Want to Stay Healthy? Don’t (Just) Exercise

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You don’t have to train like an Olympic athlete to have a positive influence on your health. How much – or whether – you exercise depends on what you’re hoping to gain. If you’re after buff arms, toting around a toddler or doing housework may help, but it’s not going to get you Jennifer Aniston arms. Any amount of activity can positively affect your health and well being, and it’s up to you how much activity you incorporate into your daily, weekly or monthly schedule.

You should also take into account your limitations – such as weak joints, fragile bones, a previous injury or how much you weigh – before you embark on a routine. Exercising the wrong way can be hazardous to your health. But in case you think eating a healthy diet alone will keep you fit and feeling good, consider just a few of the benefits that exercise can bring into your life. A regular exercise routine can:

Add years to your life.

 One researcher found that incorporating 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times per week into your schedule can add six years to your life.

Boost your energy.

 Life can be hard, and our days tend to be long and jam-packed with responsibility. Why, then, add exercise to the mix? It will boost your energy and help you feel less stressed as you wend your way through the day.

Improve your mood.

Exercising releases endorphins that help elevate your mood. If you have a history of depression, exercising can have similar effects to taking antidepressants in the fight against your symptoms. If you currently take prescription medication for depression, consult your health care provider before substituting exercise as treatment.

Strengthen your mind.

The more you work out, the more you stimulate proteins in your brain that may help form new cells. Your brain is a muscle that, like any other, can weaken over time if you don’t exercise.

Ward off viruses.

After each workout, your body’s level of immunoglobulin increases. This protein can temporarily strengthen your immunity to infections, such as the common cold and influenza, for approximately 24 hours after exercising.

Combat chronic disease.

Researchers across the board agree that exercise can prevent or help manage high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. Roughly one third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year can be linked to obesity, poor diet and inactivity, according to the American Cancer Society.

Improve blood pressure.

 A workout can help lower your blood pressure for as many as 16 hours afterward. And with regular exercise, you may begin to shed pounds, which can help lower your risk for developing high blood pressure.

When my boys were little, I used to bug them about exercising, especially on the weekends. I was like a broken record. They would practically be chained to their chairs, playing with their computers. No matter that hours would pass and they hadn’t eaten. They were captive. I’m happy to say that now that they’re grown and on their own, I don’t have to nag them anymore. They are both proud card-carrying gym members.

So instead of bugging them, when I started writing this blog, I suspect I began to bug all my readers about exercising. If you haven’t noticed, I write about it a lot.

OK, I’ll make you a deal. This time will be different. I won’t tell you to exercise. I won’t tell you that it improves your overall health or that it can lower your blood pressure, improve your metabolism, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

I’ll tell you something much simpler that has these same exact health benefits. (But you’re not exactly off the hook. I’m not telling you to give up exercise completely.)

Experts are now saying that even if you exercise regularly, it won’t make up for those hours you spend sitting. I wrote about this previously but that was almost a full year ago. I think it bears repeating. I know that after I heard the report on NPR this morning, I clipped on my pedometer (something I used to do but have gotten away from)  and made sure I put it to work to log at least 10,000 steps today.

One Australian study found that taking mini-breaks throughout the day resulted in lowering blood sugar levels as well as triglycerides and cholesterol. And waist sizes decreased, too. The NPR broadcast quotes epidemiologist Steven Blair, a professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, as saying, “Let’s say you do 30 minutes of walking five days a week (as recommended by federal health officials), and let’s say you sleep for eight hours. Well, that still leaves 15.5 hours in the day.”

So you see, most of us are sitting much more than we probably realize. And when we sit, our muscles don’t contract much; when major muscles aren’t moving, neither is your metabolism (at least, not very much). It slows down dramatically. Aside from that, sitting leads to other health problems, among them an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Now that you know this, what do you do? Some suggestions:

  • Schedule a 10-minute mini-break (or several) into your day. Get up from your desk and walk around, stretch, bend, jump—just move.
  • When looking for a place to park, pull your car into the farthest corner of the parking lot.
  • Skip the elevator; take the stairs instead.
  • If you work in an office with others, instead of calling a coworker on the phone or e-mailing her, get up from your desk for some in-person communication.
  • Swap your desk chair for a stability ball or use a taller desk where you can work standing up.
  • During a meeting or while watching television, stand up regularly and walk in place, pace or just plain fidget.

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