You Don’t Need as Much Exercise as You Thought
150 minutes. That’s the magic number that conventional medical wisdom tells us we need to exercise each week. If we don’t get at least that 150 minutes, we’re told, we’re risking our health and our very lives. It’s the bare minimum.
And it can’t be just any old exercise. No. It has to be “moderate to vigorous” exercise. So you can spend 4 hours a day, seven days a week working in your garden, but by this guideline you’re not getting enough exercise and you’re going to die years earlier. You can go for a two-hour walk every day, but if it’s not a “brisk” walk, by these guidelines you’re not getting enough exercise and you’re going to die years early.
I’ve long said that this is a big load of horse hockey. Because the truth is that each body is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for anything, including exercise. Different bodies may need different amounts. Your age, general health, overall activity level and other factors certainly come into play. And it stands to reason that any exercise—whether it’s 150 minutes or 15—is better than none. Now an article in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology says that, in Canada at least, experts are beginning to agree.
These “guidelines” often backfire
Before I go any further I have to say: I think it’s completely ridiculous that we have “official guidelines” for exercise anyway. In my opinion, it just goes to show how completely we’ve relinquished control over our own health and given it to others. Do we really need an expert to tell us that we need to do more than sit on the couch in order to be truly healthy? Is there anyone out there who doesn’t believe that going for a walk every day is beneficial? If there is, I’ve never met them.
But somewhere along the line we as a society seem to have decided that unless an “expert” recommends something, we can’t believe it, even when our own bodies tell us differently. So we have “official guidelines” about everything—what we should eat, what we should drink, how we should sleep, how much exercise we need.
And these “official guidelines” often have the reverse effect of what’s intended. Instead of inspiring us, they often sap our motivation instead. Here’s how it works:
Say you’re a 45-year-old woman. You have a desk job and you don’t get much exercise. You know the “official” USDA guidelines say that you should eat no more than 1,800 calories per day. But you stopped by Starbucks on the way home from work and you just couldn’t resist that grande café mocha and its mega calorie count. You know that if you want to keep to 1,800 calories, you’ll need to eat a salad for dinner. So you say to heck with it. Not only do you eat a hefty dinner, you have a big bowl of ice cream for dessert. Because after all, you already blew it so what does it matter?
The same kind of thinking—even if it’s subconscious—applies to exercise. 150 minutes really isn’t a lot, but it sounds like a lot. And we obsess too much over what kind of exercise. We think, “Holy crap! I could go for a walk every day, but that’s not moderate to vigorous exercise. I’ll never get that much exercise in!” And instead of puttering around in the flowerbeds or taking a walk around the block or any of the other million things we might do, instead we settle in on the couch and binge-watch Netflix. Because what the heck, we already blew it, right?
The only problem is—it’s simply not true.
How changing a single word affected official “guidelines”
Plain old common sense should tell us that any amount of exercise and any level of exercise is better than none. And common sense should also tell us that whatever the “official” guidelines say, gardening, walking, and other gentle forms of exercise are still exercise and still benefit our bodies. If you disagree, go garden for a couple of hours and see if you get tired.
Like so many of the numbers that medicine and “public health” throw at us, “150 minutes” is an arbitrary number. Is there research that shows getting this much exercise lowers your risk of some diseases? Yes. There certainly is. However, there’s also plenty of research that shows getting just half that—75 minutes, or only 10 minutes per day—can reduce your risk for some 25 different chronic conditions by a whopping 20% to 30%. And guess what? The evidence just doesn’t support the idea that it has to be “moderate to vigorous” exercise either.
In other words, a 10-minute walk at a comfortable pace absolutely does count as exercise and is going to benefit your health. And a group of Canadian cardiac researchers and doctors thinks that the “official guidelines” should reflect that, rather than dooming us to fail before we even start because it sounds like too darn much work.
So if there’s so much evidence that less exercise or gentler exercise is just as good for you, where did that 150-minute number come from? According to the Canadian group, the answer is both simple and…stupid. To begin with, the guidelines said we should exercise 150 minutes per week. But as the guidelines were passed around and reprinted numerous times in various places, some enterprising soul decided that “must” had a nicer ring than “should.” And with one word, exercise became a fearful chore instead of a pleasant addition to the day.
Changing that single word set exercise apart from the rest of our lives. It gave us yet another number to worry about, and yet another way to feel we’ve failed. Dividing the day up—“this time is normal life, and this time is exercise time”—turns a molehill into a mountain. Even calling it “exercise” sets it apart from the rest of our lives and puts it into a separate category. Instead, “exercise” should be something that flows naturally as a normal part of our day.
Don’t tell yourself, “Ok, it’s time to exercise now.” Instead say, “I think I’ll go putter around the garden for a while.” Go for a bike ride—but don’t do it for “exercise.” Do it because it’s fun. Go swimming—but don’t do it because it’s “exercise.”
And remember—all it takes is about ten minutes per day.
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