Step 1: Get out of the chair. Step 2: Move
While going to the gym every day definitely leads to a more fit you, researchers say it doesn’t take as much activity as you think to stay healthy.
The American Heart Association recommends a mere 155 minutes of moderate exercise each week for cardiovascular health, and yet 80 percent of Americans fall short of that number, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There are people that are very serious about exercise and that’s the gold standard,” says Anne Marie Kelly, MD, a hospitalist at Cape Cod Hospital. “We all want people to adapt exercise into their lives. But I would say that if you can’t exercise, just being physically active is important.”
Dr. Kelly says being physically active means getting up and moving often, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and taking a walk outside every day.
Harwich author Leslie Meier follows that advice faithfully. As a mystery novelist who writes one book a year, she spends a lot of time at her desk. To counteract her time spent sitting, Meier and her husband Greg make sure to take a half hour walk every day no matter what the weather. It didn’t take long for her to notice a difference in her stamina and body.
“I was surprised what a difference it made,” Meier says. “I noticed muscles developing in my thighs pretty quickly and we both feel much better. We sleep a lot better, too.”
Researchers at the University Of Utah School Of Medicine studied how light physical activity, such as walking, gardening or cleaning, can affect our health. They discovered that getting up and walking or doing light chores just two minutes every hour can reduce some of the hazards of prolonged sitting.
Standing alone didn’t seem to have any health benefits. The trick is to move. The study used observational data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys of 3,243 people who were monitored over three years. Those who traded light activity for sitting two minutes per hour lowered their risk of dying by 33 percent compared to those who just sat still.
The numbers make sense if you consider that an average person is awake 16 hours a day. Two minutes per hour would equal 32 minutes per day, or 224 minutes per week.
But don’t get too excited. Even the doctors who conducted the study recommend the usual 155 minutes of moderate exercise per week, because moderate exercise strengthens the heart, muscles and bones in ways that light exercise does not.
And if that’s not enough of a reason to embrace an active lifestyle, Dr. Kelly offers another. As someone who specializes in treating patients who have been hospitalized, she observes that those who live sedentary lives have a much harder time bouncing back from unexpected illnesses like pneumonia. Their bodies aren’t strong enough to handle the demands of the disease.
“One good thing about practicing internal medicine on the Cape is that there are a lot of physically active seniors,” she says. “That portends a very good outcome when I see them in the hospital because they are able to handle an unforeseen health emergency better than somebody who is sedentary.”
Sadly, the elderly aren’t the only ones who face risks from a sedentary life. A new study published this month in Experimental Physiology reveals that children are equally at risk from inactivity.
Ali McManus, an associate professor of pediatric exercise physiology, and her colleagues at University of British Columbia in Kelowna tested a group of girls between the ages of 9 and 12.
They discovered the girls showed a significant reduction in vascular function after sitting uninterrupted for three hours straight. When the same girls sat for three hours, but rode a stationary bike for 10 minutes per hour, they showed no decline in vascular function.
The researchers concluded that children, like adults, would be healthier if they were encouraged to stand up and walk around for at least a few minutes every hour.
“Physical fitness, or just physical activity and exercise, are important for all ages,” Dr. Kelly says.