When it comes to exercise and being active for our health, a lot of us have the wrong perception of the type of activity we should do, how hard we do it or even how often to exercise.
This isn’t your fault. Many of us grew up in a time when we were told to go out and exercise at least three times per week at a heart rate between 60% to 80% of our maximum heart rate.
If you’re able to do this, great. You’re way ahead of most of us. But not everyone is ready for this type of activity. Besides the fact you need a math degree to even calculate your heart rate range, these recommendations give people the idea that it’s an all or nothing proposition. If you can’t do this much activity, you might as well do nothing.
In fact, the greatest benefits of activity and exercise come from just getting off the couch. You don’t even have to break a sweat. And there’s no minimum amount of time you have to do it for.
Even though the current recommendations of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, reflect what we now know, there is still a stigma that exercise needs to be in a gym and preferably uncomfortable.
Your body is no different from most machines today; it is meant to move. If left idle, your body starts to deteriorate. But even small amounts can help. As little as a couple of minutes in between periods of sitting can reduce your blood sugar and your chances of getting diabetes. Increase that to 10 minutes and you benefit by improved cognition and happiness.
The benefits also add up. Do that a few times a day for at least five days per week and your chances of dying in the next seven years decreases by 10%.
This can all happen without getting your heart rate up. You don’t need to go to the gym. You can get this activity just by doing housework and if you have a job where you’re walking around and active, that helps too.
We used to think activity only counted if you did it during your leisure time, so-called recreational activity, and that anything else, whether it was in the home or work, was no good. This is because most of us have jobs where we sit around all day, which we know isn’t good for us.
At the other extreme are some jobs where the amount of activity is strenuous and the work conditions are awful (for example, coal mining). These jobs can increase your chance of early disease and death but they’re also getting rarer as they get replaced through automation.
When looking at people from different countries, where jobs and household activities are more active, we found this type of activity to be just as good as recreational activity. Washing windows or mopping the floor provides the same amount of exercise as a leisure walk.
In addition, because household and work activities tend to be at a moderate level (like walking a 15 minute mile), it was easier for people to get more activity (up to 60 hours per week), and more in this case, is better.
Before you decide that this mount of activity is unrealistic, think of your letter carrier. He/she is probably walking around from 4 to 6 hours per day, while carrying a bag of mail. Now I don’t think I’ve ever seen my letter carrier sweat, but I can tell you, the type of activity he is doing is working wonders for his health.
I’m not trying to knock doing activity that gets your heart rate and breathing up, or working in a bit of a sweat. I do that on most days. This is great for increasing your cardiorespiratory fitness, and with increased fitness, everyday tasks will be easier.
However, from a health and well-being perspective, there is much to be gained even at low levels of activity (such as slow walking) and it doesn’t need to be done for a continuous 20 or more minutes. Once you start, you begin to feel the benefits right away like improved memory function and more energy.
So you don’t need to go out and buy the fanciest exercise equipment, or join the local aerobics class, or go for a run. You don’t even need to go outside (walking in place or on your stairs is good enough) to be exercising and improving your health. You just need to be moving. And as I tell people, the best type of activity is the one you will do and are able to keep doing it.
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