Sixty minutes of moderate exercise every day? That latest health recommendation is enough to send the average office worker dashing to the Danish cart in despair.
It's hard enough getting the 30 minutes of daily exercise that the U.S. surgeon general has advised as a hedge against heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. But the whole hour recently recommended by the Institute of Medicine may seem almost impossible.
Don't give up, psychologists and exercise experts say. The recommendation from the influential federal agency is not as rigid as it may seem. It's a guideline intended not only to keep your organs in good working order, but help you burn enough calories to reach and maintain a healthy, stable weight. (It was based on studies of how much energy people with healthy body weights took in and used up.)
The authors of the recent report stressed that not all of the hour has to be done at the same time. Some of the cumulative 60 minutes of activity can be reached through routine activities, such as taking stairs instead of elevators or doing some housework.
But it's probably not practical to rely entirely on such pursuits.
Becoming more active can start with plain old walking. Other than sturdy shoes and maybe sunglasses, no special equipment is needed.
Yet unlike, say, New Yorkers, who walk almost everywhere, Los Angeles residents labor under the added pressure of living in a city in which cars are the primary mode of transportation. "We're glued to our automobiles and to the highway system. We spend a lot of time sitting at our jobs," said Steve Hooker, an exercise physiologist in the California state health department. But, he adds, "everyone has the same amount of time," and it comes down to priorities.
You needn't start at full throttle. Finding that first half-hour is a good foundation upon which you can build.
"People need to understand that they can still get good health benefits from trying to get out there at least 30 minutes most days of the week," said Abby King, senior investigator at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention in Palo Alto, Calif. "There's nothing magic about an hour a day. If you're not hitting an hour but you're increasing activity levels, you're going to benefit."
You might try two 15-minute walks, at lunch and during a coffee break, then taking the family for a half-hour evening walk, or signing up for an evening exercise class. You might walk the dog, play with your kids (instead of just watching them).
Become mindful about moments when you could be more active. In one study, Stanford University researchers found that people have "dead times during the day that aren't valued," like when they watch a television program they don't particularly enjoy, King said. Study subjects learned to get off the couch and take walks.
It's important to note that the expert panel recommended 60 minutes of "moderately brisk" activity, which doesn't mean window-shopping on your lunch hour. It means picking up the pace, from an amble to more of a gambol. The study authors recommend a "moderately brisk pace," defined as 4 mph.
How can you tell if you're pushing yourself hard enough? "You're breathing harder, and your heart rate is higher and you sweat more," King said.
Swimming long, slow laps of the breast stroke isn't really going to get your heart pumping. But pick up the pace with a purposeful freestyle and you're there. Of course, you can ratchet up the pace further -- and even reduce the duration -- by engaging in high-intensity bicycling, running, or jogging for 30 minutes four to seven days a week. A good game of basketball, singles tennis or other racquet sport also could get you to the goal activity level in under an hour.
Think too about what you're doing over a week's time. You've got more leeway than you might imagine. You might do half an hour of walking one day and nothing the next, then make up for it with a 90-minute dance class or golf game the following day, King said.
King conceded that while walking opens the door to exercise for many people, "if someone is serious about weight loss and weight maintenance, they may very well need to go spend an hour in the gym, not every day, but at least two to three times a week."
However, if you're an older adult or someone unused to exercise, start modestly, perhaps with just 10 minutes of exercise, and set your goal at "eventually reaching the recommendation," Hooker said.
One way to help the reluctant exerciser is through social support to reinforce new habits. That can come from Weight Watchers-like groups that bring people together to share tips on overcoming exercise obstacles. Among them is Active Living Every Day, which teaches sedentary people how to maintain physical activity for a lifetime. Created by the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit preventive medicine, education and research center in Dallas, the course is available in book form, is offered at some community centers and has a support component available through the Internet.
Support can also come from mall-walking groups, neighborhood walking clubs, online personal training services, or automated computerized systems that respond to you with a human voice. To keep up the new exercise habits, King said, "people will need to be creative."
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