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Last updated: February 17, 2009

The Benefits of Moderate Exercise

By Sumner Brown

The benefits of exercise are so amazing that if anyone invented a pill that could do for one what exercise can, she would be an instant millionaire! Exercise improves cholesterol levels, lowers blood pressure, lowers blood sugar, reduces weight and percent body fat, improves bone and muscle strength, counters depression and anxiety, helps with sleep and lowers the risk of most of the diseases that come with age, such as heart attacks, osteoporosis, diabetes and several cancers. Exercise is also the key to how long you will live Ė in a new study by Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Health Care System, exercise capacity beat out heart disease, diabetes, smoking, etc, as the best predictor of death. In fact, those with the lowest exercise capacity had more than 4 times the risk of premature death than those with the highest capacity.

So why donít more people exercise! Many people donít exercise because they donít feel they have time to go to the gym and put in 45 minutes on the treadmill or exercise bike, plus using the strength equipment. The feeling is that exercise means lots of pain and sweat, or itís not worth doing. If youíre one of those who hold these beliefs, I have good news for you. There is more and more evidence that supports the significant benefits of even moderate amounts of exercise.

Yes, there still is benefit in vigorous exercise Ė it greatly enhances your fitness level, enabling you to hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back for example. And if you love running or sweating in the gym for an hour or more every day, by all means, keep it up! But great health gains are to be had for far less exertion. Experts now recommend about 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise Ė moderate exercise still gets your heart rate up some, but not so high that you couldnít talk to a fellow exerciser.

Walking is the ideal moderate exercise. Itís natural, inexpensive, convenient and easy for most people. The Harvard Alumni study of 1993, found a 22% lower death rate in those who walked just 1.3 miles per day compared to those who did almost nothing. Another study out of Washington State in 1996 had similar results. They studied healthy individuals over age 65 for four years. At the end of the four years, those who had walked at least four hours per week had a 27% lower risk of death and a 31% lower risk of hospitalization for heart disease than those who walked less than one hour a week.

Newer studies continue to support these findings. In a study from Hawaii, each daily mile of walking reduced the subjectís risk of death by 19%. A Dutch study showed that walking or biking for at least 20 minutes three times per week was associated with a 29% reduction in death rate. The Cooper Institute just completed a study of 235 healthy but sedentary people, whom they followed for two years. Half were put on an intense exercise program, similar to one that has been recommended for decades. They did intense aerobic exercise three to five days per week for 20-60 minutes at a time. The other half were told to get moderate activity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. At the study completion, the results were remarkably similar for both groups. They both improved similarly in their blood pressure and body fat for example.

Harvard just conducted a study of 72,488 nurses. They found that walking for three hours per week reduced the risk of heart attack by a third, which was the same reduction found in exercising strenuously for 1Ĺ hours per week. One more study Ė Walking for about an hour a week cut the risk of heart attack in half for 39,372 women. And increasing the mileage offered much more additional benefit than increasing the pace.

Our bodies were designed to be active. We used to have to move a lot for survival; first by hunting and gathering and then by working the land. Most of our jobs these days involve sitting all day Ė in meetings, at computers, etc. We therefore have to put the activity back in our lives. Even if 30 minutes at a time is too much for you to fit in, you can derive much benefit from climbing the stairs every time you have a chance, parking farther away from your destination, getting off the subway a stop or two earlier, washing your own car and any other way you can think of to get more activity into your life.

The moderate amount of exercise may not enable you to meet your weight loss or other health-related goals. Often more is required for more dramatic results. However, as you can see from the studies above, being as active as you can, even in short moderate spurts, is very worthwhile for your overall health and longevity.

Sources of studies cited in this article came from:
Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, July, 2002, Harvard Menís Health Watch, May, 2001, and Harvard Menís Health Watch, Dec. 2001.