Exercise and Fitness

Some exercise beats none; more is better

Howard LeWine, M.D.
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.

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

Julie Corliss
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.

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

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

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.

Walking, other exercise helps seniors stay mobile, independent

Howard LeWine, M.D.
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.

Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills

Heidi Godman
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.

Too much sitting linked to an early death

Stephanie Watson

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.

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

Howard LeWine, M.D.
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.

Easy exercises for couch potatoes

Heidi Godman
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.

Balance training seems to prevent falls, injuries in seniors

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

Most people take balance for granted. They navigate without thinking, effort, or fear. For millions of others, though, poor balance is a problem. Some struggle with long-term dizziness or imbalance. Others suffer balance-related falls and injuries. A new study concludes that exercise can reduce not only the odds of falling but the odds of sustaining fall-related injuries. In many urban areas, there’s no shortage of classes aimed at improving balance. You can find them at senior centers, Y’s and Jewish Community Centers, health clubs, and the like. There’s also a lot you can do at home. The American College of Sports Medicine Standing recommends standing with one foot in front of another, lifting a foot off the floor, and shifting weight in various directions as three examples of home exercises.

Wellocracy aims to help trackers choose and use health apps and devices

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.