That brisk walk across the parking lot — it counts. Shoveling the walk — it counts. Vacuuming the house — it counts too.
Physical activity guidelines (the 2nd and latest edition), released in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stress the total weekly amount of physical activity, not necessarily duration, counts toward your weekly “exercise,” and it benefits your overall health.
“The physical activity guidelines reinforce that any amount of physical activity — walking, dancing, household chores — is beneficial compared to being sedentary,” said Dr. David Rosenbaum, a cardiologist with the UCHealth in Colorado Springs. “Everything you do counts.”
The advice from UCHealth doctors: Get out of your office chair and go take a walk through the halls, or to the furthest water cooler or bathroom. Every physical activity you do throughout your day counts toward better sleep and brain health as well as lowering the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
More evidence, more benefits — same prescription
“The actual recommendations for physical activity are unchanged in the (2018) guidelines,” explained Dr. Patrick Green, a cardiologist with UCHealth in northern Colorado. “Adults should get 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. Muscle strengthening with resistance training should be done two times per week.”
Moderate-intensity activities include walking, ballroom dancing, gardening and water aerobics. Vigorous activities are those in which you’re out of breath, like power walking, jogging or running, swimming laps or playing a singles game of tennis. Muscle-strengthening activities include everyday behaviors — such as lifting children, climbing stairs or shoveling — just as much as using free weights or elastic bands.
Exercise and healthy habits start early. So should encouragement.
Children ages 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes of physical activity per day. The 2018 guidelines also include information for 3- to 5-year-olds.
Bone-strengthening, balance and flexibility activities are beneficial. Work on them individually or find an exercise or activity that combines them all, such as yoga or tai chi. Children can participate in these activities too, but they can also achieve these benefits in simple play, by jumping, skipping or dancing.
“Heart-healthy habits in adults are rooted in the environment and behaviors in childhood,” Green said. “Unhealthy behavior when young often continues in adulthood and increases cardiovascular risk. Adopting heart-healthy behaviors requires involvement of family, teachers and the community.”
Where are we now?
According to Green, only 1% of children have ideal dietary habits and fewer than 50% of adolescents get the guideline-recommend amounts of physical activity.
Adults fare even worse.
Currently, only 26% of men, 19% of women and 20% of teenagers are meeting the activity recommendations.
“Getting just 25% of those people to be more active would prevent almost 75,000 deaths annually in the United States,” Rosenbaum explained.
“Everything you do during your day counts toward the goal of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. … Walk for a few minutes at lunch or with your family after dinner.”
Whether exercise or another physical activity — just move!
“The more we move, the better we feel, function and sleep,” Rosenbaum said.
The more time someone is sedentary — sitting at an office desk or on the couch watching a screen — the greater their chance of developing Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, according to the report.
“Take the stairs instead of the elevator,” he said. “Park farther away from stores to walk in. Housework and chores count. Risk of sedentary behavior on not only heart health but cancer risk is real.”
The benefits of physical activity and exercise
“The guidelines emphasize that there is no minimum requirement of exercise to get a benefit and provides guidance on tested strategies that can be implemented to get the population more active,” said Dr. William Cornwell, a cardiologist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Immediate benefits include improved sleep, reduced anxiety, improved cognition and lower blood pressure.
“And most of these improvements become even larger with regular performance of this activity,” Green said. It’s also true that some of these benefits, such as lower blood pressure, last for hours — even days — after the bout of activity.
Improve your sleep
When it’s time for bed after a day of physical activity, people who meet the guidelines take less time to fall asleep, spend more time actually sleeping, have improved sleep quality and get more deep sleep.
The same research shows that people who have met the guidelines — both those with chronic insomnia as well as those without diagnosed sleep disorders — have less daytime sleepiness and use sleep aid medication less.
And these benefits come whether the activities take place eight hours before bed or three.
“It’s important to emphasize that exercise is just as important as any pill that you take,” Cornwell said. “In my estimation, there are no drugs — and there never will be a drug — that has a risk/benefit profile that is as favorable as exercise. … It is an incredibly important ‘tool’ that needs to be used.”
What’s more, evidence suggests that exercise lowers the risk of certain types of cancer: bladder, endometrial, kidney, stomach, esophageal and lung cancer, beyond just breast and colon cancer, Green said.
When physical activity becomes regular, the brain function that helps organize daily activities, plan for the future and control emotions also improves.
Are we just too busy?
“Americans are not as busy as they think they are. It has been reported that in 2017, Americans watched just under eight hours of television per day,” Cornwell said.
“Exercise is not something that you do — it’s a lifestyle,” he continued. “There is no magic pill that can be taken when you are 50 to 60 that will immediately reverse a lifetime of inactivity. You can afford to turn off the TV or any other device (phone, tablet, etc.) and go for a 30-minute walk with your family, your dog or during your lunch break. … It needs to be part of who we are.”