AH THE PROMISE OF WASHBOARD ABS AND SCULPTED PECS. After eight long hours hunched over our desks, it’s enough to push us to drop the day’s earnings on fancy elliptical trainersw and treadmills, only to leave them languishing in closets collecting dust, along with our best intentions.

While a grueling workout may harden the bodies of those with rock-hard willpower, there’s good news for the rest of us.  The latest findings from the field of exercise science reveal that moderate exercise has a host of benefits, including a healthier heart and brain, and potentially even a longer life.

GET A MOVE ON

Mounting evidence that sitting still for too long is harmful to your health

couch potato“YOUR TV IS SLOWLY KILLING YOU,” screams one headline.  “Sitting for hours can shave years off your life,” says another.  What started with a few interesting studies has turned into a barrage of alarming media reports on the dangers of sedentary behavior.  Last year, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that people who spend four hours a day on screen based activities – computers, video games and television – are twice as likely to have a major cardiac event, such as a heart attack, than those who spend two hours or less sitting still. Another paper compared the mortality records and TV-viewing habits of 11,247 Australians and found that each hour of screen time clipped 22 minutes off study participants’ lives.  More sobering still: the lives of those who spent six hours a day glued to the screen were 4.8 years shorter.

While you rush to lace up your cross-trainers, here’s the real clincher: according to the latest findings, even a daily workout isn’t enough to offset the negative effects of sitting motionless for hours. The solution, researchers say, is to incorporate some movement – any movement at all – into your daily routine.

DESKERCISE

Simple strategies for keeping active on the job

  • Sit on an exercise ball.  A University of Buffalo study says you’ll burn six percent more calories than when sitting in a chair.
  • Stand up when you talk on your smartphone.  Better yet, take a walk.  The more breaks you take from your chair, the trimmer your waistline will be, according to a 2011 report in the European Heart Journal.
  • Stop e-mailing the guy in the next cubicle.  When the next big idea pops into your head, walk over to your coworkers and share it with them in person.
  • Take frequent and regular breaks.  Free downloadable programs like workrave.com remind you when it’s time to get moving.
  • Ask your boss for a stand-up workstation. Some ergonomically designed desks can electronically adjust to varying heights.

deskercise-exercise-ball“The potential adverse health impact of prolonged sitting (which is something we do on average for more than half of each day) is only just being realized. Even small changes, which could be as little as standing up for one minute, might help lower this risk.” – Dr. Genevieve Healy, School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Australia

EXERCISE AND THE BRAIN

HEALTHY BODY, HEALTHY MIND

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain

WHILE WE KNOW A GOOD WORKOUT can work magic on our bodies, we tend to underestimate the impact exercise has on our brains: reducing stress, enhancing mood, improving focus and decision making ability and stimulating the brain-cell growth that is key to learning.  That’s not all: what gets man neuroscientists up at the crack of dawn for a morning run is growing proof that exercise fuels the brain throughout all stages of life.  Where we once believed there’s no escaping the mind’s inevitable atrophy as we grow old, the advancing neuroimaging techniques such as MRIs show that older people who squeeze in a daily bike ride or a few laps around the pool actually revers the shrinkage of structures that are key to brain health. If this news doesn’t send boomers everywhere running to aquafit class, perhaps they’re having a “senior moment”.

woman stretchingBRAIN PLEASERS

  • Researchers recently put one group of sedentary older adults through a year of modest aerobic exercise and tracked two significant results: an increase in the size of the hippocampus deep inside the brain and gradual improvement on memory tests.
  • Both aerobic exercise and strength training play a role in maintaining a healthy brain throughout life, according to a recent review of 111 studies in the field of exercise neuroscience.

“If you are in middle age and begin to exercise at a moderate intensity, which means you’re sweating and a little bit breathless for 30 or 40 minutes a day, three to four times a week, you will push back cognitive decline by 10 to 15 years.  Some studies say the same kind of regimen can cut the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in your life by about a third.” – Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

HOW MUCH EXERCISE?

FITNESS CALCULATOR

How day-to-day tasks help keep you in shape

RESEARCHERS HAVE A FORMULA that compares various physical activities with the energy cost of quiet sitting. Measurements are in metabolic equivalent of tasks (METS). The more METS, the better.

1) LIGHT ACTIVITY (1-3 METS)

  • Sitting quietly watching TV … 1.3
  • Watering lawn or garden … 1.5
  • Fishing from boat or canoe … 2.0
  • Washing / Waxing car … 2.0
  • Playing fold or classical guitar … 2.0

2) MODERATE ACTIVITY (3-6 METS)

  • Kitchen activity … 3.3
  • Painting house (interior) or furniture … 3.3
  • Power yoga … 4.0
  • Golf … 4.8

3) VIGOROUS ACTIVITY (more than 6 METS)

  • Bicycling to and from work … 6.8
  • Carrying groceries upstairs … 7.5
  • Running, 6 mpg … 9.8
  • Swimming laps, freestyle, fast … 9.8
  • Boxing … 12.8

Source: Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities

MAN’S BEST FRIEND

There’s proof your pooch may be keeping you trim

TWO-THIRDS OF DOG OWNERS take their pets for regular walks, according to the 2011 report from Michigan State University. Nearly half (46 percent) of dog walkers exercise an average of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, while only one-third (38 percent) of Americans without dogs meet those standards.

Which is best, walking with your spouse or your dog? Experts at the University of Missouri compared human and dog walking companions and found that dog walkers showed much greater fitness improvements.

“There appears to be a strong link between owning and walking a dog and achieving higher levels of physical activity.” – Epidemiologist Mathew Reeves, Michigan State University

TIME CRUNCHED? NO PROBLEM

THIRTY MINUTES A DAY give five days a week, 150 minutes a week. For years we’ve been told that’s the bare minimum we need to get our hearts pumping if we want to reap any real health benefits from exercise.  Anything less just doesn’t count. A report published last summer in Britain’s prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, cut that Olympian effort in half.  Researchers tracked the health records of 416,175 active and inactive people for 12 years and discovered that people who exercised a mere 15 minutes a day had a 14 percent lower risk of death during the study than their couch potato peers.  Surprisingly, just a quarter-hour workout a day extended life expectancy by a whopping three years.  There’s more good news for those who’d rather burn their calories on the go than sweat their way through a punishing session of cardio boot camp.  New studies show that everyday activities such as gardening, moving the lawn and climbing the stairs also contribute to cardiovascular fitness, even if these takes last just a minute or two at a time.  So the next time you have to dash through the airport to catch a flight, imagine how great that little micro-burst of exertion is for your heart.  And whenever that infomercial for the Enormously Expensive Elliptical Exerciser comes on, why not save your pennies and walk the dog toward a healthier life?