After last week’s Thanksgiving feast, you’re probably feeling the call to get out and exercise. As always, I encourage moderation, as the current science shows that engaging in just 140 to 150 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise total per week is the optimal amount for improving your health and longevity.
But now, a big, new study shows we shouldn’t even obsess about achieving that modest weekly target. Instead, the researchers concluded that we should focus on something quite different: variety.
Let’s jump right in, so to speak …
The key to health is engaging in a variety of physical activities
For this new analysis, researchers looked at physical activity patterns of more than 9,000 adults involved in the well-known U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). As I mentioned yesterday, this massive, ongoing study consists of in-person interviews, physical exams, and dietary recall interviews.
For the new analysis, researchers looked at the participants’ total minutes of exercise and the number of different activities pursued per week.
Shockingly, 44 percent of respondents reported no exercise of any kind during the prior month.
Among those who did exercise, walking was the most popular activity, sensibly practiced by 30 percent of participants. Then came bicycling (9 percent), dancing (8 percent), treadmill walking and running (7 percent), and weightlifting (7 percent).
Most importantly, people who engaged in a variety of different exercises also accumulated more total exercise time.
Specifically, people who engaged in three or more different kinds of exercise over the course of a month were more likely to attain their 150 minutes of total exercise per week, compared to those who only engaged in only one or two different kinds of exercise.
Plus, when the researchers looked specifically at women…those who only walked during the month were less likely to reach 150 minutes per week total time, compared to those who engaged in several different types of exercise.
Granted, women reported having fewer hours per week to dedicate to exercise compared to men. However, many women in the study still achieved their 150 minutes-per-week target because they exercised more frequently, for shorter sessions, than men.
According to Dr. Susan Malone, the study’s lead author, “It may be that the current guidelines place too much emphasis on frequency and volume of exercise. If we refocus people to more varieties of exercise, they might have more success in reaching the targets.”
These findings make a lot of sense to me because, as they say, variety is the spice of life. So, engaging in many different types of exercise can help you stay motivated week after week!
Five suggestions for spicing up your exercise routine
Here are five specific suggestions I have for adding some variety to your moderate, sensible exercise routine…
1.) Add weight-training. Most people focus almost exclusively on adding cardio to their regimen. But you may want to include some weight-training exercises too, like the 7 percent in the study, especially as you get older, to help retain muscle mass (in addition to eating enough protein in your diet). Weight-bearing exercises can also help you lose weight. In fact, in a recent analysis of 1.7 million American adults, combining cardio with strength training helped prevent obesity better than either individual activity. Plus, the most obese men and women experienced the biggest benefits from using this combined approach.
Of course, I still recommend skipping the dark, dank, stinky indoor gyms. After all, they’re breeding grounds for germs—and don’t typically provide a relaxing environment. Instead, get creative and use items in your home, like a book, to help add some weight to your exercise routine.
Best of all, try some “weight” devices designed for use in the pool, so the resistance of the water will provide the benefit—without lugging around or dealing with heavy, unsightly, and potentially dangerous free weights.
Just be sure to start out slow and only increase the weight when/if you feel comfortable. And remember, always warm your body up first before diving into any type of exercise routine.
2.) Avoid repetition and “excess-ercise.” When you engage in a variety of different exercises each week, you engage different muscle groups and spread the benefits around to different parts of the body. For example, stretching and yoga can help your core…while a brisk walk can benefit your heart.
This varied approach also helps to prevents overuse injuries—such as “runner’s knee” and “tennis elbow,” which are caused by doing the same activity or motion over and over again. And, as you know, I always discourage excessive exercise—or what I “excess-ercise”—such as running marathons. In addition to harming your joints, excess-ercise can also stress and strain the heart, gastrointestinal tract, genito-urinary system, and even the eyes.
Again, swimming is all around best for not stressing your joints and exercising all your muscle groups as you move pleasantly through water.
3.) Head outside for a bit of Nature. Let’s face it, the idea of paying money to run on a machine or pump iron in a dark, dank, stinky, sweaty gym would have been laughable to previous generations. Instead, I’ve always encouraged you to exercise out in Nature. For one, it’s gentler on your joints. Second, it exposes you to sunshine, which triggers your body’s own natural production of vitamin D. Third, it will save you money and reduce your potential for exposure to germs, including the coronavirus. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it’s great for your mental health and increases your sense of well-being!
Thankfully, during the coronavirus panic, more people seem to be rediscovering the beauty of exercising outdoors…
In fact, many people gave up their expensive gym memberships and started to head outside to exercise—including Dr. Malone, the author of the study I told you about above. She began swimming in the ocean (as I do) when her local pool closed. She said, “It was chilly when I got started in May and has been quite an adventure on some of the rougher days, but I’m getting out there four to five times a week.”
4.) Housework and yardwork count toward your total. Many previous studies show that light-to-moderate activity, such as housework and yardwork, count toward your weekly exercise total. In fact, Dr. Malone said she ramped up her yardwork during the coronavirus shutdown by transplanting trees and shrubs. Like Dr. Malone, I get much of my weekly exercise working around the house and the yard. In fact, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, my garden (and the resulting view) is looking better than ever!
5.) Make it social. Studies show social isolation affects your risk of developing many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, Type II diabetes, and even premature death. So why not engage in some healthy exercise with a buddy? They even have walking clubs that you can join to regularly connect with your community. Of course, you’ll want to do this safely in the age of coronavirus—so be sure to follow current guidelines, like social distancing and mask wearing.
In the end, my advice on exercise remains about the same…
Aim to get 140 to 150 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise each week. That breaks down to about just 20 minutes per day! And remember…you’re more likely to hit that target by mixing it up and getting outside in Nature for a variety of healthy exercises in the fresh air. Your physical and mental health will get a big boost…and so will your bank account!
“Study: To get enough exercise, try engaging in three different activities a week.” Washington Post, 7/14/20. (washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/study-to-get-enough-exercise-try-engaging-in-three-different-activities-a-week/2020/07/13/c168aeb0-c538-11ea-a99f-3bbdffb1af38_story.html)
“Habitual physical activity patterns in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults.” Translational Behavioral Medicine, 1/27/20: a002. doi.org/10.1093/tbm/ibaa002