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Fitness in Ten Minutes a Day

David Spero

February 25, 2009

Experts recommend 150 to 180 minutes of moderate exercise a week to prevent heart disease and lower insulin resistance. If that sounds too hard, here’s some very good news.

More recent research shows that even tiny amounts of exercise are way better than none at all. The first step is the most important for health, and a few minutes of activity seems to have major psychological benefits as well.

A Louisiana study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine showed that 10 minutes a day of exercise improved self-rated quality of life in older women. Women reported improved agility, energy, overall health, mental health, emotional well-being, and functioning in social situations.

Another group of women biked or walked briskly for 20 minutes a day. A third group did 30 minutes a day.

More did turn out to be better. Study coauthor Tim Church of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge said, “The group that was doing three hours a week reported huge increases in energy and vitality.”

But according to Church, even the 10-minute group improved their lives. They “felt more confident about doing everyday tasks — such as keeping up with their grandkids, climbing the stairs, and carrying in the groceries — and they felt better about themselves when they were in social situations,” he said.

The First Step is the Hardest
If small amounts of activity make us feel so much better, why do so many people fail to take the first step?

For one thing, we are conditioned from birth to be sedentary. A lot of this has to do with schools, where kids, even preschoolers, are expected to sit all day. In a study from University of South Carolina, preschool kids spent 89% of their days at day care centers doing sedentary activities.

Television is another major contributor. In the U.S., many teenagers watch more than five hours of TV a day, according to a recent report. (Average for US children is three to four hours a day.)

As adults, we can take cars everywhere, sit at desks (or stand in place) in our jobs, and watch TV and videos for entertainment. Even our religious practices are mostly sedentary. No wonder it’s hard to move!

Some people’s genes seem to dislike activity. These “energy-conserving” genes are great for surviving when food is scarce. You don’t want to waste energy in a famine!

In the book Mean Genes, by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, the authors write, “Evolution favors the frugal, and casts a hard, wary glance on [anyone] who wastes energy…We descended from humans who were frugal with their physical activity, and we carry their energy-conserving genes.”

But when calories are all around, we want to increase our metabolism to burn them off. Some of this happens during “exercise,” but a lot depends on how active you are during the day. The idea is to gradually be more active all day long. By taking one minute or five minutes to walk around, taking stairs instead of the elevator, and things like that, we can gradually start to burn more calories.

Reviewing the Benefits
As you may have heard, physical activity helps with:

  • bowel function
  • cardiac function
  • sleep
  • depression
  • muscle strength
  • insulin resistance
  • weight

and about six other things I can’t remember right now.

And although more is better, up to a point, you can start anywhere. A recent British study found that 10 minutes of exercise greatly reduced cigarette cravings in smokers who were trying to quit.

To me, it’s empowering to know that a few minutes a day of activity helps. In my work as health coach, I have started people on “exercise programs” as easy as getting up every half hour from their chair and walking across the room to another chair. If that’s all they could do, that’s where we started. Then we built up.

So think about it. How can you get started, and if you’re started, how can you add five minutes a day more? If you want, share your ideas with the DSM community by commenting here.



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