Exercise and Fitness

For joggers, less may be more

Gregory Curfman, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Jogging is one of those activities that seems to embody the concept of healthy physical activity. A new study from Denmark may prompt a rethinking of the benefits of strenuous jogging. Researchers with the ongoing Copenhagen City Heart Study found that, compared to healthy but inactive non-joggers, the death rate of light joggers was 90% lower. No surprise there. But the death rate for strenuous joggers was no different than that of sedentary non-joggers. In this study, the most beneficial exercise was jogging at a slow or moderate pace two to three times a week for a total of 60 to 145 minutes. This one study certainly shouldn’t change the current recommendations for physical activity. But it helps debunk the “no pain, no gain” myth of exercise and supports the idea that any activity is better than none—but there may be an upper limit.

2 Minute Medicine®

Being part of a walking group yields wide-ranging health benefits

If you are a sociable soul, here’s some interesting news about exercising with others: A study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that being part of an outdoor walking group can improve health in many ways, including improvements in blood pressure, resting heart rate, total cholesterol, body weight, body fat, physical functioning, and risk of depression. In addition, people who were part of a walking group tended to keep exercising and not slack off. The findings are interesting because walking group participants reaped health benefits even though many of the groups did not meet international guidelines for moderate activity. This supports the idea that any activity is better than none.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Some exercise beats none; more is better

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The standard recommendation for exercise is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. But that may not be the best recommendation for everyone, especially those who are older and have trouble exercising, or those who don’t exercise at all. If we think of exercise as a spectrum, with no activity on one end and 150 minutes or more a week on the other end, there’s a continuum in between. Getting individuals to move along that continuum, from no exercise to a little, a little to more, and so on, is an important goal. New research on the hazards of sitting for prolonged periods should get all of us to sit less and stand or move more.

Julie Corliss

Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes, premature death

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

More than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting: watching television, working at a computer, commuting, or doing other physically inactive pursuits. But all that sitting could be sending some to an early grave. That’s the conclusion of a Canadian study published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. People in the study who sat for prolonged periods of time had a higher risk of dying from all causes — even those who exercised regularly. The negative effects were even more pronounced in people who did little or no exercise. In addition to premature death, the study documented higher rates of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cancer-related deaths in very sedentary people. If you sit for work, try standing or moving around for one to three minutes every half hour. Better yet, think about working at a standing desk. At home, stand when watching TV or talking on the phone.

Daniel Pendick

Running for health: Even a little bit is good, but a little more is probably better

Marathoners are the thoroughbreds of high-performance runners, but even the draft horses of the running world — slow and steady joggers — improve their health. A study out this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology finds that even five to 10 minutes a day of low-intensity running is enough to extend life by several years, compared with not running at all. It shows that the minimal healthy “dose” of exercise is smaller than many people might assume. But if your favorite activity is a brisk walk in the park or a quick game of tennis, the research has implications for you, too. If you don’t currently exercise and make the decision to start — whether it’s walking, jogging, cycling, or an elliptical machine — you are going to improve your health.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Walking, other exercise helps seniors stay mobile, independent

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, start walking today—even if you’ve already edged into “old age.” That’s the conclusion of a report from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) trial, published online yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Frail, inactive older people between the ages of 70 and 89 who started exercising were less likely to have become disabled over the course of a 30-month trial than a similar group who took part in workshops on healthy aging. Some older people they have passed the age at which starting an exercise program will do them any good. These new findings reinforce what other studies have shown: You’re never too old to exercise.

Heidi Godman

Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Here’s another one, which especially applies to anyone experiencing the brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

Stephanie Watson

Too much sitting linked to an early death

Many Americans spend most of each workday sitting in a chair, their fingers the only part of their bodies moving with any intensity. The ease of this modern workday could come at the expense of longevity. A new study of older women in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that sitting for long stretches of time increases the odds of an untimely death. And here’s the kicker: Regular exercise doesn’t do much to diminish the risk of sitting all day. When you sit, you expend fewer calories than you would while standing, and you demand little effort from your muscles. This can help set the stage for diabetes and heart disease. One way to avoid prolonged sitting during the workday is to switch to a standing desk, or one that can adjust to sitting and standing positions. An easier, no-cost solution is to set your smartphone timer to go off every 30 to 60 minutes during the day, and move around when the alarm rings.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

94-year-old Master track star an inspiration to all

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

A recent article in Parade magazine caught my eye because it has lessons for us all. The article was about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old woman, who is a competitive runner and track star. Her age alone is impressive. The fact that she didn’t enter her first Master’s competition until she was 77—an age when many people are hanging up their sneakers—is amazing. The article offers six lessons that anyone can learn from Ms. Kotelko’s daily life. She can be an inspiration for anyone, at any age, who wants to start exercising or to exercise more. You are never too old or too frail to start exercising. Start out with a safe, easy program. Gradually add more and harder exercise. Who knows where you might end—possibly in an event challenging the likes of Olga Kotelko.

Heidi Godman

Easy exercises for couch potatoes

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

If you have trouble finding the motivation to break away from the television and exercise, try couchersizing—staying on or near your couch and exercising during commercial breaks. Why bother? A growing body of evidence links the amount of time spent sitting to illness and even death. And just minimizing long periods of inactivity, like exercising during commercial breaks, can help reduce the risk of injury and may even help you live longer. You can work many different muscle groups while seated upright on a couch. Want to get your heart rate up, work the oblique muscles on the sides of the abdomen. To whittle your waist, try twisting your torso from side to side for the length of a commercial break. You can even exercise while lying on the couch.