It may take less exercise than you think to improve your health

Apr 12, 2013

It seems like new studies come out all the time that offer evidence for how long, when, or what kind of exercise you should do. But fitness expert Gretchen Reynolds says it may take a lot less exercise than you think to see benefits to your health. The author of "The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer” spoke with Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, the hosts of WRVO's new weekly health show "Take Care."

Lorraine Rapp: What is the importance of those first 20 minutes of exercise?

Gretchen Reynolds: Scientists have found that the first 20 minutes of getting up and moving around -- and that means doing anything, even just standing up -- particularly if you have been very sedentary - is the most important part of any exercise routine. All sorts of benefits...you get the most of those in the first 20 minutes of moving around. You don't have to run a marathon. You just have to get up -- move.

Lorraine Rapp: What happens to our bodies when we are just sitting still over a number of hours?

Gretchen Reynolds: What happens when you sit for prolonged periods of time, and that means for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time, [you] start getting a build up of fat and that has to go somewhere. It tends to go to your muscles, to your heart, to your liver, all of those are unhealthy. You also get a build up of blood sugar which contributes to diabetes, or at least to pre-diabetes, and that's because your muscles use -- otherwise use -- a lot of the blood sugar, that's their fuel. If your muscles are not working at all, nothing is using that blood sugar; it builds up, you get too much. All you have to do to undo those unhealthy changes...stand up. Stand up about every 20 minutes, it appears. Stand up, walk around your office.

Linda Lowen: I sometimes think that perhaps, are we intuitive about what we should be doing for our bodies but that sometimes we do listen a lot to the current prevailing theories and that's what we do?

Gretchen Reynolds: Our bodies actually know what's best for us. And if we do listen to what they tell us in terms of how much movement we need...what sort of activities we need, the bodies are very smart. There is good information, for instance, is that the real sweet spot for exercise is quite moderate. That just running, going for a run, or even a walk three, four times a week, is the best way to prolong your life span. And you don't need to do more, you don't need to do less. You can do less, actually, and still benefit. If you do a whole lot more, there does appear to come a point at which it's counterproductive. So if you listen to what your body wants, science would say you're doing exactly the right thing.

Linda Lowen: It sounds like if you just simply make a commitment -- and it doesn't have to be a big commitment, it just has to be a steady commitment -- to moving more regularly and doing it in smaller increments that are manageable within your lifestyle.

Gretchen Reynolds: In fact there's quite good science that says breaking up, quote-unquote exercise sessions into smaller portions throughout the day is more beneficial than cramming it all in to one exercise session a day. There's good evidence that, for instance, with blood pressure you get much better blood pressure control if you go for three 10-minute walks then if you go for one 30-minute walk. So if you can just find any way to move more often throughout the day, the simple things that we know we should be doing, like take the stairs, can actually make a really profound difference in the health of your body; how long you live and how well you live."


More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's new health and wellness show Sunday evening at 6:30 pm.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.