 10 mph on level terrain
- Tennis (doubles)
- Active forms of yoga
- Aerobic dancing
- General yard and home repair work
- Exercise classes such as water aerobics
If you are up to doing more vigorous exercise, you can try some of the following:
- Jogging or running
- Swimming laps
- Playing tennis
- Vigorous dancing
- Bicycling faster than 10 mph
- Heavy yard work (digging or shoveling with heart rate increases)
- Hiking uphill or with a heavy pack
Remember, these examples are minimum exercises and activities for good benefit. If you can do a little more, the benefits will also be more.
When I told my client, Michael, all of this he was very happy. Michael is a very busy person, and some days it is hard for him to fit in a 35 minute brisk walk. The only thing I reemphasized was that even if it is just a 4 or 5 minute walk, he should make it brisk to get maximum benefit. So we now know that you can get in the minimum requirements for exercise in small bouts. Your heart health will benefit greatly and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”