Why breaking this one popular New Year’s resolution is the best thing for your health

February is notorious in the exercise industry for the exodus of wannabe fitness buffs. All of the people who vowed to “get in shape” in the new year grow tired of their perpetually aching muscles and joints in January…and let their pricey new gym memberships lapse.

If you got caught up in the resolution hype last month and were determined to join a stinky, sweaty indoor exercise facility, hire a “fitness coach,” or run a 5K every day, don’t despair if you haven’t reached these ambitious goals.

In fact, you should celebrate. Maybe during a walk around the park on a sunny day.

Why? Because new research shows that walking at a moderate pace for just 120 minutes a week can significantly lower your mortality risk.

And another new study found that people who exercise less than 150 minutes a week have almost half the incidence of coronary artery calcification—a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke—than the fitness fanatics who work out three times as much.

The overall message is one I’ve been delivering for decades. When it comes to exercise, moderation is key—as it is for virtually everything else in life.

So while I’m all for New Year’s resolutions that encourage a healthier lifestyle, I cringe every time I hear someone say this is the year they plan to “turbo charge” their workouts. Because that usually means they’re not revving up their health. 

When it comes to physical fitness, study after study shows that slow and steady wins the race for longevity.

The perils of overdoing your workouts

In the October 2017 issue of Insiders’ Cures (“Why being a ‘weekend warrior’ may actually be optimal for your health”), I wrote about a large British study conducted on 63,000 men and women (with average age of 58). It showed that those who only exercised one hour a week had a 31% lower risk of mortality than people who didn’t exercise at all.1

That makes perfect sense, because we all know that some exercise is better than none. But here’s the part of the study that the exercise industry doesn’t want you to know. These once-a-week exercisers fared almost as well in the longevity contest as people who worked out nearly eight times as much.

That’s right. The researchers found that people who exercised about 7.5 hours a week had a 35% lower mortality rate than non-exercisers. So the “daily diehards” who worked out almost an hour a day only had a 4% lower mortality risk than the “weekend warriors” who exercised an hour a week.

Meanwhile, other studies show that people who exercise excessively eventually put more strain on their joints, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract than moderate exercisers.

And now, a new study shows too much exercise may also lead to heart disease. Which is quite ironic considering fitness fanatics have long maintained the belief that more exercise is beneficial for the heart. Even though prior studies show that years of intensive exercise—like running marathons and cross-country endurance races—can harm the electrical conduction system of the heart, leading to heart strain and potentially fatal abnormal heartbeats.

How more exercise can lead to more heart disease

From personal trainers to medical doctors, many people maintain that boosting your workouts helps prevent the plaque buildup on arterial walls (atherosclerosis) that can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.

But the new Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study of 3,175 people found that those who exercised the most had an 86% higher risk of coronary artery calcification (CAC), or plaque buildup, compared to those who exercised the least.2

The study participants were divided into three groups. The first group exercised less than the U.S. national guideline of 150 minutes per week. The second group met the guideline. And the third group exercised 450 minutes per week—the same 7.5 hours as the study I mentioned above.

The researchers said they were surprised to find the third group had nearly double the risk of CAC as the first group. But they didn’t measure how likely the various groups were to have heart attacks or die. That’s odd, because CAC is considered “dangerous” by virtually all doctors and researchers—and it’s often used as an excuse for even more dangerous surgeries and stent procedures.

The researchers even attempted to make their own data disappear with mumbo jumbo about how the CAC caused by exercise is different than other types of coronary artery disease because it’s “more stable” and “less likely to rupture and cause heart attack.” Say what?

The researchers concluded that their study doesn’t mean people should stop exercising. But people should stop exercising excessively, a detail the researchers unfortunately did not point out.

What’s considered “moderate” exercise, exactly? Another new study addresses that topic.

Less than 20 minutes of walking a day boosts longevity

I’ve long maintained that walking, swimming, yard work, and house work are the best kind of activities because they involve moderate energy expenditures. 

And most of them can be done outside, which helps your body generate vitamin D—not to mention lowering stress through the calming presence of nature.

And new research backs me up. Researchers reviewed data on more than 62,000 men (average age of 71) and 77,000 women (average age of 69) who participated in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort. This study, which lasted from 1999-2013, was the first to analyze the  health effects of walking on older adults.3

At the beginning of the study, only 6% of men and 7% of women reported that they didn’t engage in any moderate or vigorous physical activity. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that this inactive group was 26% more likely to die over the next 15 years compared to those who walked “some.”

So how much is “some?” The researchers defined it as walking a total of 120 minutes a week, at a pace of 20 minutes per mile.

This isn’t “power walking” by any stretch. It’s just a slight increase in exertion from a casual stroll. But it provides big benefits—the study found that people who walked at that pace for just two hours a week had a 20% reduced risk of death. And that’s even taking into account chronic illnesses, obesity, smoking, and other risk factors.

Think about that. Just 17 minutes of walking per day can not only significantly increase your longevity, but it’s also been linked to lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and breast and colon cancers.

While I recommend walking outside in nature whenever you can, indoor shopping malls also provide ample room to amble—especially during cold or inclement winter weather.

The bottom line is it’s not too late to make a sensible, attainable, and healthy exercise resolution this year. Vow to get about two hours of moderate physical activity a week.

That’s probably plenty of time to walk to the nearest gym, turn around, and walk back home. Which is healthier not only for your wallet, but your entire body, as well.