Take the First Step

Updated January 6, 2016

Good news! You don’t have to do much to get most of the benefits of exercise. You just have to do SOMETHING! As little as 20 minutes a day, OK, low intensity, OK, but take that first step!


New York Times health blogger Gretchen Reynolds has a new book called The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer, reviewing research on exercise and health. She explains the difference between exercising to improve sports performance and exercising for health. She says that for health, we don’t need to run marathons. We don’t need to wear ourselves out cycling or lifting.

We just need to move some kind of way, like walking or even standing. “Humans,” she writes, “are born to stroll.”

In an interview with fellow Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope, Reynolds states that “The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

There are slight additional benefits as you add time and intensity, but most of the health benefit starts with the first step. Why should that be?

Reynolds says the answer is in our bodies’ reaction to inactivity. Bodies may interpret staying still as being sick or injured. They increase inflammation and other healing responses for injury.

In the short term, inflammation is good for healing wounds and fighting infections. But prolonged inflammation damages blood vessels and organs. We need to move so our immune system knows we’re OK. Then it can turn down the inflammation. That’s when blood pressure and insulin resistance start to ease up.

Another way even slight movement helps is by opening up blood vessels and improving the health of nerves and joints. I wrote about this in connection with stretching last week. Sitting in a chair for hours closes everything down in your hips, legs, and knees. Reynolds says that prolonged sitting “promotes all sorts of disease. All you have to do to ameliorate that is to stand up. You don’t even have to move.”

Why is the first step hard?
Reynolds believes many people don’t move because they equate movement with trying to lose weight. When the weight doesn’t stay off, they stop moving. Weight loss is a counterproductive goal.

“It would be nice if people would look at exercise as a way to make themselves feel better and live longer and not necessarily as a way to make themselves skinnier,” she writes.

Another reason for not starting might be that we think movement is too difficult. Anything we haven’t tried, or have tried and failed, seems more difficult than it is. I’m struggling with that problem right now with my new website. I keep thinking there is so much to learn about new programs and features, and so much to do. But the greatest failure is not to try. I know from experience that if I commit to doing it, help is available and things will work out.

It’s the same with exercise. Don’t build it up in your mind to be harder than it is. As Gretchen Reynolds points out, you don’t even need gym shoes.

Perfectionism is another way we block ourselves. In an article on exercising when you are significantly overweight, Alan Henry of Lifehacker.com writes, “Remember that a healthy lifestyle is a skill you work and get better at — not a thing you just get up and start doing one day.” Just start, accept that there will be problems, and have faith that you will solve those problems over time.

Social and fun
For some people, movement becomes easier and better if we add two elements: people and fun. If you have a friend to walk and talk with, the time and distance pass more quickly and enjoyably. If you make movement fun , which could be window shopping, visiting with neighbors, dancing, or anything you enjoy, you’ll want to do it more. Dogs are really good for that.

Another thing a lot of younger people do is listen to music while walking, or while standing. With modern technology, that’s super easy. Don’t forget, you don’t have to actually do much for your body to become healthier. Just get out of that sitting position as often as you can. That’s the main thing your body wants.

Diabetes is an ever-changing condition. How does Scott Coulter deal with the constant flux in his Type 1 diabetes? Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to find out!