Demystifying Movement: Understanding Activity and Exercise for Health

I’m in the business of helping people to seek and achieve peak performance. I love training others and myself for the highest athletic outcomes. But a lot of my clients start their journey toward peak performance at a point where they just want or need to get healthy first. They have to learn to eat right, sleep well, and to figure out what type and amount of movement is required to get them headed in the right direction. 

We all recognize how important movement is for health. But when it comes to the question of how much movement is ideal, and what type is most effective, the answer can sometimes seem like a mystery.

Let’s start with a definition of movement. As the word implies…movement is everything we do when we are not stationary. Movement can be divided into two major categories: general daily activity, and exercise. General daily activity includes all the things we do to go about our activities of daily living (ADL’s). This includes mopping the floor, walking to the mailbox, carrying in the groceries, and even brushing our teeth. Exercise is the more “official” form of movement for which we usually “dress out” or put on exercise clothing. Exercise is usually performed with a specific conditioning or fitness goal in mind, such as improving endurance, strength,  mobility, or playing a sport..

General daily activity is extremely important for keeping our circulation flowing and our metabolisms idling (instead of stalling). Simply being active throughout the day can do wonders for health and an active lifestyle is strongly correlated with longevity. In fact, substantial daily activity is one of the hallmarks of the Blue Zones — places around the world in which long-living people are concentrated. [Note — recent research indicates that lifespan may be overstated in some of the Blue Zones due to the dearth of accurate birth records.]

So how much general daily activity is necessary for optimal health? Many popular activity trackers, such as those in smartphones or wearable devices, recommend getting the equivalent of 10,000 steps per day. While all forms of activity count in this general category, walking 10,000 steps is equal to about 5 miles and will take the average person around 90 minutes total to cover that distance (depending on stride length and rate).This number was originally contrived as an arbitrary figure by a Japanese pedometer company, but more recent studies have shown that 10,000 steps is approximately the activity level achieved by many modern hunter-gatherers. These folks perform a variety of activities that include walking, digging, climbing, lifting, and carrying, to name a few. In fact, most of these individuals are very healthy and long-lived despite doing no official exercise. Their mix of light, moderate, and even some vigorous activity appears to be very effective in promoting wellness. And, an important consideration to note is that general daily activity may be most effective when it is spread randomly throughout the day — just like the hunter-gatherers — and not performed all at once. This pattern helps the human body to maintain a condition of vitality instead of one that is largely sedentary. 

But most of us are not quite as active as hunter-gatherers and we often find fitting in adequate amounts of nourishing movement to be somewhat challenging. Our busy modern schedules, job demands, and family obligations may present some obstacles to being more active, despite our best intentions. By simply shooting for an hour a day of general activity we can get most of the benefits described above. This position is well-supported by research, including a study published in The Lancet, which recommended an hour of daily activity as an offsetter to the increased risk of death promoted by modern prolonged sitting habits.

And 60 minutes is a very realizable daily quota. Take a few more breaks in the workday. Park a little further away from the office or store. Choose the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s relatively easy to accumulate an hour per day of activity, and it creates an automatic win on the activity side of the movement equation. Make this hour of activity a non-negotiable daily gift to yourself, and place those 7 hours per week in your personal health bank.

Next up is exercise. This is where we can be strategic by combining purposeful exercise with general daily activity to maximize our health and fitness gains while simultaneously minimizing the investment of time. Exercise has unique benefits, such as maintenance of full-body mobility and strength, which are often difficult to achieve with general daily activity alone. 

The World Health Organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Heart Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine all recommend that adults perform approximately 180 minutes of exercise per week, at a minimum. This is comprised of a mix of 150 minutes of primarily light-moderate and a small amount of vigorous aerobic exercise, and about 30 minutes of training that focuses on strength, balance, and related functions. These requirements add up to about 3 hours of exercise each week, and when we add that to our 7 hours of general daily activity, we have a total goal of roughly 10 hours of weekly movement necessary for maximum health.

To eliminate confusion, it’s helpful to break exercise down into its component sub-categories. For most purposes, exercise can be divided into the following 4 classifications of training:

  • Aerobic: Low-to-moderate steady state training such as cycling, jogging, hiking, and other modes which improves cardiovascular fitness.
  • Resistance: Strength training designed to preserve and build muscles and connective tissue using bodyweight, machines, bands or tubing, and free weights.
  • Mobility-Stability: Training that enhances flexibility, balance, coordination, and posture such as stretching, core work, calisthenics, and yoga.
  • High-Intensity Interval: The performance of relatively brief bouts of high (vigorous) efforts interspersed with rest periods using a variety of exercises. This training should be preceded by an adequate warmup to ensure maximum safety and effectiveness.

However, a study recently published in JAMA Network Open indicated that adherence to these exercise guidelines among Americans is substandard. We simply must explore ways to make exercise more palatable, convenient, and consistent for everyone. The 4 types of exercise can be applied to your weekly training in myriad ways. Here’s an example of one possibility:

  • Aerobic: 90 minutes (3 x 30’)
  • Resistance: 30 minutes (2 x 15’)
  • Mobility-Stability: 50 minutes (ideally a few minutes every day)
  • High-Intensity Interval: 10’ (such as cycling 5 x 30” hard/90” easy)

(‘ = minutes, “ = seconds)

Your personal exercise program can take on infinite forms. You can exercise for 30 minutes 6 days per week or 1 hour three times per week, or any other model you prefer. The exercise categories can be assembled to fit your needs. The only goal is to achieve the recommended amounts of each type of exercise every week. It’s a great idea to work with a competent fitness trainer or coach who can help you design your exercise program for maximum safety and effectiveness. Many group fitness classes or sports programs are also constructed with the aforementioned guidelines in mind. Just make sure you have adequate medical clearance to participate, and progress gradually with your program. Experiment with what works best for your unique body, and have fun with your training.

The prescription of movement for health is not a mysterious one. Each week, get 7 hours of general daily activity (1 each day), and 3 hours of exercise that you find enjoyable. That’s just 10 hours each week toward a healthy, long life!

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