The thought of starting an exercise program can be both daunting and off-putting for many people. But don’t get tripped up by the idea that starting a regular exercise program is a big, difficult step to take. Start with a little light exercise to overcome initial barriers.
Some of the barriers people see when starting out are very real and are not just a matter of intent or willpower. It can be hard to see how you will make the time. It’s difficult to know where’s the best place to start. It can be even more difficult to approach someone for help, especially when you may be feeling very lost and out of shape, whatever that might mean.
And then there are the excuses and distractions. There’s always something you’d rather be doing. Exercise seems just so hard. And it can seem that unless you really get into it and make a big effort, well nothing much is going to be achieved with just a little effort, is it?
Very quickly you can be trapped irrespective of how much to want to get moving or know you should.
Benefits of a Little Light Exercise
This need not be the case. Of course, willpower will be required but the first step need not be nearly as big as many people think.
It has long been known that light 10 minute exercise has both psychological and physical benefits. However, until recent years, many of the studies supporting this conclusion had been undertaken on animals and were difficult to replicate on humans.
Even where humans were involved it was often very difficult to control for other lifestyle factors, such as diet or family habits, which may be correlated with exercise. They also depended on self-reporting.
In recent years, the availability of lightweight activity monitors that can be worn long term has made it much easier to include human subjects and obtain objectively measured results. The results have been surprising.
I’ve written elsewhere about how much exercise you should be aiming to do. Based on official guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services, a good target is that adults should aim to do 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. Some form of strength training should be included twice a week. For children and teenagers the target is 60 minutes a day.
Moderate-intensity exercise would be activity such as brisk walking where the heart rate increases – but not to full capacity – and the breathing rate increases to a point where you can still talk to a companion, but would not be able to sing. The same target could be achieved by 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise such as jogging or a class in a gym.
How Much, How Often?
When the guidelines were first published in 2008 it was recommended that the exercise needs to take place in nonstop bouts of at least 10 minutes. It should also be undertaken regularly, that is, on most days of the week.
These guidelines have recently been revised given the results of the latest research. The overall targets and recommendations remain broadly the same. However, the 10 minute minimum per bout has been dropped. Instead, the guidelines are that all forms of physical activity, no matter how long the period, is beneficial and should be included.
This recognizes that short duration activities that are undertaken regularly, such as walking up a stairs or from where your car is parked to your destination, have beneficial health effects.
In contrast, the guidelines omit references to the desirability of high-intensity interval training, which is the image that first comes to mind of many when they consider starting exercise. Instead the conclusion is that more research is needed on the overall impacts of this type of exercise.
The conclusion is that regular low intensity exercise of even short duration is definitely beneficial, while the impact of the more high profile, high intensity type of interval exercise that is often promoted requires greater study.
The link between regular exercise and mortality – a person’s risk of dying within a defined period of time – has been well documented. Previous research based on self-reporting of activity had estimated that exercise would reduce mortality by 20 to 35 percent.
Two recent studies undertaken respectively in Harvard University and at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm using objective measurements found the impacts to be greater. The research concluded that people who undertook exercise had a 50 to 70 reduction in mortality in a subsequent defined period when compared to people who were not exercising. The impact was most clearly seen among women.
This is a big unexpected benefit and is particularly notable given that the new measurement devices that were used removed the possible impact of other factors such as diet and any bias that might be involved in self-reporting. The studies involved hundreds of participants and the data were collected over many years.
The studies found that most participants did not engage in much intensive exercise or activity but spent a lot of time on activity that involved fairly light amounts of movement. Those undertaking vigorous regular exercise certainly did the best. However, the health benefits were seen also among those who engaged only in light exercise.
These studies were based on mortality, but the researchers were also able to conclude that there the benefits were seen while participants were still living in terms of better health and quality of life. This was true for those engaged in light exercise as well as those exercising more intensively.
Animal studies had shown that exercise had a positive impact on the formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is essential for learning and memory. Previous studies had also shown a similar effect in humans.
These found that people who exercised regularly tended to have larger, healthier hippocampus than others. These differences were seen at all stages of adulthood and became most pronounced as people grew older. However, these studies tended to concentrate on exercise routines that involved a moderate to quite intensive exercise such as jogging and tracked participants over periods of months.
More recent studies have focused on the possible impact of short periods of light exercise. One recently published study looked at the impact of exercise on a group of young, healthy students. These were chosen as students would typically be relatively active and healthy people with good mental activities. As a result, it was expected that it would be quite impressive if improvements were found.
The group were asked to undertake two tasks. The first was to sit quietly on a stationary bicycle for 10 minutes. Basically, this was to take no exercise for this period of time. The second task, undertaken at a different time, was to pedal the bicycle very gently for 10 minutes. So light was the exercise that participants were monitored to ensure that their heart rates did not rise by more than 30 percent of their heart rate reserve.
Heart rate reserve is the difference between a person’s maximum and resting heart rates. For comparison, a short brisk walk would be expected to raise a heart rate by 50 percent of the reserve. So, the exercise was short and of very low intensity.
Immediately after each task, each student was asked to undertake a visual memory test. The results were very clear and somewhat unexpected.
The students performed notably better in the test when it followed the light exercise than when it followed sitting on the stationary bicycle. Furthermore, the harder the memory tests became the greater the differences that appeared. Further investigation showed that there were clear physiological differences in how the brains worked following the exercise with more of the brain’s capacity becoming available following the exercise.
A number of important points stand out from this research. Most notable is the fact that there were clear beneficial impacts on mental performance that were seen almost immediately after a short period of light exercise.
The Results are Clear
Regular exercise leads to real and noticeable physical and psychological benefits in the form of greater mental capacity. This certainly is seen with intensive training. However, the benefits also arise even when people undertake a little light exercise.
These gains are seen almost immediately and persist into the long term. They are seen among young and older age groups, men and women. They are also seen among people who are relatively active to start and among those who are only starting to exercise.
The clear conclusion is that, to see results, you do not need to start with an intensive, difficult program or to even have this as a goal. The benefits start to arise even if you are only undertaking light exercise as part of your everyday activities. For example, you will see wins in terms of mental ability and health just by doing housework or by walking around a bit more instead of sitting around. And if you’re lucky enough to have a dog in your life, well, it’s win-win all round.
So, there is plenty of evidence that starting even a little light exercise, such as housework or walking the dog, will have real measurable benefits for you, both physically and psychologically. And once your are started, it’s relatively easy to build on this.
When exercise becomes a regular event the benefits really start to appear. But the good news is that if you start small and make the small gains you will be able to do this.
So, make a start. Or do you still have an excuse not to do so?