Simple Activity Guidelines Provide a Path to Wellness

Exercise isn’t just about being fit or looking slim. It affects how we feel, how we function, and even how well we sleep. In the newly issued second edition of the report Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, researchers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outline the dramatic health benefits of exercise and, more importantly, provide a simple and manageable plan for how to reap them.

The Health Benefits of Exercise

Regular exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, the authors wrote in the November issue of JAMA. It reduces the risk and mortality of cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, and stomach. It improves cognitive function, while reducing the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), anxiety, and depression. It reduces the risk of falls in older adults and keeps bones stronger to limit injuries. And yes, it helps you maintain a healthy weight if you also watch how you eat.

Small Steps for Big Rewards

You don’t have to run a marathon to benefit from exercise. You can improve your health, and feel better too, with less effort than you think. The new physical activity guidelines outline simple exercise recommendations that fall into two main categories: aerobic fitness for your heart and lungs, and strength training for your muscles. Bone health and balance find their way into those broad categories as well.

Aerobic Activity Recommendations

Aerobic exercise is any activity, such as walking, running, dancing, and bicycling, that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe harder than if you were sitting. There are three variables that you can control to meet the new activity guidelines: how often you work, how long you work, and how hard you work.

If you are exercising at a moderate intensity—one at which you can talk, but not sing—you need a total of 150 to 300 minutes of exercise over the course of the week. You could break that down to 20 to 45 minutes each day of walking at 2.5 to 4.0 miles per hour, biking, playing volleyball, or raking the yard.

If you boost the intensity to the vigorous level by jogging, running, or participating in a strenuous fitness class, you can meet your goals more quickly—in 75 to 150 minutes per week (or 10 to 20 minutes each day). If you’re doing vigorous-intensity activity, you generally cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

You don’t have to do the same type of exercise every day. You may take a long brisk walk for an hour on Sunday but have time for just a quick 15-minute jog on Monday. If you’re keeping track of your minutes, remember that one minute of vigorous activity is equal to two minutes of moderate exercise.

Strength and Balance Training

The second component of the physical activity guidelines is muscle strengthening. Maintaining muscle strength does more than help you lift and carry heavy things. It helps you stand up from a chair (leg strength), maintain balance (back, abdomen, and leg strength), and boost your metabolism to help maintain a healthy weight.

Adults should do muscle-strengthening activities, such as weight lifting or resistance training with elastic bands, on two or more days each week. Be sure to work all major muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Baby Steps Are Steps All the Same

If you’re currently sedentary, it’s perfectly fine to start small and work your way up to these recommendations. Adding even a little bit of exercise will provide immediate health benefits, the guideline committee reports, and you’ll find that it gets easier as your fitness increases.

If your current level of fitness is limited to walking to the end of the driveway and back, then do it every day to establish a habit, adding a little more distance and/or speed every week to increase your fitness.

What This Means for You. Exercise doesn’t have to be intimidating or even time consuming, but it does have to be done. Whether you commit to taking a daily walk or training for a marathon, you are making a promise to yourself that will pay off in better health.


“Patients in my cardiology clinic constantly ask me, often with some trepidation in their voice, how much they should be exercising. The recent guidelines, summarized nicely here, outline the type and amount of physical activity we should be aiming to achieve each day. In reality, however, this may seem unattainable to many people, especially those suffering from a chronic illness like heart disease. At the end of the day, something is better than nothing. The key is to get into a habit and make physical activity part of your daily routine. Start with reasonable, achievable goals and slowly increase towards the guideline recommendations. Just remember: Sit less; move more.”

—Neha Pagidipati, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Member of the Duke Clinical Research Institute

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