Experts have identified at least five major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Given that heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the United States, it’s worth noting that these factors are largely under most people’s control. According to the American Heart Association, they include:
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal blood lipid levels
- Being sedentary
The latter behavior is relatively new. It’s also the chief risk factor that most people have the most control over. Even better, if addressed conscientiously, reversing sedentary behavior can help bring blood pressure down, normalize lipid levels, and reduce excess body weight. That’s a four-for-one benefit! Surely, something that beneficial must be difficult, right?
Wrong. The cure for being sedentary is simply to be active. It needn’t be complicated, and even little things can add up to big benefits:
- Get up off the couch and move.
- Choose the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park at the back of the lot, instead of in front of the building.
- Walk the dog.
- Stroll in the park.
- Put on some music and dance.
- Vacuum the house.
- Mow the lawn (Sorry; no riding mowers allowed. Even better, get a human-powered push mower).
- Ride a bike.
- Skip the golf cart and carry your own bags.
This is not rocket science—it’s just common sense: To avoid being sedentary you don’t need an expensive gym membership, or access to a heated lap pool, a tee time, or even time on a tennis court (although all those things would be helpful). All you really need is the will to get up and move.
What’s Old Is New
It’s a relatively new idea, really. The notion that simply sitting—rather than moving—can be harmful to your heart health is not an idea we’ve embraced until the past decade or so. In fact, the science that has allowed cardiovascular experts to point to sedentary behavior as an independent risk factor for heart disease has been amassed relatively recently. But make no mistake: The evidence is now incontrovertible. We are meant to be active, pretty much constantly. Being inactive for long stretches of time is not just passive behavior; it’s actively damaging to one’s cardiovascular health.
As noted above, the opposite of sedentary does not necessarily mean engaging in sweaty, intense, formal workouts all the time. On the contrary, experts have also shown that virtually anything you do over the course of a day that gets you up and moving, no matter how ordinary, counts towards one’s activity goals for that day. That’s not to say that brief, intensive workouts aren’t also beneficial. They certainly can be. But the point is that even people who don’t like to exercise can reap the benefits of staying active without doing exhausting and/or elaborate Navy Seal-style workouts.
The benefits of daily exercise (simply call it “activity” if that helps) are numerous. For starters, research has shown that exercising after a long day at work actually makes you feel more energetic, not less. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. People who flop down on the couch and don’t move really do report feeling more tired than people who make an effort to move.
“Movers” have more energy, are less likely to feel winded, and have greater endurance, no matter what activity they engage in. They also have better blood sugar control, better blood lipid profiles (lower “bad” LDL-cholesterol levels, for example, and higher levels of “good” HDL-cholesterol), and even improvements in unexpected things, like bone health, mood, and the ability to think, learn, and reason clearly. Even sex can be improved by getting more active and staying fit.
So how much activity is required to realize some measurable benefits? Six hours a day? Eight? More? Would it surprise you to learn that, according to the Surgeon General and the National Institutes of Health, just 30 minutes of accumulated activity per day is sufficient to achieve some of these benefits. Thirty minutes. That’s all.
Of course, to some extent, more can be even better. As long as the activity is of “moderate intensity,” and adds up to at least 30 minutes in a given day, you can positively affect your risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease. That’s all it takes. Thirty minutes total, every day. Sounds eminently doable, doesn’t it? Time to get moving.