Using exercise to maximize health and well-being is a proverbial no-brainer. But how much? What’s the right “dose” of movement?
Lots of relevant research has been done, which is great. Unfortunately different research-specific recommendations point in different directions. Other than movement often being the best medicine no consensus is found.
There are those who simply advocate something is better than nothing. However, the WHO recommends a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate activity. Others advocate more is better. Being extremely fit—and not just not sedentary—might even be a fountain of youth; researchers found extremely fit older cyclists (between 55 and 79) had physiological markers indistinguishable from those of much younger people. But when others studied joggers they found those who did less lived longer. But before you take up slow jogging, others find that high intensity interval training (HIIT) is significantly better for your health than moderate continuous exercise. So, are wind sprints in your future?
All this conflicting advice provides a convenient excuse for people already conflicted about changing their sedentary ways, or raising their fitness level. Plus, it’s confusing. So, let’s cut through the clutter. Here’s my read: When it comes to exercise and well-being move as much as you possibly can. That’s right. Rather than “something is better than nothing” or “more is better,” what I take from the research, and talks with fitness professionals, is “do as much as you can.” But to make such exercise optimization work, and not turn it into either a license for dangerous excess or a demotivating impossibility, two important caveats have to be kept in mind.
First, do as much as possible given the possibilities and constraints of your specific, individual, unique life. There are no absolute standards. There is only your standard, and that standard will change: more during open times, less when work or family makes demands; more when relaxed, less when stressed; more when feeling fit and strong, less when your body tells you to throttle back. Movement has to be sustainable for you and all the messy, wonderful complexities of your life.
After all everybody, and every body, is different. Individuality was emphasized by all the fitness professionals I talked with. Allison Bowers, Regional Pilates Manager for Equinox, put it this way: “the key is to make goals specific and attainable for each individual … and when you succeed, you move forward and set a new target.”
Second, take the long view. Think about doing as much as possible when measured over a long period of time, like years. Don’t push this or that workout if it’s going to knock you out for a few weeks. For example, I recently cut a bike ride in half because the weather was sketchy and I didn’t want to push myself through an energy draining, motivation sapping uncomfortable ride. My mileage for the year will be more by cutting that ride in half. What’s important is to do as much as you can—but over a long period of time, like 5 years, and not in each and every moment .
But how to do it? How to you create a sustainable relationship with optimal movement that fits your life and maximizes well-being. Here are four ways to reach the goal of as much movement as possible for you and your unique life circumstance:
Exercise feeds health, and health feeds exercise. One part of moving as much as possible over a long period of time is paying attention to the basics of health.
Keith Paine, co-founder of Nimble Fitness in NYC, has guided many people to fitness, me included. During years of conversation he frequently noted that “true health is interactive.” When I asked him specifically about health and exercise he told me “understanding that all the different factors of health–exercise, rest/recovery, nutrition, hydration, stress reduction–all flow together.”
So don’t forget that part of being able to move more is eating healthy, drinking plenty of water, and getting plenty of sleep all while keeping stress under control . Exercise is part of the overall health package. It does not stand alone.
Doing as much as you can carries the very real risk of doing too much, of getting hurt. So, let me be clear: Don’t do that. Don’t do too much. If you hurt yourself today you won’t be able to do much of anything tomorrow. Listening to your body is vital when you are trying to exercise as much as possible. Also, teachers, trainers, coaches, and even work-out partners can be invaluable.
Bowers told me that the Pilates world uses the phrase, “”having a set of eyes on you.” Being under the helpful gaze of someone knowledgable helps “ensure that you are moving with proper technique and form, doing workouts to challenge you while not pushing you beyond your means and ultimately, helping you get the best results.” Because as hard as you should push you should never push beyond your means.
In other words, do more, but don’t get hurt, and listen to your body and other people for where and when to throttle back .
Everyone has different ways to stay motivated. For some motivation requires near constant novelty. They want different hikes, new classes and exercises, different routines. At the gym they beeline for the newest equipment. For them more means doing something different. Others rely on the regularity of routine. They are locked in on familiar routes for jogging or cycling. If a regular tennis game works, why change? For them doing more includes doing more of the same.
Also, some people thrive on solitude, others on company. You need to find what works for you.
Of course, no one is all one way or the other, nor is novelty/routine and solitude/company stamped in stone. Things change. What’s important is to find a balance that works for you so you can look forward to the next workout, whatever it may be.
Fun is really, really important. You gotta have fun moving. If you don’t find joy in movement you will soon slide back into the illusory comfort of being sedentary. No one has that much discipline to exercise consistently over a period of years without some fun. So, cultivate fun.
Enoying how you move does more than give you something, well, fun to look forward to. Having fun and enjoying yourself just may blunt the memory of whatever discomfort and pain accompanies a hard workout—be it an extra lap around the block for the just getting started or a full tilt marathon. As Gretchen Reynolds wrote in the NY Times about a study looking at marathoners’ memory of pain and discomfort at race’s end, ”if you wish to maintain a strenuous workout or competitive program and also blunt the edges of your memories of any resulting pain, find an activity that you enjoy.”