Plus, my top 5 tips to keep you moving—no matter what your age
It happens around this time every year. People who’ve spent the entire winter on the couch suddenly decide they need to get a “beach body.”
They lace up their overpriced running shoes and load up on noxious “sports” drinks and fake “energy” bars.
And then they go running—clogging up the sidewalks and trails where I like to take my daily walks. All in the quest to “get fit and healthy”—RIGHT NOW!
As you know, I’m not a fan of this type of “excess-ercise.” In fact, I’ve been questioning the so-called benefits of excessive exercise since my health classes in high school and my life sciences courses in college, medical school, and PhD graduate school.
My education coincided with the beginning of the fitness craze in the early 1970s. Suddenly, there was no amount of exercise that was too much.
Even I participated in this excess-ercise fad. After a year-long prep program for my basic training at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I could run a mile in seven minutes flat, at 7,000 feet in elevation, with full uniform, backpack, and rifle.
Sure, I was fit, but this constant overexertion put too much stress on my body. And now, research is finally providing solid scientific evidence for my 40-years of observations.
How excess-ercise leads to life-threatening disease
The medical world began to realize that excessive exercise might not be as wonderful as everyone thought when, in 1984, the ultra-fit, long-distance runner and fitness guru Jim Fixx suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at age 52.
At first, everyone from exercise gurus to clinical researchers dismissed his tragic death as a fluke. But in recent years, study after study has shown that excessive exercise can lead to long-term heart damage.
In fact, I recently discussed this very topic in a Daily Dispatch. I reported on a new study that tracked almost 22,000 men, with an average age of 52, from 1988 to 2013. The researchers found that the men who were highly active (think marathon runners), had an 11 percent greater risk of developing coronary artery calcification compared to men who were less active.1
And decades’ worth of studies found that coronary artery calcification increases risk of death. In fact, it’s the foundation of coronary artery disease and the cornerstone of cardiovascular disease. Meaning that running marathons might literally kill you.
Other research links excessive exercise with joint disease and internal organ damage. Studies also show that overexertion can harm the GI tract, strain the lungs, and raise blood pressure for prolonged periods of time. And it can break down exhausted muscle tissues, releasing toxic metabolic products that must inevitably be filtered out of the blood—leading to kidney failure.
In other words, getting too much of a “good” thing, like exercise, is actually not a good thing after all.
What a couple hours of moderate exercise a week can do for you
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop exercising. Research shows that moderate physical activity can substantially lower your risk of chronic diseases like Type II diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and more. It also reduces your risk of gastrointestinal diseases, such as gallbladder and liver disease, and acid reflux (GERD).
But how much exercise counts as “moderate”? Studies repeatedly show you only need about 2.5 hours per week to get these health benefits. In fact, a 2017 study found that moderate exercise reduces aging at the cellular level by a whopping nine years.2
In terms of intensity, you certainly don’t need to run a four-minute mile like Roger Bannister. In the February 2018 issue of Insiders’ Cures, I wrote about a study of more than 62,000 men (with an average age of 71) and 77,000 women (with an average age of 69). Researchers found that the people who walked a total of two hours per week at a pace of 20 minutes per mile had a 20 percent reduced risk of death. And that was even after taking into account chronic illnesses, obesity, smoking, and other risk factors.3
Completing a mile in 20 minutes isn’t “power walking” by any stretch. It simply requires a little more exertion than a casual stroll. And you can get the same benefits from other moderate activities, like swimming, gardening, or even housework.
Why outside exercise is better
Sure, you can exercise anywhere. But research shows it’s better to take your workouts outside, where you can get the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of being out in nature.
Walking or cycling on natural surfaces is different than using a treadmill or a stationary bike in a gym. That’s because natural surfaces have different, changing textures, and can be soft or hard. Plus, they’re not all flat.
So when you walk outside, you constantly flex your ankles and feet rather than pounding away on the same flat surface, which can actually harm your joints. You also use muscles differently outside, which reduces repetitive strain and injuries.
And, of course, exercising outside exposes you to sunlight, which helps your body produce the vitamin D it needs for virtually every metabolic process and function. In addition, studies show that working out in nature lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to many chronic diseases.
Plus, studies show that people who exercise in the fresh air perform better on psychological tests than those who exercise indoors. They also score higher on enthusiasm, pleasure, self-esteem, and vitality. And they score lower on depression, fatigue, and tension.
These effects are especially important as we get older. In one study of 754 men and women, ages 66 and older, researchers found that those who regularly exercised outdoors worked out more often and for longer periods of time when compared to their indoor-exercising peers.5
I think this is because exercising outside is more pleasurable than exercising inside. Outside, you can listen to the various sounds of nature (birds chirping, water flowing, wind in the trees) and breathe in fresh air—in place of the grunts and growls of hormone-charged zealots and the foul emissions of dank, sweaty gyms.
Not to mention, being in nature doesn’t put pressure on you to constantly reach for physical perfection. Instead of comparing yourself to the person next to you in the gym, you can focus on yourself and live in the moment.
Incorporate exercise into your daily life
Other than exercising outdoors, there’s no magic workout that’s going to make you healthier in mind, body, and spirit. But that’s actually good news.
Because it means that you can choose the type of exercise you like best—whether it’s walking, swimming, dancing, playing tennis or volleyball, gardening, or simply enjoying time in the backyard with your kids, grandkids, or pets.
And that’s why my number one exercise tip is to “just do something.” As long as it’s at moderate intensity and duration. (For more of my tips, see page 3.)
After all, like the old airline commercial said, you have to “earn your wings every day.” (To avoid getting your wings permanently, so to speak.) In fact, one study found that people over the age of 65 who continue to exercise have a lower death rate than those who stop.6
So what are you waiting for? Get out in the sunshine and enjoy the warmer temperatures. Take a walk under the trees, along the beach, or in a garden bursting with June blooms. In my opinion, there’s nothing better for your mind, body, and soul.
My top 5 exercise tips
Try these science-backed solutions to improve your physical fitness, boost your mental and emotional health, and increase your longevity.
1. Start with a fitness self-check. Always ease yourself into a regular exercise routine in order to avoid injury. Here’s a simple way to measure your fitness level….
From a seated position on the floor, stand up. If you have trouble doing this without support, try hiking or walking up hills to build your strength.
To assess your flexibility, sit on the edge of a chair with one leg extended straight out in front of you. Reach for the toes of your extended leg with both hands. Ideally, there should be less than 4 inches between your fingers and toes. If you have a bigger gap, yoga classes can help boost your flexibility.
You can also add balance exercises to improve strength and power, like walking heel to toe, marching in place, or standing on one leg while placing the sole of your other foot on the inside of the knee of your stationary leg, making a triangle shape. Try to balance in this position for as long as you can.
2. Find a fitness buddy. Exercise with other people who are at a comparable fitness level.
Fitness buddies give you motivation, allow you to share workout ideas and track your fitness progress, and give you someone to talk to, which can make your exercise time fly by. And you may even reduce your stress and improve your mental and emotional health.
3. Exercise like Tarzan. One outdoor option may be a program called MovNat. It was started by the French fitness enthusiast Erwan Le Corre, who trains elite athletes and U.S. Navy SEALS.
Le Corre’s “modern-day Tarzan” philosophy involves spending time moving freely and instinctually outdoors in nature, including climbing over and through natural obstacles like rocks and trees.
It sounds similar to how I spent my free time as a child, running and playing in the woods and wetlands for hours. Yet it amazes me that with all of the emphasis on finding your “inner child,” people always seem to overlook this type of healthy, “childish” behavior.
4. Try interval training—the old-fashioned kind. Exercising in intervals of varying intensity can help lower chronic inflammation, improve heart function, lower blood pressure, and boost insulin response and metabolic function—all of which reduce the risk of chronic diseases and help slow aging at the cellular level.
And it’s easy to do on your own. Alternate short intervals of fast walking with longer intervals of strolling at a regular pace.
5. Strengthen your core. Research shows that lower back pain is ubiquitous among older adults, affecting quality of life and longevity. In fact, one study of nearly 5,000 Danish twins over the age of 70 found that people with back pain had a reduced lifespan by a whopping 13 percent.7
One of the best ways to prevent, or reverse, back pain is to strengthen the core muscles in your abdomen. I often recommend swimming or tai chi.
Swimming exercises all the muscles in your body (including your core) while easing stress on your joints. Meanwhile, the fluid movements of tai chi are particularly good for your core muscles, and may also increase your lifespan.
1“Association of All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality With High Levels of Physical Activity and Concurrent Coronary Artery Calcification.” JAMA Cardiology, 2019;4(2):174-181.
2“Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation.” Preventive Medicine, 2017; 100: 145
3“Walking in Relation to Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of Older U.S. Adults.” Am J Prev Med. 2017 Oct 11.
4“Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC).” Am J Clin Nutr, January 14, 2015.
5“Outdoor physical activity and self rated health in older adults living in two regions of the U.S.” Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Jul 30;9:89.
6“Daily Walking and Life Expectancy of Elderly People in the Iowa 65+ Rural Health Study.” Front. Public Health, 18 April 2013.
7“Is this back pain killing me? All‐cause and cardiovascular‐specific mortality in older Danish twins with spinal pain.” Eur J Pain. 2017 May;21(5):938-948.