Good News on the Exercise Front

August 27, 2019

Updated Guidelines—Everything Counts

By now, I hope that most people have come to understand the great importance of being active and exercising. We’ve seen beyond a doubt what the sedentary lifestyle that we’ve created can do to our health. Modern medicine has come up with a lot of ways to keep us alive, but the rates of heart disease aren’t going down, and occurrences of diabetes are rising each year. The one thing that we do know is that being active, exercising, and eating in a healthy way are the biggest contributors to having good health and staying out of the doctor’s office. But the question that Michoel asked me a few weeks ago stands out in my mind.

Michoel is currently in the midst of our 10 Weeks to Health program. He has a lot of weight to lose, a fatty liver to deal with, prediabetes, and would like to see lower cholesterol numbers. He is taking the program seriously and has added exercise and healthy eating to his lifestyle. A few weeks ago, during a session, he asked me a question which I have been asked hundreds of times in various forms. “What about walking to the store, or walking my kids to school, going to davening, and things like that? Does that count as exercise? My answer 6 weeks ago was different than what it would be today. Then, I would have said that any activity, let’s say walking, that is done minimally at moderate intensity and lasts 10 minutes or more can be put into the equation. Shorter bouts are in the category of activity, but not exercise. But things have changed and it’s to our advantage.

According to new federal exercise guidelines, even just a few minutes of moving can count toward the minimum recommended aerobic exercise goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. “Studies show that the total amount of energy expended is what’s important for health, not whether it comes in short or long bouts,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who studies the role of physical activity in disease prevention. She adds that “This certainly is an encouraging message for people who are inactive.”

Now, the flip side of this story is just how damaging being sedentary can be. The health risks of sitting, lying down, or reclining for extended periods of time during normal waking hours are substantial. This sedentary behavior has been linked to greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and death from any cause. If you tend to sit for long stretches, you should set an alarm on your phone or watch (about every 30 minutes) to help remind you to get up and move around, according to Dr. Lee. The more you can move, the better, but even just a little exercise can make a difference. In fact, the greatest health benefits seem to occur when people transition from being inactive to active, even if they still fall short of the recommended exercise goals. It is recommended to take at least 250 steps in each waking hour of the day.

This is a good time to review the numerous benefits of exercise, all proven beyond a doubt by good science as brought by the Harvard School of Medicine.

  • Blood Pressure: Exercise may lower blood pressure for up to 13 hours after the activity. Done on a regular basis, it may lower systolic blood pressure (the first number in a reading) by an average of 5 to 8 points.
  • Anxiety and Depression: Exercise appears to ease anxiety symptoms, both right away and long term, and many studies have shown that effective physical activity can reduce the risk of depression and treat depression itself. These mental health conditions are increasingly being recognized both as a cause and a consequence of cardiovascular disease.
  • Insulin Sensitivity and Diabetes: Activity can improve your body’s response to insulin, the hormone that helps control blood sugar levels. Better insulin sensitivity may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for cardiovascular problems.
  • Sleep: Getting more physical activity may help you fall asleep more quickly, improve your sleep efficiency (meaning you spend a higher percentage of your time in bed actually sleeping), and help you sleep more deeply. Other possible benefits include less daytime sleepiness and a reduced need for sleeping pills. Of note: people with insomnia (trouble falling and staying asleep) as well those with obstructive sleep apnea (a nighttime breathing disorder marked by breathing pauses) have reported these benefits.
  • Weight Loss: Excess weight is yet another common problem linked to heart disease. And while the benefits take longer to accrue, exercise may help people stave off the weight gain that often occurs as people age. To lose weight, you’ll also need to eat fewer calories. If you do lose weight, being active helps prevent those pounds from creeping back on. But if you don’t lose weight, don’t give up on exercising! According to the guidelines, the health benefits of physical activity are generally independent of body weight. You will still reap those benefits, no matter how your weight changes over time.

You can meet your weekly physical activity goal by getting just 22 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every day, meaning you are getting your heart rate elevated. (Aerobic activities include those that get your heart pumping faster than normal.) Or you could exercise for an hour on Erev Shabbos, and again on Motzei Shabbos, and squeeze in another 30 minutes one day during the week. Strengthening exercises should be done twice weekly in addition to your aerobic exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym or buy weights. You can use your own body for resistance (pushups and sit-ups), or you can use stretchy resistance bands, which look like big, wide rubber bands, for a gentle and great strength workout. They are particularly good for older people. Here are a few examples of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises that will bring great benefit to your heart, lungs, and mind.

  • Walking briskly (4.5 kmph or more)
  • Recreational swimming
  • Bicycling slower than 10 mph on level terrain
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Active forms of yoga
  • Aerobic dancing
  • General yard and home repair work
  • Exercise classes such as water aerobics

If you are up to doing more vigorous exercise, you can try some of the following:

  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Playing tennis
  • Vigorous dancing
  • Bicycling faster than 10 mph
  • Heavy yard work (digging or shoveling with heart rate increases)
  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy pack

Remember that we have given you minimal exercises and activities for good benefit, but if you can do a little more, the benefits will also be greater.
When I told Michoel this news, he was very happy. He is a very busy person, and some days it is hard for him to fit in a 35-minute brisk walk. The only thing I reemphasized to him was that even if it is just a 4 or 5 minute walk, he should make it brisk to get maximum benefit. So we now know that you can get in the minimum requirements for exercise in small bouts. Your heart health will benefit greatly and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.