Ask an Expert: Finding Time for Fitness
Q: A year ago, my doctor told me to start exercising to lower my blood pressure and lose weight. I started doing 30-minute workouts a few times a week – either jogging or using an elliptical trainer – and my blood pressure did go down, but my weight didn’t. Now I hear that you have to exercise 60 to 90 minutes every day to lose weight. That sounds impossible – I work and have a family. Can you offer any realistic ideas to help me work in that many workouts?
Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:
I do have ideas. You don't have to work out for an hour-and-a-half straight every day to get there. The recommendation of 60 to 90 minutes is for cumulative activity, meaning that you can do it in various-sized chunks throughout the day. In addition, that recommendation, which comes from the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005," calls for "physical activity," which includes both exercise and more general activity.
What's the difference between “exercise” and “activity”?
The main differences have to do with the type and intensity of the movement. Since intensity is gauged differently depending on each person’s fitness level, the distinction can vary from person to person – one person's activity may be another person's exercise.
Exercise is usually more intense than general activity. It involves exerting your muscles in systematic training techniques, using a variety of repetitive and continuous movements, to improve your fitness or health. Jogging and working out on an elliptical trainer, as you do, both count as exercise.
Activity, on the other hand, may include any movement that uses your body's major muscle groups and burns calories. Working in the yard, cleaning your house and washing your car the old-fashioned way all are muscle-working, calorie-burning activities.
The goal of 60 to 90 minutes of “physical activity” a day, therefore, includes both vigorous, fitness-focused exercise and more task-oriented physical activity. Finding small ways to increase both types of activity in your life will help you burn more calories and take off those extra pounds.
Adding in activity
So, how to pack more physical activity into a busy life? Increase it bit by bit, by counting "movement minutes." Start by boosting your current 120 minutes a week to 150 minutes. (That’s just 30 extra minutes in a week, or less than five minutes a day.) Then move up to three hours a week, etc. Analyze your daily responsibilities to find places where you can insert extra activity, on top of your usual workouts.
1. Un-automate wherever practical. Look for ways to use your muscles instead of machines. Mow the lawn with a push mower. Wash the car with a cloth and bucket. Use a rake and a broom instead of a leaf blower to tidy up outside. Scrub the porch instead of plugging in the power washer. Wash dishes or pots by hand instead of loading the dishwasher. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Climb the escalator. Pull golf clubs instead of riding in a cart. Get up to change the channel on the TV instead of reaching for the remote. Hang laundry on a line instead of throwing it in the dryer. (Or maybe you'd just rather spend that extra 30 minutes in the gym?)
2. Squeeze a little action into errands. Instead of using the drive-through, get out of your car and walk in to the bank lobby for your transaction. Work your abdominal muscles while sitting in traffic. Push the grocery cart all the way back to the store, not just to the nearest cart corral. Park at the far end of the parking lot. Walk your letters to the neighborhood mailbox. Get on the bus or MAX a couple of stops down the line, or get off a couple of stops early. Take a walk while waiting for your child at the dentist's office.
3. Join the resistance. Incorporate resistance exercises into your life two or three days a week (non-consecutive days). Keep light dumbbells or resistance bands or tubing (Thera-Band is a common brand) handy. Lift weights or work the bands while on hold on the phone, while waiting for your computer to download, or while watching TV. Better yet, turn off the TV. Television watchers tend to burn very few calories.
You also can use your body weight for strength training: Do push-ups to strengthen your upper body, sit-ups for your torso, and lunges or squats for your legs. Try to do a set before getting dressed in the morning or before dinner. Get your kids to do these exercises along with you.
4. Make it a family affair. Speaking of kids, one great way to increase the activity in your life is to spend more time having fun with your children. Put on a CD and dance. Load the baby into a backpack or stroller, and tell the older kids to grab their helmet and a scooter, skateboard or bike – then go for a walk or ride after dinner. Throw a ball to the dog in an off-leash area, or toss a football or Frisbee with the kids at the park.
When you’re a spectator at your kids’ school and team events, you can still find ways to work in some movement of your own. At softball games and soccer matches, stand on the sidelines instead of sitting; do stretches, pace back and forth, or jog in place during the game; walk or run around the perimeter of the field a time or two. At the school gym, climb up and down the bleachers a few times. During intermission at plays and concerts, walk around the block instead of milling around in the lobby.
5. Measure your progress. Invest in a pedometer and a notebook. Wear the pedometer for a week or two and track how many steps you take in an average day. Then look for ways to increase your average. Aim to reach 10,000 steps daily – that’s about five miles, which research has shown is enough for reaping health benefits and dropping excess weight. Use the notebook to track your progress, and to log other activities, if you like. Many people find it motivating to track the type and amount of activity they get each day and to note how it makes them feel.
6. Get a buddy. If sticking to a regimen is hard for you, enlist your spouse, your teen-ager, a friend, a co-worker or a neighbor as a workout buddy or running partner. Ask family members and friends for their support. If you have the interest and the room in your schedule, join a recreational sports team or take a class.
If you are interested in a customized fitness program tailored to meet your needs, sign up for a one-on-one session with a fitness specialist. Providence offers fitness program consultations at Providence Mercantile Health & Fitness Center in Lake Oswego (503-216-6606); Providence Portland Medical Center Body Works (503-215-6911); and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center Wellness Works (503-216-2662).
7. Focus on the burn. Burning calories, that is. It doesn't have to be formal exercise – just anything that expends energy, be it shoveling dirt in the garden, washing walls or swimming laps.
8. Be prepared. Carry a bag of workout clothes in your car, or at least a good pair of athletic shoes and a light jacket. Then you'll be ready to move, anywhere and anytime, no excuses.
9. Stick with it. It's often said that the tortoise wins the weight-loss race. Be realistic. Set short-term goals on the way to a larger goal, and celebrate each milestone. Be aware that you may gain weight for the first few weeks as you build muscle, which is heavier than fat. But that added muscle ultimately will help you burn the extra calories.
Review the guidelines and go for the goal
The federal government updates the Dietary Guidelines every five years based on the latest scientific knowledge about promoting health. We need the help. As measured by body mass index (BMI), almost two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. (The BMI is a tool for calculating your weight in relationship to your height. Calculate your BMI to see where you stand.) In addition, fewer than half of Americans get enough physical activity.
Because of statistics like these, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines report devotes a full chapter to physical activity, instead of focusing exclusively on diet, as previous reports did.
For activity, the report urges variety: Include cardiovascular or aerobic conditioning to build endurance and get your heart pumping; stretch to maintain or increase your flexibility; and add resistance exercises, strength training or calisthenics to increase your muscle strength and mass.
According to the report, regular physical activity is great on several levels: It makes you healthier, lifts your mood, helps you deal with stress, enhances psychological well-being and helps you maintain a healthy body weight.
Depending on your goal, the report divides its recommendations for physical activity into three levels:
Want to stay healthy? To reduce the risk of chronic disease in adulthood, put in at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity – beyond what you usually do at work or home – on most days of the week. For even more health benefits, increase the intensity level and go for more than 30 minutes. That's what you've been doing, and you see how it worked for lowering your blood pressure.
Want to avoid putting on pounds? Preventing the steady creep of extra weight in adulthood takes more, according to the report. It recommends a two-pronged approach: about 60 minutes of moderately intense to vigorous activity at least four days a week, and not eating too much – delicately put as "not exceeding caloric intake requirements." "Moderate intensity" means moving vigorously enough to raise your heart rate while still being able to converse with a companion. For most people, 60 minutes of moderately intense exercise might mean walking four miles at a brisk pace, biking 12 miles or pushing a stroller three miles.
Want to take pounds off – and keep them off? To successfully lose weight and keep it off, the report advises at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderately intense physical activity every day, while keeping your calorie intake in balance with the calories you're burning.
Finally, keep your eyes on the prize: As you increase your activity and burn more calories, you are reducing your risk for all sorts of diseases. In addition to the benefits you’ve seen in your blood pressure, you are cutting your odds for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer and osteoporosis. Regular physical activity also relieves arthritic pain, raises the level of "good" (HDL) cholesterol and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. Talk about a miracle drug!
If your appetite for info is whetted, read more about the latest Dietary Guidelines or about how to trim calories from your diet.
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