If you know me, you know I like to be very efficient with my time. After a long career in the high-tech industry, where time is EVERYTHING, I hate to waste even a minute of my day. (Note: self-care and resting my body and my mind do NOT count as wasted time—that’s an important and productive part of the day!)
As a result, I have spent a lot of time learning how to get the most out of each workout. Gretchen Reynolds writes the Phys Ed column for the New York Times. In her book “The First 20 Minutes,” she breaks down the science of how to get the most from the time you spend on exercise.
According to Reynolds, if your goal is to be healthy, to have less risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, obesity, then it appears that the first 20 minutes of moving will provide most of those health benefits. And that’s any type of moving, it doesn’t have to be running. Walking, cycling, going up stairs, gardening. Any type of human movement is really important for health, and most of the benefits of exercise or activity in general, are gathered in the first 20 minutes compared to sitting on the couch. Even more interesting is that those 20 minutes do not have to be done all at once. If you are having a busy day, studies show there is still benefit to getting up and moving for even 5 minutes…so try that 4 times during the day.
If you are a runner, you may be wondering how much running is ideal. The human body definitely needs to be moving, and running is a really good way in a concentrated period of time to move. But as with many things (like chocolate cake!), more is not always better for your health. Science suggests that moderation is the ideal approach to running. A study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that running about 3 miles a few times a week at a moderate (or even slow) pace will potentially give you the longest lifespan. There is some evidence that doing a lot more running may not necessarily be be better for you, and doing a whole lot less, you will not get quite as many health and fitness benefits. A moderate amount of running appears to be the absolute sweet spot.
Is sitting all day killing us?
According to Reynolds, there is a new school of thought that sitting all day — even if you regularly exercise — is very unhealthy. She talks about a phenomenon that she calls the “active couch potato” —people who may exercise at once a day and then sit the entire rest of the day. The exercise will not completely undo the health problems of sitting for eight, 10 hours a day, which is average for Americans.
What happens when you sit for really extended periods of time is a number of systems start malfunctioning in your body. You start producing less of an enzyme that breaks up fat in your bloodstream. That fat then goes to your muscles, your heart, your liver. The big muscles in your body are not contracting, so you are not pulling as much blood sugar out of your blood, so you start having too much insulin. That’s the beginning of Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance.
So what do we do?
According to Reynolds, the answer is actually surprisingly simple. Stand up. There is very good and growing evidence that standing up about every 20 minutes is really important for good health. This does not mean that you have to do anything while you are standing up. You do not have to jog in place, you do not have to run, you do not have to do jumping jacks. You can if you choose to (I like to do squats when I stand up), but there have been a number of studies that have found that if you stand up about every 20 minutes for two minutes, the big muscles in your legs and your back will contract. Doing so increases the production of enzymes that break up fat, which means you are pulling more blood sugar. If you have ever been on a zoom meeting with me, you have probably noticed that I move around a lot. I apologize for the distraction it may cause, but I do it because it makes me feel better and allows me to concentrate on the meeting that much better.
Studies have found that just standing up more often reduces heart disease risk and diabetes risk. It also has been found to help with weight control. If you sit unendingly for hours, for six, seven hours, there are implications for weight gain. So stand up. It’s so easy.