We all know that exercise is the cornerstone of good health. Through exercise, we are trying to achieve all the benefits of weight control, increased energy, improved mental functioning, better sleep and a reduced risk of lifestyle diseases like heart conditions or diabetes. But for many, the idea of hauling yourself off to the gym for an hour-long, sweat-inducing, heartrate-soaring session provides very little motivation to achieve these health benefits.
The notion of exercise has become so strongly associated with pumping iron on a gym mat, or cycling furiously on a stationary bike, or leaping out while an authoritarian instructor yells at you about your buns and abs, that we have lost sight of the very real benefits to be realised from more moderate, gentle exercise that’s better for body and your soul. Here are some points to consider if you want to get the benefits, but can’t face gruelling gym sessions.
“I see more gym-related injuries than gym-related benefits,” says general practitioner Isabel Thompson. “People seem to think that the only way to get healthy is to go and push themselves beyond what they can handle on a machine or in a class, and they’re not really doing themselves any favours.”
Instead, she recommends finding some form of regular exercise that you enjoy that doesn’t put you at risk of pulling muscles or hurting your joints while attempting to achieve the so-called benefits of exercise. Dance, gentle yoga, swimming and walking all fall into this category.
Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer, told Time magazine that science clearly states that only a little physical activity can make a very profound difference.
As a health writer, Gretchen had always thought that people needed to run and exercise strenuously for a long time to get meaningful benefits. Instead, her research has shown that people can do themselves a world of good simply by standing up rather than sitting all day. This has been found to raise V02 max, which is the measure of oxygen your body can use in one minute – which shows your potential for aerobic work. Gretchen now uses a standing desk and makes a point of walking around when taking phone calls during the day.
Her advice to get started with exercise is to put on comfortable shoes and walk around the block. If you can do that comfortably, you’re already generating physical and mood benefits. Then just keep doing that, once or twice a day. This alone will reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, cancer and premature death by 20%.
It is also recommended for skeletal health that computer users take five-minute breaks every 45 minutes to an hour. If, instead of just making yourself a cup of tea in those five minutes, you ran up and down the stairs at work ten times, you’d be realising multiple health benefits. It’s been shown that a mere seven-minute jog a day makes you 45% less likely to die of heart disease.
Of course, there’s a distinction between minimum exercise for lifestyle health benefits and training with a purpose. Triathletes for example, would not be able to compete after only walking around the block once a day. With this in mind, it’s important to understand what benefits or purpose you are hoping to achieve with your exercise routine.
For instance, to lose weight, it’s advised to spend as much as 45 minutes exercising every day – along with a calorie controlled diet. To tone your muscles, two or three additional weekly sessions of weight training is recommended. But simply to stay healthy and live longer, that 20 minute walk is all you really need.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with frequent strenuous exercise if you are fit and healthy and able to handle it. But if you want to realise the health benefits of movement and physical activity, you don’t have to get your heart pounding and your legs quivering. A regular walk around the block, jog up and down the stairs or a daily swim is enough to get you most of the benefits to keep disease at bay and live a longer, healthier life.