Exercise Doesn’t Have to Be So Hard

It’s also never too late to start, experts say

Credit: Yew! Images/Image Source/Getty

EElin Ekblom-Bak, a former professional soccer player in Sweden, has three kids at home. She still plays soccer for fun now and then, but between work and family life, getting regular exercise is tough. Yet, as a scientist who studies the effects of physical activity, Ekblom-Bak says it’s important to her that she tries. So for daily exercise, she rides her bike to work at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm.

“It is brilliant in many ways,” she says, noting that it helps her get exercise and it’s good for the environment. She also climbs the stairs rather than taking the elevator, and plays with her kids outside whenever she gets the chance.

Ekblom-Bak is unlike most people in Western societies, who are increasingly sedentary. In the United States, only 20% of adults and adolescents get enough physical activity, according to federal studies and guidelines. Meanwhile, Ekblom-Bak and other researchers are discovering that even just moderate physical activity — such as a brisk walk, dancing, or even gardening — can improve physical and mental well-being and extend lives.

“People think they have to start going to the gym and exercising hard to get fitter,” says Ekblom-Bak. “But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

Ekblom-Bak and her colleagues recently found that movement of just about any kind is linked to living longer.

Their study involved 316,137 Swedish people ages 18 to 74 whose fitness was assessed by measuring their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) while cycling. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen muscles get from the heart and lungs, measured in milliliters per minute per kilogram of body weight. Over time, people’s risk of early death was lower by about 3% for each milliliter increase in VO2 max.

“Benefits of fitness were seen in men and women, in all age groups, and at all fitness levels,” the researchers said while presenting the work in April at the European Society of Cardiology. Importantly, the people with the lowest VO2 max at the start had the most to gain. They experienced close to a 9% of reduced risk of early death per increment of VO2 max increase.

Here’s why all that matters: For the average person to maintain or improve VO2 max, and thus their aerobic fitness, physical activity needs to reach just 60% of their maximum capacity, Ekblom-Bak explains. More effort is needed by people who are more fit, she says.

This means that even if you’re a couch potato, the amount of effort you put into physical activity only needs to be “somewhat hard” on what’s known as the Borg Scale of exertion. The scale was developed more than three decades ago by researcher Gunnar Borg at Stockholm University to estimate heart rate based on how a person feels, regardless of fitness level. Using the Borg scale, heart rate is estimated by multiplying a person’s perceived exertion number by 10. (See an example in the figure below.)

Next time you’re exerting yourself, find that place between “conversation is easy” and “you can hear your breathing but you’re not out of breath” and according to scientists you’re doing well. Or, work harder and you’ll be doing great (extremely brief bouts of intense exercise — high-intensity intervals — have also been shown to improve health).

Ample research also confirms that conventional exercise or moderate physical activity of any sort — just about anything that gets the blood pumping — helps stack the deck for better physical and mental health and longer life.

But must a person bank a lifetime of activity, or can they cheat the system and benefit from a late start? Pedro Saint-Maurice, a researcher in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, and his colleagues recently looked into that question.

Research has established that physical activity in midlife — from ages 40 to 60 — has substantial health benefits, says Saint-Maurice. But his team wanted to know more about the effects of increasing or decreasing levels of activity throughout adulthood. In a study published March 8 in the journal JAMA Network Open, they analyzed a database of 315,000 U.S. adults who self-reported their level of physical activity starting in 1995 (it should be noted that self-reporting does not provide the most reliable data). Over time, 71,377 of the people in the study died.

Saint-Maurice summarizes the key findings based on dividing the study subjects into three groups:

  • Maintainers: People who are active throughout adulthood (exercise at least two hours per week) had a 30% to 35% lower risk for death during the study period, in line with what researchers expected.
  • Decreasers: People who are active in adulthood but became less active in midlife, lost most of the health benefits of their previous physical activity.
  • Increasers: People who became physically active in their early twenties, or not until later in midlife, saw mortality risk drop 30% to 35%. “This was the most interesting finding,” Saint-Maurice says.

“These findings suggest that if you’re active in early adulthood, stay active. Don’t decrease,” says Saint-Maurice. “If you’re between ages 40 to 60 and you have not been active for a long time, it’s not too late to start exercising now.”

There’s a vast amount of research showing significant benefits of physical activity — from modest to moderate to vigorous — across all age groups, including improvements in brain power, mood, mobility, and longevity. One recent study found that moderate physical activity thickened parts of the brain in beneficial ways and led to 60-year-olds, who had been sedentary, scoring as though they were 20 years younger on tests of executive function — the ability to pay attention, organize, and achieve goals.

Another study found that moderate activity like brisk walks, dancing, or gardening, for just an hour a week, lowered risk of early death by 18% across 14 years in a group of people ages 40 to 85. And more is better: The people doing 2.5 to 5 hours of activity weekly saw a 31% lower risk. Even daily brisk walks of just 10 minutes or so have been shown to help delay the debilitating effects of arthritis and allow older people stay mobile in another report.

According to federal guidelines, adults should get at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week. A sedentary person aiming to kick-start that effort should check with a primary health care professional first. But the evidence is clear: Getting started is what matters.

“A good start might be to include more walking in an individual’s daily routine — parking the car farther away, taking stairs instead of the elevator, going for a brisk walk,” says Saint-Maurice. “All these strategies that are useful to increase the amount of physical activity accumulated throughout the day.”

Ekblom-Bak agrees. “For most people, just being more active in daily life… is enough to benefit health since levels are so low to start with,” she says. Of course, she adds, “the more you do, the better.”

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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