Fitness minus the marathon: Health benefits come early in the race
No sport, no spandex, no gain?
Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health say that most health benefits of rigorous exercise still can be gained with moderate physical activity if done on a regular basis. But this physical activity should add up to at least 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week. And, here's good news for many of us: It could include many common household chores and lifestyle activities, such as walking the dog, washing the car or playing with your kids. If it gets your heart rate up, it counts.
"You don't have to be a marathon runner to gain the bulk of health benefits," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. "A marathon runner may be very active and also very fit. But the additional cardiovascular protection they gain over someone who is regularly active and gardens, walks the dog, or takes the stairs, for example, may be smaller than you think. 'Health' benefits of physical activity are different than 'fitness' benefits. And the biggest chunk of cardiovascular benefit is achieved when a person commits to accumulate about 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week."
Although you don't have to sweat in spandex 30 minutes every day, it's important to realize that doing no activity (being sedentary) or doing less than the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity poses a significant risk. Yet data from the CDC indicates that just one in four adults achieve the necessary amount of physical activity each week.
"It's important for people to know that sedentary lifestyle is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, just like diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure," says Dr. Laskowski. In addition, inactivity is associated with a greater risk of obesity, diabetes and some cancers.
And being thin doesn't mean you're off the hook because it doesn't necessarily mean that you're fit. Fitness (the result of physical activity) is as important as — or is perhaps more important than — weight as a predictor of both death from cardiovascular disease and death from all causes.
Activity vs. exercise
Despite known risks of being sedentary, many still don't know how to have a more active life. Some people feel that they're too busy, too out of shape or too old to start being active. However, there are no excuses when you introduce an "activity" approach to health and fitness that's not tied to vigorous exercise programs.
Lifestyle activity is like snacking on exercise. Do a dollop of activity in the morning. Have two or three more servings later in the day. Only 5 or 10 minutes here and there add up over time. There's no need to reserve an hour to drive to the fitness center, change into your workout duds, then exercise for 30 minutes. Instead, serve up those 30 minutes in 10-minute slices. For example, walk or stair climb at the office or while running errands.
"Exercise usually implies using a specific machine or playing a preferred sport. But physical activity could be many things, such as gardening, doing housework or taking the stairs instead of the elevator," says Dr. Laskowski. The most important thing is to find enjoyable activities, get started and stay active.
In one study published in a 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers divided 235 sedentary men and women into two groups. One group did traditional structured exercise for 20 to 60 continuous minutes, 3 to 5 days a week. The other group worked into their day brisk walks, stair climbing and other moderate-intensity lifestyle activities. After 24 months, both groups had similar gains in blood cholesterol, blood pressure, percentage of body fat and cardiovascular fitness. The structured exercisers gained more cardiovascular fitness, but the moderate-intensity folks did benefit significantly from the activities they performed.
"While certain conditions may prevent people from doing certain activities, almost everyone can participate in some form of physical activity," says Dr. Laskowski. Talk with a doctor before starting a new physical activity program if you're over 40 and sedentary, you smoke, are overweight or have a chronic health condition (heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney disease, liver disease or arthritis).
Small steps, big impact
The primary plus from engaging in regular physical activity is a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Even accumulating three short periods of activity, say 10 minutes a shot, over the span of a day, can significantly reduce your chances for developing or dying of heart disease. And if you're already active, adding more time or substituting more vigorous activities for moderate ones might provide even more benefit.
Health benefits of regular physical activity can include a reduced risk of:
Colon cancer — the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States
High blood pressure
Type 2 (formerly called adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent) diabetes
Death from all causes
Also, regular physical activity might reduce the risk of:
Anxiety and stress
Finally, people might just enjoy a better quality of life.
"Increasing your physical activity improves cardiovascular fitness, making your heart stronger and more efficient," says Dr. Laskowski. "As a result, besides the general health benefits, people will also find that they'll probably be able to do more things, and with less effort."
Tips for success
Although it can be tough to get started and stay motivated, there are things you can do to help yourself on your journey to better health. Here are some tips to help you succeed:
Choose activities you know you like or will want to do. If you don't like it, you probably won't stick with it. So if you start an activity and find that it's not for you, switch to something else. "There isn't one, perfect activity," says Dr. Laskowski.
Set goals. Instead of trying to stick to a certain exercise formula or prescription, set your own goals. You might want to prepare for a sport or an activity you enjoy, or you might want to lose a little weight. Perhaps you just want to be able to do activities more quickly or with greater ease. No matter what you do, you'll be improving your health and longevity.
Keep track of your progress. In order to know whether you're improving or reaching your goals, it helps to track your progress. As you become more fit, certain things will become easier. But if you don't keep track, you might not even notice.
I second everything in this article. Exercise is an essential part of weight management and weight loss not to mention health. You can not be healthy without exercise simple as that. The body needs exercise as much as food, water, and air, you just die a little slower without exercise compared to the other 3. I, for one, do 20-30 mintues in a gym 3 days a week but am very active otherwise. Those 20-30 mintues are really noticable, however, so I can vouch that you do not have to go to great lengths to get fit you just have to do something everyday.