The health benefits of physical activity are so numerous it’s hard to list them all in one place, but they include improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, weight...even cancer risk. Yet, it’s the pillar many people struggle with most.
That’s probably because exercise can seem overwhelming, especially to people who don’t consider themselves active. But it shouldn’t be! Remember, small, simple changes can yield big results. Given that being sedentary has been deemed as potent a cardiovascular risk factor as smoking, adding any movement to your day is much better than doing nothing at all.
I’m not asking you to become an elite athlete. Just start out with what you can do today and very gradually build onto that. In almost no time you can reach meaningful movement goals. Maybe, today, you're able to complete five minutes of walking. Add just one minute a day every day, and you’ll exceed the government's recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day in just a month! Keep building for another month to get to 60 minutes per day and you essentially eliminate the cardiovascular risk associated with inactivity.
The exercise session doesn't even have to happen all at once. From a general health perspective, four 15-minute sessions of moderate activity will provide essentially the same benefit as 60 minutes all at once.
Getting started is the hardest part. And I know what that’s like from personal experience: Just a few years ago, I didn’t have any sort of regular exercise routine. I was - literally - talking the talk but not really walking the walk. Unhappy with that, I made a vow to exercise each day. I won't lie - it was REALLY HARD at first. But over the course of many months, I went from a pretty sedentary person to someone who runs (or walks depending upon what my dogs want to do) at least three miles a day. I’m now fitter than I was in my 30s -- and I feel 20 years younger.
And the best part is, I’m helping ensure I will live longer. A study looking at some 750,000 people ages 30 to 95 (about 20% of participants over age 70) found that being able to achieve 14 METS on a treadmill stress test at study entry was associated with a 75% lower likelihood of dying over a 10 year follow-up period! "MET" stands for metabolic equivalent and a MET of 1 is what energy is expended doing nothing. 14 METS for a 58 year old female means being able to complete 12 minutes of a standard stress test protocol (at the end of 12 minutes you’re walking up a 16% grade at 4.2 miles per hour). For sure I can do that!
Notice that many people in the study were older. That means it's never too late to gain a longevity benefit from being fitter. And the study did not show an all-or-none effect. ANY increase in activity was associated with a survival benefit compared to doing less. And it was a graded inverse relationship - the more physically active you were the less likely you were to die during follow-up.
Not everyone loves running or walking, so I always encourage my patients to find a form of exercise they enjoy. That could mean biking, swimming, dancing, gardening, even rock climbing. If you enjoy it, you’ll stick with it. Plus, in addition to the improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, you'll probably notice that being physically active has many other surprising benefits. It’s no wonder people talk about getting addicted to exercise! And I would probably put myself in that camp now. 5 years ago I was pretty much a couch potato. Today, I can’t imagine not starting my day off without my walk-run.
Easy for me to say all these things now. But I am being completely truthful when I tell you that when I began my fitness quest I mostly hated it. It really did take several months for physical activity to become something I looked forward to instead of something I dreaded. My stubborn nature pulled me through. But there are other ways to get over the hump. For example, if you’re struggling with exercising alone, pair up with a friend. Research shows that you’re much more likely to show up for that early-morning walk or yoga class when you’ve promised to meet a friend there.
Plus, exercise is a great way to make social connections, and you’ll be getting a head start on the topic for next week’s blog: The third pillar of healthy longevity is social connectedness.