Alongside nutrition and sleep, exercise is one of the three pillars of our health. Before coming up with a realistic and sustainable plan, let’s see what types of exercise are most recommended and how much we should try to do each day or each week.
Walking – is there anything to the 10,000 steps recommendation?
Historically, humans walked a lot. Often as much as 10 or 12 miles a day when we lived a hunter-gather lifestyle, hunting for animals, foraging for berries, and finding different resting areas. One thing that often set us apart from other animals was not our speed but our endurance and capacity to keep walking. This would eventually lead to an animal becoming completely exhausted, breaking down, and needing to give up. However, once we finally caught up to them, all we had to do was begin preparing our next meal.
The Japanese were the first to come up with the idea of doing 10,000 steps a day. I don’t think it was based on any science. It was more to do with the fact that it was a nice round number with five digits to aim for on the “Manpo-Kei” pedometer or step counter by Yasama Clock in Japan in 1965. My Japanese is non-existent, but the internet says that “Manpo-Kei” translates to “10,000 steps meter”, which seems to have stuck as the daily step target for many pedometers and activity trackers since then.
Some research suggests that 10,000 steps a day can improve heart and mental health and lower your risk of diabetes. However, if you have tried to do this daily, you have probably realised just how long it can take. For me, it can be about 90 minutes or eight kilometres of walking. For others, it can take up to two hours a day, which might not make it so sustainable or easy to do consistently.
Other research from Harvard suggests that walking an average of only 4,400 steps a day can have positive health benefits or lower a woman’s risk of dying. The control group did 2,700 steps a day, so increasing your step count by 1,700 steps a day might make a significant difference in your health.
If you are already walking 7,500 steps daily, you may not need to increase it further. Another study found that increasing your steps to 7,500 a day reduced your risk of dying, but increasing it beyond that did not. So averaging 7,500 steps a day is going to be my new target. If I do more or less, that’s okay, as long as the average is around that.
If you wanted to have 7,500 steps a day as a target, too, you could aim to do the majority of it in one block. However, some evidence suggests that regular movement throughout the day and not remaining in one position for too long is even better.
For example, my Oura Ring gives me an activity score (out of 100) daily. If I don’t move every hour while I am awake, it penalises me that day for my overall activity score. It also recommends achieving a calorie goal in terms of energy used through activity, meeting my activity goals on most days of the week, and occasionally giving myself a rest day where I don’t overdo it and allow my body to recover.
Is sitting killing us, and can standing desks help?
I find the public discussion over the last five or so years about the dangers of sitting interesting. Such studies have said that sitting for too long can increase the risk of excess weight around the waist, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, poor posture, muscle weakness, and even an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
A review of thirteen studies found that people who sit more than eight hours a day and do no physical activity outside of this have a similar risk of death to people who are obese or smoke regularly. However, further analysis of the more than one million people showed that 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense exercise cancelled out the harmful effects of sitting for long periods each day. So, if you need to sit long hours at work each day, try to make sure that you also incorporate some time, either before, during or after work, to get moving and work up a sweat. It may be even more critical for you than for people on their feet more during their workday.
Many opposing arguments for sitting are pushed by the makers of standing desks. These companies say that if sitting all day while at work is the problem, then standing all day is the answer.
Standing desks do seem to improve the productivity of some workers. Those in a call centre with standing desks were found to be 45% more productive than those with sitting-only desks. Sit-stand desks can reduce upper back and neck pain by 54% after 4 weeks. Using a standing desk can reduce stress and fatigue after only 7 weeks. Furthermore, 87% of those using standing desks said they had more energy and vigour throughout the day. These levels reverted back to how they used to be when they returned to their old sitting desks. Using standing desks after lunch can even prevent your blood sugar from spiking as much.
Standing all day may help you burn slightly more calories than sitting, but not much. One study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that the average person burned 80 calories an hour while sitting at a desk or 88 calories an hour while standing. So about 60 extra calories a day if you stand all day. If you instead sat all day and then went for a walk during your lunch break, you would burn 70 more calories than standing all day. I know I’d prefer the sitting and lunchtime walk. It will probably come with less low back, leg or foot pain. What do you think?
The importance of regular movement and breaks
My sister’s husband, Dr James Gillard, Osteopath, says that the problem isn’t sitting or standing. It is more the issue of remaining sedentary in one posture for too long each day. So, try to change into different poses once you feel uncomfortable and want to change. If you have a standing desk, hopefully, it is adaptable, where you can spend some time sitting and standing rather than doing only one of them all day long. And please, take regular breaks during the work day if you can. Stand or walk while talking on the phone. Head outside, get some fresh air and go to the park or for a walk at lunchtime. Grab a coffee for morning tea around the corner if you need to. Have a walking meeting with a colleague sometimes rather than just sitting at your desk if you can. Regularly taking breaks and moving throughout the day is the key.
Running and is it good for us?
Running in a race with thousands of other people can be pretty fun. I’ve done several of them over the years, ranging from 5km runs when I was younger to a few 10km fun runs with my brother, to the run for the Kids 15km race with my cousin, and three half marathons by myself. Finishing the half marathon at the Melbourne Marathon festival was terrific. Entering the field of the MCG and completing a lap around the field before finishing the race in front of a few thousand people was a big rush and exhilarating.
However, running by myself, just for the sake of it, is never something I have particularly enjoyed. I struggled for years to get into a good routine with running. I loved listening to Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and even hoped that one day I would feel the same way about it. I never did, though. After several years of trying and failing, I eventually stopped trying to run in 2017.
1.35 million Australians do run for fun and exercise. If you do it regularly, it can significantly improve your health and reduce your risk of death. It reduces the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can also improve your balance, metabolism, heart function and aerobic endurance.
Even running for 50 minutes a week can give you all these benefits, with benefits not improving or decreasing if you run more than this. Which makes it great news if you don’t have heaps of time on your hands and want to incorporate it into your life. If you think you could enjoy running for 50 minutes a week, either in one go or across a few, please talk to your doctor to see if it is suitable for you to get started straight away or slowly build up to it. I’ve spoken to a few people who tried the Couch to 5km program and enjoyed the benefits of getting into a good routine and feeling fitter. I think I may need to reconsider my earlier running retirement.
There are some risks of injury or overuse with running, so try to avoid uneven or hard surfaces if you can, and wear appropriate and well-fitted footwear. Also, try not to suddenly increase the pace and duration of your running, like I did with attempting to run long races with little preparation. Instead, slowly build up your speed and distance over time, and don’t feel you need to run for more than 50 minutes a week. Running can be a healthy pastime that you can do consistently for many years.
If you’re like me and don’t love the idea of running alone, see if there are any running groups in your area. If you really hate it, see if there is another exciting sport you can do that can give you similar benefits and more enjoyment and rewards. The less your exercise routine seems like hard work, and the more it feels like fun, the more likely you are to stick to it.
What are the alternatives to running?
If you look at the complete list of sports worldwide, there are over 800. If you look at the list of international sports federations and recognised sports, there are over 200. It may be that your area has a lot less, but I wonder how much you have looked to see what is available to you. Your sports experience may be what you were exposed to in school. If you weren’t the most athletic, competitive or extroverted child, you might have bad memories of times that seemed to turn you off sport for life.
If you are in school, there are plenty of times when you have to participate in sports that, for whatever reason, are not your thing. Please do not let those negative experiences put you off all sports or exercise for life.
If you are not as active as you would like to be, having training or a game to turn up to at the same time each week is an excellent way to get fit. It may also be fun and introduce you to new friends.
If you are unsure but want to explore the idea further, please check out this list to see if there is anything that looks interesting to you and may be worth trying. Then see on the internet, Facebook, or Meetup if a group exists in your area. Or at your local sports stadium or university. Most of the time, there will be groups, teams, and classes that would love a newcomer to join them.
I currently have a pool in my apartment complex and want to get into a routine of swimming 1km, or about 30 minutes, once a week. Swimming has many benefits if you enjoy it or have a pool nearby that you can use when you need it.
Unlike running or walking, Swimming is more of a full-body workout. Swimming can lower your stress levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve your sleep patterns, even after a light swim. It can burn double the amount of calories as walking. Only 30 minutes a week can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It supports the body and requires much less pounding on the body than running on pavement. It can increase your energy levels and doesn’t leave you all sweaty at the end of the workout.
I currently don’t own a car and use a bike to get to and from work four times a week. As it takes approximately 30 minutes each way, I am already getting enough exercise time each week through cycling. Anything I do outside of this with Running or Swimming is a bonus. I also find it much easier and faster to ride down to the local shops whenever I need anything from the supermarket.
Like Swimming and running, regular cycling has a lot of potential benefits. It can increase your cardiovascular fitness and reduce your risk of heart disease. It can increase muscle strength, flexibility and mobility, especially in your legs. It can decrease your stress levels. It can strengthen your bones and improve your posture and coordination. It can also reduce your body fat levels.
There are some risks of injury, especially if you are riding on roads or unstable trails or tracks. However, I’d still much prefer to ride than run. If I ride as part of my commute to and from work, it saves me money by not having to pay for public transport. It also saves me time, as it is much faster than walking and public transport. If I can be less stressed and healthier while also saving money and freeing up more time, that seems a pretty good deal.
The one thing I am not adequately doing in terms of cardiovascular fitness, even though it is recommended frequently these days, is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I’ve done a two-week trial of F45 before and didn’t mind it. It was definitely a challenging workout. I’ve never tried Cross Fit, but I’ve heard similar things from the devoted fans who love it and go consistently.
To do HIIT properly, the aim is to do a repeated exercise at nearly your maximum for short intervals of about 20 to 30 seconds, followed by extended periods of rest, usually at a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. So if you sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 40 or 60 seconds, and then sprint for 20 seconds again. Allowing your body to somewhat recover before beginning the next high-intensity interval is essential in HIIT. It will enable your body to get used to the two extremes and improve cardiovascular conditioning. I’ve done little bits of it before, but definitely not exactly like I described to you then. I think I will need to talk to an expert on exercise to see how useful it would be for me to include HIIT regularly in my life.
With HIIT, you can burn a lot of calories in a short period. It can raise your metabolism for hours after a HIIT workout. It can help you to lose body fat and waist circumference. You can gain muscle in the trunk and the legs. It can improve your oxygen consumption. It can reduce your blood pressure and heart rate. Some studies suggest that it improves your heart health more than other forms of cardiovascular exercise. It can lower your blood sugar. Finally, it can improve your anaerobic and aerobic performance, so you can move quickly and for extended periods, depending on your needs.
If you want to give HIIT a go, please speak to a doctor or exercise physiologist first, especially if you haven’t done much exercise lately.
The last thing I want to do is utilise the gym in my apartment complex and have a weights workout 2 times a week, for about 30 minutes each time. Even though I am already doing enough cardiovascular training, I tend to view strength training as something that needs to be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle. Even though some of these activities, including Swimming and Cycling, can help maintain muscle mass.
For many reasons, going to the gym and improving or maintaining muscle mass is positive. One of the main ones males often focus on is wanting to be buff or ripped and look good. While it is true that having more muscle can look and feel better, many other health benefits are less superficial. Strength training can help prevent posture and movement issues and maintain your capacity to do the things you need to do in your life. Maintaining muscle mass can help prevent osteoporosis and broken bones by strengthening your bones. It can also increase your metabolism, even when you are not working out, which reduces your risk of fat and weight gain over time.
When an article in JAMA Psychiatry reviewed 33 clinical trials on strength training in over 1,800 people, they found that people who did strength training two or more days a week had significantly reduced depression severity. So even if you don’t get physically stronger, it can still give you mood benefits, so you don’t have to lift super heavy or hard.
If you want to gain muscle or get stronger, doing each set to fatigue is probably the best advice I have been given and one that seemed to have the best results for me. To do this, lift (or pull) the weight for as many repetitions as possible until you struggle to do the entire movement. Then try for one more repetition. If you cannot do it, you are too fatigued, and your muscles will likely grow over time. If you decide to lift this way, make sure you lift with a spotter or a personal trainer, who can assist you at the end of each set when you become fatigued. Otherwise, stopping before you get to this point is much safer.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 16 studies also found that resistance training can significantly improve anxiety in individuals with and without physical or mental illnesses. So, the mental health benefits of resistance training can be potentially even more prominent and faster than cardiovascular exercise.
If you want to give resistance training a go, please talk to your doctor first and see a gym instructor, personal trainer or exercise physiologist. All these experts could help if you need more guidance and support on how to establish a good weight routine, how often to go, and what you can do.
What is enough, too little or too much?
Unlike nutrition, I will not give a grade for each sport or type of exercise or tell you that you need to do these things. Instead, I have aimed to highlight that whatever movement and exercise you incorporate into your life will probably be better than none.
If you want to focus on walking, see if you can begin counting your steps. Most smartphones have a step counter built into them now. This isn’t too bad as long as you bring your phone on your walks.
I like listening to music, a podcast, or audiobook when walking. It is terrific to do this if you are unmotivated. Listening to something you want to do alongside walking can be considered temptation bundling, making it a little easier to go. For example, people who could only listen to a story when they were at the gym were more likely to go to the gym. If you give yourself a similar rule, you might begin looking forward to your walks or workouts rather than dreading them.
Once you count your steps for a week, if you are under 7,500 steps a week, see if you can increase your step count slowly each week until you get up to 7,500 steps a day. If you are already doing this, keep up the excellent work and don’t feel you need to do anything extra.
If you want to focus on sitting less, you could buy a sit-stand desk or take more regular breaks during a work day and ensure you get away from your desk and outside during your lunch break. Or exercise an hour a day if you have to sit for 8 hours.
If you want to see the benefits of running, aim for 50 minutes a week. If it’s Swimming, aim for 30 minutes a week. If it’s HIIT, try 30 minutes weekly to begin with. If it’s cycling, 30 minutes once a week would be an excellent start too. Finally, if you are going to do strength training, see if you can do two weekly sessions to see the full benefits.
If you want to lose weight, please remember that nutrition, and not exercise, is the best way to do this. The type, amount, and timing of when you eat and drink are more important for how much weight and fat you lose than how active you are.
Altogether, if you are doing 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five times a week, you are likely to be reasonably healthy from an exercise point of view. In addition, you are probably also helping your mental health, stamina and mobility.
You don’t need to become addicted to the gym or your smartwatch to become healthier. Instead, move a little more, sit a little less, get your heart rate up a few times a week, and see if you notice any of its benefits.
14 thoughts on “Exercise is Not Essential for Weight Loss. It is Vital for Your Health”
I was imploring you to mention swimming in this post and I’m so glad that you did. I also find it interesting that you mention it can reduce anxiety and depression, because for me, then no two exercises improve my mental health like swimming or strength training. With swimming, and in doing breaststroke, then I like to imagine pushing my worries behind me as I push forward. With strength training then I like to think about proving my worth, not by being a fierce and scary warrior, but by being a strong, capable woman. Are you familiar with tolerances, baselines and pacing strategies, perchance? It’s what I use and it’s a great way to build up strength over time and was recommended to me by the Pain Management Team at Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Bath, England.
Thankyou for showing a more realistic and empathic approach to fitness and health, Dr Ashworth. Unfortunately, that’s not something you always see.
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Thanks, Helen. Yes, both swimming and strength training are great. All forms of exercise seem to help in some way, but I find both of them especially helpful, and glad you do too!
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That’s a really impressive post. Some of those research points were very interesting, and you covered many different forms of exercise, which is great to see as a comparison. Nice work!
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Yes, Dr Ashworth. That is right. Health comes first. Exercises may contribute to weight loss, too. Thank you 😊
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Such a complete article! Since I lost weight, I try to move as much as possible on a daily basis and it changed my life.
Thank you for this interesting article, Dr Ashworth!
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My husband and I try to walk everyday. I enjoy walking, and I find that it’s helping me lose weight. My mother died of a heart attack when I was just a teenager and I do not want to die like she did. I am trying to do what I can to improve my health. Do you know of any benefits to being a vegetarian?
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There are some. Especially if people eat more vegetables and less processed foods than they would otherwise
When you are active and you start watching what you eating you can loose weight very fast. 70% is food and 30 % is exercise
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I needed this reminder. Thanks
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