If you are a couch potato, have couch-potato tendencies or just plain dislike working out, it must be frustrating to keep hearing how good exercise is for your health. It needn't be. Many people have more opportunities to exercise than they realize—they simply don't understand what exercise needs to be. Traditional pursuits, like running, lifting weights, taking aerobics classes and playing organized sports, are great—if you have the time and the discipline it takes to incorporate them into your routine. But a program for health and fitness can be as simple as walking and moving more throughout the day. Here is a plan to help you find the mix of opportunities and activities that will work for you.
You probably have more time in your life to exercise than you think, and the first step is to mine your daily routines to find it. Try recording your activities during one weekday and one weekend day, and tally the minutes you spent moving and those spent in more sedentary activities. Research shows that you can begin to tap into the health benefits of exercise through many forms of physical activity—using "exercise snacks" that last as little as 10 minutes at a time. Examples? Pacing in your office while you're on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, trekking up the stairs at home during a TV commercial break. Or break up the day with two-minute walks—for example, to the mailbox, or in a loop around your office corridor.
The benefits of these exercise snacks begin to kick in when you burn about 100 calories a day—that's the equivalent of walking a mile. However, many health organizations, including the U.S. Surgeon General's office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend 30 minutes of moderate activity, which burns about 210 calories, on most days of the week. And there is a good reason for that. A long-term study of Harvard alumni showed the lowest death rates in those who burned at least 300 calories a day in exercise or activity. That's not very hard to do.
You may hate to sweat, dislike the gym or lack the time or resolve to fit sessions of resistance training or stretching into your busy week. But you can accomplish the same thing through gardening, house cleaning, ballroom or square dancing, hiking, cycling and other activities. A 165-pound person who spends 30 minutes actively playing with children burns 187 calories, more than half the 300 calories he would burn if he spent the same time cross-country skiing at a moderate pace. Similarly, a 200-pound person who cleans out gutters for half an hour burns 227 calories. (For a chart that shows the calories burned for a number of other leisure and routine activities, go to health.harvard.edu/NEWSWEEK.)
Walking is often underrated as a form of exercise, but it is something nearly everyone can do. All you need is decent shoes; no workout gear or showering afterward is required. Walking slowly burns about five calories per minute, walking briskly burns seven calories per minute and jogging burns roughly nine calories per minute. Since humans don't come with built-in speedometers, you need some way to measure your walking speed. One method is to count your steps per minute. Provided you're walking on level ground, 80 steps per minute would be considered a slow pace, while moderate to brisk would be 100 steps per minute.
If you see benefits—and most people do—you're likely to continue with your program. A study of more than 100 older women and men who were starting an exercise program found that those who saw an exercise-related benefit within six months were far more likely to be exercising a year later. You may not lower your cholesterol or trim your waistline in a few weeks, but you can enjoy the byproducts of physical activity—increased energy, less stress, feeling fitter and sleeping better.
Adapting a new healthy habit, or dropping an unhealthy one, is a process. Many people launch an exercise program only to fall off the wagon a few months later. It's not unusual for this to happen several times before a new habit is firmly established, whether it's quitting smoking or eating less fat. If you're even thinking about incorporating more physical activity into your life, you're on the right track. You might want to ponder the pros and cons while you walk around the block. Moderate exercise for as little as 30 minutes a day can help you shed pounds, provided you cut calories, too. In a 2003 study, sedentary women were assigned to one of four exercise groups varying in intensity and duration. Over the course of a year, women who engaged in short-duration moderate exercise (they worked out up to 30 minutes per day) lost almost as much weight as women who exercised longer and more vigorously. What's the catch? All the women also followed a reduced-calorie diet. The 2005 USDA guidelines state that it may take about 60 minutes of moderate physical activity per day to prevent weight gain, and at least 60 to 90 minutes a day may be needed to maintain weight loss. While "exercise snacks" can help your health, there's no free lunch when it comes to losing weight.