Elin 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 can be tough. Yet as a scientist who studies the effects of physical activity, Ekblom-Bak knows how important it is. 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 told me. “Getting my exercise, faster than with the bus and better for the climate/environment.” She also climbs the stairs rather than taking the elevator. And she plays with her kids outside whenever they get the chance.
Ekblom-Bak is unlike most people in Western societies, who are increasingly sedentary. In the US, only 20 percent of adults and adolescents get enough physical activity, according to federal studies and guidelines. Meanwhile, she and other researchers are discovering that merely moderate physical activity — such as a brisk walk, dancing or even housework or 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,” Ekblom-Bak said. “But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
Perhaps most compelling, science has now shown it’s almost never too late to get started and experience significant benefits.
‘Somewhat Hard’ is Enough
Ekblom-Bak and her colleagues recently found that movement of just about any sort is linked to living longer. Pardon a brief bit of technical talk:
Their study involved 316,137 Swedes age 18–74 whose fitness was assessed by measuring maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) while cycling. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen muscles can get from the heart and lungs, measured in milliliters per minute per kilogram of body weight. Over time, the risk of death was lower by about 3 percent 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 in presenting the work earlier this month at the European Society of Cardiology. Importantly, those with the lowest VO2 max to start with had the most to gain — about 9 percent of reduced risk per increment of VO2 max increase.
Here’s why all that matters: For the average person to maintain or improve VO2 max, and thus aerobic fitness, physical activity needs to reach just 60 percent of your maximum capacity, Ekblom-Bak explained. More effort would be needed by those who are more fit, she noted.
OK, so what’s that in English?
If you’re a couch potato or only somewhat fit and want to be fitter, your effort need be only “somewhat hard” on what’s known as the Borg Scale of exertion, developed more than three decades ago by researcher Gunnar Borg at Stockholm University to estimate heart rate based on how one feels, regardless of fitness level. Using the scale, heart rate is estimated by multiplying the perceived exertion number by 10.
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 you’re doing good. 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 significantly).
Never Too Late to Start
Ample research 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 (more on that below).
But must a person bank a lifetime of activity, or can one cheat the system and benefit from a late start? Pedro Saint-Maurice and his colleagues looked into exactly that question.
Research has established that physical activity in midlife — from age 40 to 60 — has substantial health benefits, said Saint-Maurice, who works in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute. But his team wanted to know more about the effects of increasing or decreasing levels of activity throughout adulthood. They analyzed a database of 315,000 US adults, who self-reported their level of physical activity starting in 1995 (note that self-reporting does not provide the most reliable data). Over time, 71,377 of them died.
In an email, Saint-Maurice summarized the key findings, based on dividing the study subjects into three groups:
Maintainers, active throughout adulthood (at least 2 hours per week), had a 30–35 percent lower risk for death during the study period, in line with what researchers expected.
Decreasers, active in adulthood but became less active in midlife, lost most of the health benefits of their previous physical activity.
Increasers who became physically active in their early 20s, or not until later in midlife, saw mortality risk drop 30–35 percent. “This was the most interesting finding,” Saint-Maurice said.
“These findings suggest that if you’re active in early adulthood, stay active — don’t decrease,” Saint-Maurice said. “If you’re in your 40s to 60s and you have not been active for a long time, it’s not too late to start exercising now.”
The study was detailed March 8 in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Smarter, Stronger, Happier
There’s a vast amount of research showing significant benefits of physical activity, from modest to moderate to vigorous and across all age groups, on everything from brain power and mood to mobility and longevity. Here are some other studies I’ve detailed recently:
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.
Moderate exercise fuels happiness and helps battle depression, according to several studies.
Moderate activity like brisk walks, dancing or gardening, for just an hour a week, lowered the risk of death by 18 percent across 14 years in a group of people age 40 to 85. And more is better: Those doing 2.5 to 5 hours weekly saw a 31 percent lower risk.
Doing just one set of weightlifting exercises, for a mere 13 minutes, three days a week for eight weeks made men stronger to the same degree as others who did three sets. And lifting weights just once a week for less than an hour reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke by 40 percent or more.
Firefighters who could do 40 pushups or more in a row had a 96 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) over a 10-year period compared to other firefighters who couldn’t muster 10. Yeah, I’m wondering about that, too.
Climbing three flights of stairs vigorously, three times a day, thrice weekly, caused previously sedentary young adults to gain 5 percent in cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by VO2 max. Their legs grew 12 percent more powerful.
Daily brisk walks of just 10 minutes or so helped delay the debilitating effects of arthritis and allow older people stay mobile.
According to federal guidelines, adults should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity a week. A sedentary person aiming to kickstart that effort should check with a primary healthcare 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,” Saint-Maurice said. “All these strategies that are useful to increase the amount of physical activity accumulated throughout the day.”
“For most people, just being more active in daily life… is enough to benefit health since levels are so low to start with,” Ekblom-Bak said.” Of course, she adds, “the more you do, the better.”