Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Are you sitting right now? Come on, be honest. In our “age of the device”—my term—moving our bodies isn’t required anymore because everything we need is right at our smartphone fingertips. We have remotes for every device and we even text each other when we’re in different rooms. There are even people who are replacing their lawns with pretty gravel, not so much to save water and help the environment, but to avoid the physical work and upkeep of a yard.
Set goals and track your daily steps.
One of the most important things you can do right now is begin to measure your actual activity, starting with tracking how many steps you take from the moment you wake up in the morning.
If you do nothing during the day but sit on the couch or at a computer and you only get up to go to the bathroom, you may take about 2,500 to 3,000 steps a day. At less than 5,000 steps daily, your body will atrophy. It takes very roughly that many steps a day to maintain weight, health, and fitness.
The American Heart Association recommends 10,000 steps a day. The more the better. I try to trick myself into getting the steps I need. I try to get about 5,000 steps before 9 am by taking a long walk with my dog, doing an exercise routine, or doing some other combination of activity. Then my daily routines will get me to 10,000 steps without much conscious effort. If I don’t get that number due to a packed meeting schedule or something else, then I make sure I’m the one cooking. I can get 3,000 steps moving around the kitchen and cleaning up and then a few more steps with an after-dinner walk. A CEO friend of mine does it another way. He gets exercise into his busy day by scheduling all his staff calls during the first two hours of the morning, while he’s on his walk.
The main message is to set goals and measure, and always remember that some is good and more (within your own limits) is better.
Minimize—and track—sitting time.
While an anti-sitting movement isn’t yet in place, it’s time to start your own. In addition to tracking your daily steps, spend several days tracking the amount of time you spend sitting—or lounging. Use a timer and record all your inactivity. Then try reducing that time by one, two, or three hours a day—it will be the easiest, least expensive health dividend you can invest in. You might want to use an app or notification software to remind you to get up and stretch, change position, or do some other type of movement.
If you sit at a desk much of the day, invest in one of the many standing or treadmill desks, most of which provide a flat space for laptops and tablets. Your hands and eyes can be busy while the rest of your body is moving. Most users report that far from being distracting, the movement increases their ability to concentrate as blood flows into the brain. Use extreme caution however. Falls on a treadmill can be lethal.
For phone calls, use a headset, walk around, swing your arms, and get up on your toes while you talk on the phone. Walk to colleague’s offices rather than using the phone or text messages to communicate. If you want to write memos, dictate them into a device while you are stretching, walking, or climbing up and down stairs. If you still watch old-fashioned TV, stand up and stretch when the commercials come on or even during the program. Set up an ironing board and do the ironing you never get around.
Movementize your life.
There are simple things you can do to “movementize” your life. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator. Have a walking meeting with a colleague after lunch and discuss an issue as you stroll around the block or to a local park. Tap your foot when you’re sitting in traffic. Do chores.
Park your car at the far corner of the parking area and walk to your office building. If you often order in lunch, place your order for pickup, skip the tip, and be your own delivery person. If you have an electronic garage door, get out of the car to open the door anyway. That adds steps to your daily count, works your muscles, and contributes to your flexibility. Ride your bike to the nearby corner market when you need to pick up just one or two things.
Take vacations that include a lot a natural movement—plan for walks, hiking, golf, museum going, or swimming. You’ll reset your sense of what makes for a healthy day, which will carry over into your daily life once you’re back home.
Location, location, location. Although any exercise you do is good exercise, getting your movement outdoors in a natural area has extra benefits that working out inside doesn’t offer. In a study of runners, it was found that the group that ran on a treadmill in a gym expended less energy than the group that ran outdoors and had to adjust for terrain changes and wind pressing against them. Running downhill as you often do outside flexes and engages different muscles than running uphill or on flat ground.
Biking is another way of getting outdoors for exercise and working with the natural elements of wind and gravity to get extra benefit from your movements. Consider buying an e-bike. It takes the intimidation out of tackling monster hills, rekindling the romance of riding a bike outside.
Look for ways to include the four elements of exercise.
To realize the full health benefits of movement, look for ways to incorporate the four following elements of exercise into your daily and weekly routines, including training for strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance.
Strengthening (resistance) training. Strong muscles mean we can lift objects and easily get up and down from a chair and ascend and descend flights of stairs. Being physically strong also creates an inner sense of confidence and capability. Strength, or resistance, training can include training with your own body weight, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, or weight machines two to three days a week, ideally using all the major muscle groups of the legs, abdomen, arms, chest, back, and shoulders.
Endurance (cardio or aerobic) training. Endurance fitness—including walking, jogging, dancing, tennis, and other active sports—means we can do all the things we want to from climbing stairs (and mountains) to protecting our hearts, and much more. The National Institutes of Health guidelines say that we should try to get 75 minutes of intensive aerobic activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, but almost any amount of walking or aerobic exercise will help protect and improve your heart and health.
Flexibility (stretching) training. Stretching improves flexibility. Current thinking no longer recommends stretching before exercise but rather midway or afterward, when the body is already warmed up. Stretching activities that lengthen and stretch muscles can help you prevent injuries, address back pain, improve balance and posture, and basically increase your ability to use your whole body and range of movement. That’s a wonderful feeling. There are many, many exercise videos available online to get you started. Just be careful! Make sure your muscles are already warmed up and don’t push or force.
Balance training. Balance training is critical to prevent falls, and the National Institutes of Health says that people 65 and older should do balancing exercises to prevent falls—but why wait? People who sit a lot—at work, at home—can lose some of their sense of balance that they had earlier in life. If you’re noticing any balancing problems, and even if you’re not, you should make sure you’re doing some balance training in midlife.
Leg lifts (to the side and back and forth), the stork pose (balancing on one foot with arms held out to the side), yoga poses, and other exercises, such as heel-to-toe walking slowly, can help you develop greater balance and stability.
Find a movement mate … or two or three.
One of the challenges that we are faced with is staying motivated to exercise. About half the people who join a gym don’t stick with it beyond the first year. It can take a while to find the right companions who can help you get motivated to work out with them when you are in the mood to skip it, but having a walking or exercise class companion can make all the difference.
One highly-fit 70-year-old I know, a retired philosophy and French professor with a lifelong passion for languages, met a Russian émigré at his local Y and the two of them started a weekly Saturday morning walk. He’d get a Russian lesson on the two-mile walk along the beautiful path they took. On the return they’d switch to a French lesson.
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Remember, just walking each day has the potential to reduce risk for disease, and it’s something that most people are physically capable of doing with minimal risk for injury. Measure the steps you take daily and then find ways to double it. Just give it a try.
Safety comes first.
If you have any chronic health conditions, or have balance problems or any health issues that might limit your ability to exercise, be sure to consult your health care provider before you start an exercise program to find out about the types of activity that might be appropriate for you. Also, remember to drink plenty of water during physical activity. Older adults sometimes don’t feel thirsty even though they need fluids, and exercise will make you need to hydrate yourself.