Let’s, for a minute, imagine a ground-breaking medicine has been discovered. A single capsule that, taken once a day, would make us all live a longer, happier.
Not only would it make us stronger, but it would drastically increase our energy, mood, brain function and concentration levels and outperform every other known medication for improving overall health markers, changing the world of medicine as we know it. How great would that be?
Luckily for us, this medicine already exists. It’s called exercise. If available in pill form, it would be the most prescribed and valuable medication on earth. But there’s a catch: for it to keep on working, we have to keep taking it on a daily basis.
For those of us intrigued by the correlation between physical exercise and our lifespan, a crucial question arises: what is the precise “dose” needed to maintain good health? Is it 60 minutes a day of exercise? 30 minutes or 15? Where is the line drawn between moderate activity and intense?
Let’s see what experts say.
Detailed studies recently published online at Jama Network Open show that engaging in any physical activity reduces the risk of developing health problems and helps prevent hospitalizations. This same research indicates that even a small amount of exercise can effectively keep individuals with various health conditions from being admitted to the hospital. This is a substantial motivating factor.
Healthcare professionals, trainers, and physical instructors unanimously recommend aiming for an average of 30 minutes daily, five days a week of moderate exercise. This activity level significantly lowers the chances of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and premature death.
Moderate exercise refers to activities that elevate breathing and heart rate, leading to noticeable breathlessness without excessive panting. Depending on personal stamina, such activities could include brisk walking, leisurely biking, dancing, water aerobics, or playing a nine-hole game of golf.
In contrast, running, single tennis, jumping rope, cycling at speeds above 15 km/h, and swimming laps are considered intense forms of exercise which will bring more benefits, especially in terms of weight loss, gaining muscle tone, and strengthening the cardiovascular system.
For people who aim to lose a substantial amount of weight (more than five percent of your body weight), the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 300 minutes of moderately intense physical activity, meaning one hour, five times a week. This, in tandem with a carefully planned diet and a low intake of carbohydrates and sugar, is the recommended standard.
If finding the time to exercise is challenging, there are other ways to sneak in physical activity throughout the day by taking “bite-sized” workouts such as bursts of brisk walking, stair climbing, or carrying shopping bags. These provide excellent opportunities for movement.
“Many people may find it easier and more sustainable to squeeze in a few dozen one-minute or two-minute walks between work tasks or other commitments,” says Dr. Stamatakis, an exercise scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia who studies physical activity and health.
Another way to break a regular 30- to 60-minute workout is by counting your steps with the help of a pedometer. The recommendations remain the same if you measure your exercise in steps instead of minutes.
For most people, “150 minutes of exercise a week would translate into about 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day,” says Dr Stamatakis. The optimal step count for people younger than 60 is 8,000 to 10,000 a day, and for those 60 and over, it is about 6,000 to 8,000 a day.
But apart from the purely physical aspect, there is another vital organ that benefits significantly from movement — our brain.
Exercise not only keeps us fit and helps us lose weight, but it also helps to optimize our mental function by manipulating our brain chemistry. Anyone who has ever completed a decent workout would have experienced the rush of euphoria after it’s finished. This is due to the increased production of endorphins, a neurotransmitter responsible for relieving pain and stress.
Exercise also increases serotonin, the same hormone targeted by antidepressants, as well as dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which are responsible for regulating our mood. Simply put, exercise can immediately and acutely make us feel happier.
How to make exercise a habit is the million-dollar question.
And here is the answer: Fall in love. Fall in love with an activity you enjoy doing. By rethinking exercise not as a chore but as a gift to yourself, chances are you will likely engage with fitness differently and look forward to doing it often. By changing that mental chip and viewing physical activity as pleasurable, the likelihood of it remaining in your life as a habit will be higher.
If you like dancing, make that your exercise; if it’s running, biking, swimming, or lifting weights, do that. Don’t be pigeonholed into doing what others are doing. If it pleases you, you will look for it. It is, in fact, that simple.
And once you nail that down, make this time for yourself non-negotiable. Because now that you understand exercise is necessary to operate at your best and keep you resistant to illness, nothing should get in the way. Just like sleeping and eating, you need to make this happen.
The bottom line is that we should view exercise as self-love. Not to fit into a tight dress or look good at the beach. The goal is to stay strong enough to hang out with our friends and our parents, be able to jump into a pool with our kids, and able to pick up our grandchildren and be around to watch them grow up. The people who love us don’t care what we look like, but they do care how long we will be around to share our life journey with them.
So remember this: exercise is the single happiness hack that exists, and to reap the benefits, we have to make ourselves fall in love with how it makes us feel, not only how it makes us look.