Minimum viable exercise: little enough to be easy and enough to make a difference
Are you one of the millions of Americans who have elected a new year’s resolution involving fitness? It may surprise you then to be told improving your overall health may not take quite as much of your time as you originally thought. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity—but only about half of adults currently meet those recommendations.
Does 150 minutes a week seem daunting? That is less than 22 minutes a day! The first key guideline (for adults) of the Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans report is:
Move more and sit less.
Now that’s an easy pill to swallow! It is simple. Research also suggests that some health benefits begin with as little as 60 minutes of exercise per week. TIME Magazine recently published that even 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise weekly seems to have a meaningful impact on overall health. (The full source of TIME’s article is the British Journal of Sports Medicine here.)
Fitness vs. Wellness
While the simple “move more sit less” mantra is great news for those looking to convince themselves their 2020 fitness goals are not a lost cause, we should step back here to key in on the difference between fitness and wellness. Considering a minimum viable exercise plan may help you gain health benefits, leading to overall wellness—but might not get you a coveted physique. Please do not get down on exercise if you do not see results pictured in fitness magazines. Increasing your movement is ALWAYS a worthy goal, regardless of the exterior physical outcome. Overall health and wellness goes beyond exterior good looks, and there are other factors to body sculpting than simply increasing exercise—namely diet. So we’ll press on assuming the audience is interested in broader health benefits.
When making big lifestyle changes, start small and build. Trying to start several new habits at once would be challenging even for the most disciplined among us. Therefore, focus on incorporating exercise into your life where you can and sticking with it, before introducing extensive dietary restrictions. Here are a few to look at (bottom of the page).
In assessing how far you need to go to meet the exercise guidelines above, give yourself credit for any exercise/activity you might already be doing. How often are you doing household chores, such as vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, etc.? What about mowing the lawn, gardening/weeding, or other yard work? Count it! It’s all exercise.
Next, look at easy ways to incorporate a little extra movement. Maybe park further away from your office for a bit of an extra walk or take a few additional flights of stairs throughout the day. Small achievements allow us to build the motivation to continue working towards our goals and a “personal assistant” of sorts (fitness tracker or pedometer) can help you track your progress and keep you accountable.
Lastly, when setting your goals, don’t be vague or ambiguous (such as “I’m going to walk more”). Choose something that is quantifiable, specifying an exercise timeframe, distance, number of repetitions, etc. That way, you can easily answer “yes” or “no” when gauging whether you met your goal. Did you hit your steps goal? Did you walk your specific distance that day or week? It also helps to schedule time specifically for exercise, helping keep you accountable.
It goes without saying that there are many types of exercise: aerobic, anaerobic, strength training, flexibility or coordination exercises… it can be daunting to decide what to focus on. A good rule of thumb is to choose based on what you’re already good at or enjoy doing. If you like it, you’re more apt to keep doing it, and human nature is that we will keep up with things we’re good at/meeting goals with.
In the graphic above from the federal report, you’ll notice a distinction between moderate and vigorous exercise. Exercises that increase your heart rate and breathing, such as running or intense cardio/hiking, require half of the time commitment. Vigorous, aerobic activity though is not ideal for everyone and is certainly not recommended daily. Modest, lower intensity exercises are not only great for variance but burn calories from a different source (more from fat than from glycogen in muscles or glucose in the bloodstream). Balance is always good for achieving overall health and wellness.
While we’re on the topic of balance in exercise, recovery is also a key part of exercising to consider. It is where the body responds to the stimulus of exercise and grows or adapts to be stronger, more flexible, develop more endurance, coordination, etc. So whatever activities you choose, be sure to give your body the time it needs after exercising to recover.
If you need help selecting activities or want to make a weekly plan, health.gov has a great little tool to help you gauge how much you’re planning and how it will fit together. If you plan and schedule the dates and times you intend to exercise, you’ll be much more apt to do it. The tool also allows you to count the day-to-day household chores and yard work that you may already be doing.
Again, separate exercise from weight loss goals. While it can be used to help reach those goals, the biggest component of weight loss is your diet. The other benefits of exercise for your body are far too great to let not dropping pounds discourage you from exercising. Focus on knowing that by increasing your activity level you can immediately reduce anxiety and blood pressure, as well as improve quality of sleep and insulin sensitivity. Over longer periods of time, the benefits of exercise include:
Enhanced immune system
Reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Lower risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes
Improved bone health, physical function, and quality of life.
Boosts your mood including lessening the symptoms of depression
Make small changes and build upon them once you’ve established a routine. For instance, if you’re trying to increase your steps per day, try aiming for 7,500 and increasing to the common 10,000 step goal once you can consistently hit the lower goal. And using a Fitbit, a smartphone, or a pedometer to give you data/feedback will help guide you track your overall progress.
Be careful not to do too much too fast, and risk physical overload. Make small adaptations and increases, let your body become comfortable with them, then progress to a higher level if desired. This will help minimize your risk of injury.
Lastly, abandon perfection—life rarely allows it and is is rarely required! Remember it is the “Minimum Viable Exercise” plan not the maximum. “Perfect is the enemy of good”. Do not abandon exercise altogether if you miss a session here or there. The benefits of exercise are gained by repetition, not in any one session. Move more and sit less wherever possible; strive for progress, not perfection. You will get the health benefits and have a better quality of life.
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