The US Department of Health & Human Services recommends a bare minimum of two and a half hours of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” and two sessions of “muscle-strengthening activities” per week. These guidelines would appear to be unrealistic for most of the population, as suggested by the evidence that just one in five Americans meets the prescribed amount. However, even if you don’t feel capable (physically or mentally) of completing that much exercise in a given week, one health expert I recently spoke to claims that there are a myriad of benefits to moving just a little bit more than you are now.
Paul Ingraham is a science writer and the founder of Save Yourself – an enormous online resource for sufferers of aches, pains and injuries. His background is in massage therapy but he moved on from that occupation in order to concentrate full time on Save Yourself. He is also the assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine.
In short, he knows his stuff.
When I asked Paul what he thought the single biggest change the average person can make to positively affect their health and fitness was, his response was simple and compelling in equal measure:
Move a bit more, but not necessarily a lot. It’s the key to practically everything else, excellent bang for buck, by far the most benefit for the least effort. For instance, a little more exercise will almost certainly improve sleep quality, which in turn is key to many other things. The list of cascading benefits is impressive.
It should come as no surprise that Paul’s answer is backed up by science. Multiple studies have concluded that exercising for as little as twenty minutes per week is enormously beneficial to one’s health, as detailed extensively in The First 20 Minutes – a book that any would-be exerciser should read.
In a recent study cited in the book, Scottish researchers found that just twenty minutes of exercise per week improved respondent’s dispositions. But that’s just scratching the surface.
Timothy Church, PhD, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, argues that “the greatest health benefit from exercise comes from getting up off the couch. Everything after that is incremental.”
Frank Booth, PhD, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri, said:
Almost all of the mortality reductions are due to the first twenty minutes of exercise. There’s a huge drop in mortality rates among people who haven’t been doing any activity and then begin doing some, even if the amount of exercise is quite small.
I could go on, but the message is clear: if you’re not doing any exercise, you would benefit enormously from doing just a little. Something as unimposing as a twenty minute stroll once per week (or two ten minute strolls) could have enormously positive implications for your health.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t ultimately strive to meet the government guidelines (which, unlike more arbitrary past guidelines, are commonly accepted as a sensible base point), but Rome wasn’t built in a day. My recommendation is to start by changing your perception of what exercise is, then move just a little bit more.
If you’re starting at zero (or close to zero), moving just “a bit more,” as Paul suggests, could make a world of difference. Little is always better than nothing.