As millions of Americans ponder quitting newly launched fitness resolutions after finding it tough to squeeze in toning workouts or sweat off a few extra pounds, researchers implore: Don’t give up. Just pump out 20 minutes a day of any kind of exercise—take a brisk walk, jog, lift weights—and stop sitting so much.
Results can bring a healthier, more youthful feeling of well-being, akin to what explorer Juan Ponce de León sought in the Americas long ago.
In a recently completed study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers followed up with more than 18,000 middle-aged men and women that had been tested an average of 26 years earlier for cardiorespiratory fitness via a treadmill test. They compared those results with the individuals’ current Medicare data at the Cooper Institute Clinic, in Dallas, Texas.
“We found those who were fitter had a much lower rate of heart failure, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, certain kinds of colon cancer and coronary artery disease,” says coauthor Dr. Benjamin Willis. “Fit people that did become ill did so at a much later age than their non-fit counterparts. They were able to enjoy a healthier life longer.”
Researchers found that for every higher MET fitness level (standard metabolic equivalent, a unit for measuring fitness related to the amount of oxygen used by the body during physical activity), the risk of chronic disease decreased by about 6 percent. “So those that can raise their fitness levels by three METs have an estimated 18 to 20 percent reduced risk of developing a chronic disease,” Willis explains.
The take-away message is, “Just move,” says study co-author Dr. Laura DeFina. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends investing in a weekly total of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise, either of which can be broken down into two or three 10-minute increments a day, DeFina confirms.
As simple as it sounds, few people are doing it, something New York Times fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds underscores in her recent book, The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. “Most of us sit an average of eight hours a day, whether it’s at a desk or in front of a television,” Reynolds says. “The human body was not meant to be sedentary.” More than three-quarters of Americans are not meeting exercise recommendations, with one-quarter remaining completely sedentary, the CDC reports. Breaking this cycle does not need to be difficult, Reynolds notes. “You get the benefits from just moving. Start by standing up more and moving around in your office.”
Reynolds, who hops on one foot while brushing her teeth and reads standing up using a music stand, says studies have shown that bad things happen to bodies that sit for long stints, even those that start each day with an hour of exercise, and good things happen to bodies that stand often, even if it’s just for two minutes every half-hour. “For instance, when you stand, the big muscles in your legs and back contract, releasing enzymes that stabilize blood sugar,” Reynolds says, echoing findings of a study of more than 120,000 men and women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The researchers found that the combination of both sitting more and being less physically active was associated with a significant increase in accelerated death rate, particularly in women, at 94 percent, as well as men, at 48 percent.
As Reynolds’ book title suggests, the majority of health benefits are derived from the first 20 minutes of exercise and begin to flatten out after 30 minutes or so. Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Medical Center, in New Orleans, points out that this timeframe supports general health. He and Reynolds agree that to reach specific goals, such as increased running speed or dramatic weight loss, moderate levels won’t do the trick, so do more, if possible.
The most vital message, experts agree, is to do something every day, consistently. Willis observes that, “The effects can quickly reverse if you stop.”