“If exercise could be packed in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

—Robert N. Butler, MD, former director of the National Institute on Aging

We are becoming a sedentary species; the majority of our day is spent sitting, and this has a negative impact on our health. The World Health Organization ranks inactivity as the fourth highest health risk, after high blood pressure, tobacco use, and high cholesterol. The Lancet medical journal has called inactivity a global pandemic. Physical inactivity is related to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer, depression, and anxiety. Sadly, 41% of adults in America don’t get enough physical exercise, largely because we’ve replaced walking or biking to work with using motor vehicles, and because we spend so much time on computers and other devices working, surfing, texting, or watching entertainment. Americans, on average, sit 10–14 hours a day.

The Benefits of Moving

The good news is that beginning with even as little as 5 minutes of brisk movement a day, we can start to see health benefits. Movement, or physical activity, is medicine, and the benefits of getting ourselves moving are impressive. Research shows that regular physical activity can:

  • Reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer by approximately 50%
  • Lower the risk of colon cancer by over 60%
  • Decrease the risk of developing of Alzheimer’s disease by approximately 40%
  • Lower the incidence of heart disease and high blood pressure by approximately 40% and risk of stroke by 27%
  • Reduce the risk of developing type II diabetes by 58%
  • Decrease depression as effectively as Prozac or behavioral therapy
  • Increase life expectancy overall: active people in their 80s have a lower risk of death than inactive individuals in their 60s.
  • Increase pain tolerance and natural pain fighters such as endorphins

Getting Started

It’s clear that we need to move more, but how do we get started? The first thing you might want to do is add up the hours you spend sitting every day at work, commuting, eating, and streaming online entertainment. This will make you aware of your sitting baseline and will give you a way to gauge your success as you get moving.

Since movement is medicine, we start, as with any medicine, with a prescription. While most prescriptions for physical activity may include any of four types of movement—cardio or aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching, and balance training—this post will focus on cardio or aerobic activity, which increases your heart rate to get the blood pumping through your heart and muscles. Walking, biking, cleaning, gardening, and running errands are all examples of aerobic activity. Swimming and water aerobics are great alternatives for people with arthritis or joint problems.

For those of us who sit many hours a day, taking breaks to move is as important to our health as aerobic activity.

We will also focus on using movement to take breaks from sitting. For those of us who sit many hours a day, taking frequent breaks to stand up and move—walk up and down the hall or to the water cooler—is just as important to our health as getting enough aerobic activity.

How Much Aerobic Activity Do We Need?

For substantial health benefits, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a week, which is equivalent to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. If that’s not possible, research shows that as little as 90 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity is beneficial, even for individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease.

Moderately intense physical activity is the equivalent of around 3,000 steps on a pedometer within 30 minutes, according to a study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Examples of moderate-intensity physical activity listed by the World Health Organization include brisk walking, dancing, gardening, and housework.

If you are not exercising now, start with a few minutes of walking—maybe a short walk to the end of your block. Increase your walking by a few minutes each day with a goal of reaching 30 minutes most days of the week (increase the distance by 10% each week). Your 30 minutes of aerobic activity does not need to be continuous to produce health benefits. You can do several sessions of 5–10 minutes throughout the day.

Ways to Increase Your Aerobic Activity

While a planned exercise routine is one good way to get moving, there are also many other ways—at work, at home, or shopping—to include more aerobic activity in your day. In fact, one study has found that women with a goal of walking at least 10,000 steps during their day (as measured with a pedometer) were more physically active than those who set a goal of taking a daily 30-minute walk. So enjoy finding opportunities to move throughout your day. Here are some suggestions:

  1. If you drive to work, try parking at the far end of the parking lot and get a brief, brisk walk to and from your car. If you take the bus, get off one stop earlier.
  2. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator.
  3. Do some physical work around the house or yard—sweeping or vacuuming, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or washing the car.
  4. Walk to your mailbox.
  5. Walk briskly while shopping or doing errands. Add a few laps around the aisles while shopping at the supermarket.
Using Movement to Break Up Your Sitting

In addition to your aerobic activity, it’s important to.move frequently to take breaks from sitting. Recent studies show that even if you are a generally active person, sitting 7–8 hours or more a day impairs your metabolism and increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Fortunately, overall health risks from sitting can be significantly reduced by taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes or so to move around. (As I write, I am clearly not immune to this problem, as I have not moved from my computer for the last 2 hours!)

James Levine, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota writes, “We know that as soon as somebody gets out of their chair, their blood sugar improves, their blood cholesterol and triglycerides improve, and that’s very consistent.”

You can be creative with ways to get yourself up from your desk chair or couch to move around. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Between television episodes or during the commercials, stand up, dance, stretch, jump around, or walk. Consider ditching the remote control, and get up to change the channel.
  2. If you spend a lot of time on the phone at work, stand up every time the phone rings and move around between calls.
  3. Take a walk down the hall to talk to a colleague at work instead of calling or emailing them.
  4. Use a timer or an “It’s time to stand!” message from a wearable fitness tracker to remind you that you have been sitting too long and need to get up and walk around.

Movement is medicine. It can truly change your life. As we’ve seen, there are many ways to get more movement into your life, and I hope you’re inspired to accept the challenge. Your body and mind will appreciate the benefits. And I hope you’ll join me in the next post in this series as we explore in more detail the health risks of too much sitting and how “exercise snacks” can reduce those risks. 

More in this Series

Moving Toward Health