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Exclusive Interview: Exercise Lite

  • Peter Jaret
  • Posted March 11, 2013

For years, exercise scientists exhorted Americans to work up a sweat. Healthy exercise, the thinking went, had to be strenuous and prolonged. Then, study by study, evidence showed that moderate exercise -- nothing harder than a brisk walk through the neighborhood every day -- delivers most of the benefits of more exercise, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers, longer life and a healthier weight.

In 1998, Andrea Dunn and her colleagues at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, decided to put "exercise lite," as it's sometimes called, to the test. They divided 235 volunteers into two groups. One group went to the gym regularly for a standard workout. Volunteers in the other group tried to incorporate more everyday physical activities into their routines -- walking, climbing stairs, gardening, and so on.

The results were startling. Six months into the program, called Project Active, volunteers in both groups had improved their overall fitness, lowered their blood pressure, and lost body fat. Even more striking, Dunn and her colleagues found that, after two years, people in the everyday exercise group were more likely to stick with exercise than gym-goers.

Peter Jaret talked to Dunn, a widely respected exercise psychologist, about "exercise lite."

How much exercise do you need to stay healthy?

To get the health benefits of exercise, you need to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days. That's the equivalent of at least 150 minutes a week. We used to think a bout of exercise had to last at least 30 minutes. But we now know that you can accumulate shorter bouts of exercise during the day and still get important benefits. Instead of jogging for half an hour, in other words, you can do 3 brisk 10-minute walks during the day. And you don't have to be in training for the Iron Man. Even moderate activity increases fitness, keeps blood pressure down, and helps people build muscle and lose body fat.

How do you know if you're pushing yourself hard enough?

To count as exercise, a brisk walk should cover one mile in 15 to 20 minutes. That's the pace of someone hurrying to an appointment. You should be able to feel your heart rate increase, and you should feel slightly winded. Gardening also counts as exercise, but not sitting on your behind admiring the roses. Raking, shoveling dirt, pushing a manual lawnmower -- all those activities count as moderate exercise. Other examples include climbing stairs, riding a bike around the neighborhood, or vacuuming.

A lot of people have trouble finding time to exercise. Any suggestions?

Try this. For three days, keep a log of how you spend your time. Write down what you're doing and how long you do it -- whether it's preparing lunch, watching television, or playing golf. Include both a weekday and a weekend day. When you're done, add up the number of minutes you spent sitting each day. You may be surprised. Our participants discovered that they sat on their butts 12 to 14 hours a day! Obviously, you can't be on your feet every minute. But by keeping a log of how you spend your time, you'll be able to spot plenty of opportunities when you can get up and move instead of sitting around.

Many people get discouraged after they try and fail at becoming more active. What's your advice to them?

Don't be discouraged. And don't think of those past attempts as failures. Consider them learning experiences on the path toward becoming more active. Maybe you discovered that you just don't like going to the gym. Fine. Find an alternative, like walking through the neighborhood or around the mall. Maybe you discovered that your best intentions fall apart during the holidays. Okay. So think about ways to get through the next big holiday without falling off the exercise bandwagon. If you have family visiting, invite them to come along on your walk, for instance. Or plan ahead to do something active with your guests, like exploring a local park.

Are there other ways to motivate yourself?

Absolutely. We found in our program that it's a big advantage to have a "helping" relationship. That doesn't necessarily mean someone who walks or bikes with you, but it does mean someone who encourages you and helps make it easier -- by doing the dishes so you can walk after dinner, for instance, or by congratulating you when you meet your goals.

Usually people get emotional support and encouragement from a spouse. But there are other sources. In Project Active, a group of women who belonged to the same church decided to get together to walk five times a week. Whenever one member of the group missed a day, she had to put a dollar in a kitty. At the end of three months, whoever had the best attendance got the money! That was a great motivator.

Accumulating physical activity sounds great. But how do you keep track of what you've done during the day?

One of the best ways is to keep an activity journal. Use a small notebook you can keep in your pocket or purse. Write down each [exercise] activity you do and how long you spend at it. Then at the end of each day, tally up the total. Shoot for at least 30 minutes.

In Project Active, many participants used terrific little devices called step counters, which you can wear on a belt or waistband. Step counters do exactly what the name says: They count each step you take, using a tiny pendulum-like device. We encouraged participants to shoot for at least 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, which is the equivalent of 30 minutes of brisk walking. One of the best things about step-counters is that they motivate people. If it's already four in the afternoon and your step counter only shows 3,000 steps, you know you'd better take a walk after dinner. Most sports stores sell step counters. You can also call (888) SIT-LESS to order one.

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