Research on the Health Benefits of Moderate Exercise

From an article on “what’s the best exercise” comes a concise summary of the benefits of moderate exercise:

The health benefits of activity follow a breathtakingly steep curve. “The majority of the mortality-related benefits” from exercising are due to the first 30 minutes of exercise, said Timothy Church, M.D., who holds the John S. McIlhenny endowed chair in health wisdom at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. A recent meta-analysis of studies about exercise and mortality showed that, in general, a sedentary person’s risk of dying prematurely from any cause plummeted by nearly 20 percent if he or she began brisk walking (or the equivalent) for 30 minutes five times a week. If he or she tripled that amount, for instance, to 90 minutes of exercise four or five times a week, his or her risk of premature death dropped by only another 4 percent.

Yeah.  If you don’t exercise at all, working up to 30 minutes of something (like walking) 5 times a week may very well reduce your risk of death.  Increasing beyond that?  Not so much.

This isn’t always what you read in the fitness / personal improvement press. Frequently exercise is presented as something that can’t be overdone, or as an obligation to improve one’s health, or to cause weight loss.  I disagree.  Yes, moderate exercise is generally good for health.  No, that does not mean it’s a requirement, or that doing more is necessarily better.  Period.

In my case,  I have found that if I do stomach crunches regularly, my back doesn’t hurt.  I do stomach crunches.  I’ve also found that squats and leg lifts prevent knee pain for me, so I do them.  Those things matter to me.  I know people who do other special exercises and stretches to avoid injury; others love a particular activity, be it swimming or tennis or triathlons or hiking or tai chi or yoga.  (I do yoga for fun m’self.)

People tend to assume that someone who does ultramarathons is healthier than someone who walks to work.   That isn’t necessarily so.  Stronger maybe, or faster on their feet, or more practiced.  But healthier?   You can’t know.  And that’s okay.

18 thoughts on “Research on the Health Benefits of Moderate Exercise

  1. Now if only we could get the average general practitioner type doctor to not only read that but to understand that one of the benefits isn’t necessarily weight loss.

    Because I tell you what, nothing makes me more inclined to stop doing something than being called a liar. Why should I continue doing something which is just going to open me up to being the target of verbal and sometimes physical abuse if the only benefit I’ll see is that I get called a liar you know?

  2. And those who over-exercise, especially to the point of marathons & beyond, are also much more susceptible to frequent, sometimes serious & debilitating injuries. The harder you push your body, the faster it breaks down. I have also read studies which show that the belief in excessive exercise as the cure for all evils which came to be for my generation, the Baby Boomers, has mostly led to great profits for orthopedic surgeons, who now see people needing knee or hip replacements, etc., at ages about 20-30 years younger than people used to need these surgeries. They are also seeing more & more & more serious orthopedic injuries in children.

    I have been active all my life & have a long history of battling the tendency to exercise compulsively 3-4 hours daily. I am 61, with cerebral palsy, arthritis & knees/ankles which often wobble & threaten to buckle on me. It was never really healthy for me to exercise 3-4 hours per day, but now my body has decreed that I CANNOT do it…no argument, no choice on my part. I can walk 20-30 minutes at a time, possibly twice a day, but I cannot do anymore than that. And study after study has indeed kept telling us for some years now that there are no known health benefits to exercising more than 30 minutes per day. My body just has to keep reminding me that this is true & that I am doing enough.

    • Oh but you just KNOW if you point out that people need hip/knee replacements at younger ages it’ll be blamed on fat. Even if there are no studies showing that all or most of those surgeries were performed on fat people… or heck, even if there were studies showing that they weren’t… that would still be the claim.

  3. Okay, I have admittedly not read the original paper but these studies kind of baffle me. What exactly causes “premature death”? I assume they take out things like car accidents and food poisoning here?

    I’m one of those people who likes to exercise. (Still fat, too!) I was lucky to be fairly healthy when I started. I struggle with the ableism of it though and assuming that “health” is something that everyone wants and should get. For me, better strength and endurance is a side effect of doing something I enjoy– but not everyone enjoys exercising.

    I like to think that everyone could learn to like moderate exercise? That they could work up to it slowly and it’s not so bad and they’d feel better? Yeah, obviously I am still struggling with my privilege here.

    • Mostly these studies are looking at deaths over time, yeah, and accidents are often left out.

      Part of it, for me, is that increasing my activity (especially if I’m starting from sedentary, as is common in the software profession) causes fatigue as the body adapts. I don’t get more energy right away, I get tired! Yes, after a few weeks I have more energy … but in the meantime all the “You’ll have more energy!” stuff feels silly.

    • Sorry to pop back in SO long after the topic has died, but… I think it should be said that not everyone can learn to love exercise if a safe and non-hostile place to do so is being denied to them.

      And I don’t just mean safe in the terms of not being physically assaulted or shouted insults etc. I mean safe from assumptions like “Good for you, deciding to do something about your problem!” — ones that set the stage for feeling like a complete failure when your problem doesn’t magically disappear.

      Sometimes, the people who think they’re providing moral support are actually worse than the people screaming insults. Because while nobody ever feels obligated to please someone who is verbally assaulting you, sometimes you just feel like a real shit for letting down someone who is trying to help. Even when you don’t want or need their help.

      So it’s just easier not to go back, not to put yourself in that spot to begin with.

  4. G–I struggle with the same privilege/ableism. I have to remind myself that there are people who don’t feel good after they exercise, or who have to fight psychological or emotional battles when it comes to exercise. I’m getting better and remembering that my experiences are only my own, they can’t necessarily be spread evenly over the populace.

  5. I have a colleague who is skeletally thin and addicted to exercise. We often travel together and end up eating most of our meals together. At least in public, she seems to be a fairly normal eater, though I often get the impression that she is “careful”…God knows why.

    Recently, she tore something in her wrist (tendon, ligament?), was in a cast for awhile and now wears a removable cast.

    We don’t work together all the time (we’re self-employed professionals working in the same field) but we went on a 5-day trip for business and spent quite a bit of time together. So I asked about the injury, having heard that it was a skiing accident. Well yes, it was. But here’s how it happened: She wasn’t feeling in top shape, by her own admission hadn’t eaten enough and it was extremely cold out. Her boyfriend and friends really wanted her out with them and she agreed. While skiing down a slope, she fainted. Pure and simple.

    Extremely low weight, overexercising…great results.

    I also fear that she will eventually suffer from osteoporosis, but that remains to be seen.

  6. YES! Thank you for this! I know this in my heart, but everyone in my life ignores me when I say it. You can over do it and you shouldn’t be in pain during or after. The whole no pain no gain thing is bullshit. Thanks for spreading the truth.

  7. Working out SHOULD be fun and it should be something you enjoy doing. Even housework I consider exercise, because you’re up and moving around for periods at a time. Those that think exercise means only going to a gym and/or it’s a chore that must come with pain aren’t seeing the whole picture—no wonder so many who are physically able to exercise can’t find any pleasure in it.

  8. Good point, Bree, one I intended to make but forgot. When they rant on about people not being active enough (I love their rants, all from some different sources but usually selling something, such as the ones claiming that 95% of Americans do not get ‘enough’ whole grains or 95% of us do not get enough ‘nutrients’, which I seriously doubt is true), they make it seem as if most of us are more sedentary than we actually are. For instance, I figure that in the 52 years since I actually started walking to get places, run errands, get exercise (I have never had a car or a license & tend to walk most places), I have walked over 60,000 miles. However, this is only counting the miles I walk outside walking for exercise & to run errands. What about the countless other miles we all walk in the grocery store, Walmart, Mall, etc., to our shopping, the walking to & from parking lots, the walking around the house doing laundry, dishing, sweeping or vacuuming, washing floors, cleaning the kitchen, scrubbing the bathroom, etc.? All of that involves movement.

    And childcare? I have raised two sons, done a lot of home daycare, & still care for my small granddaughter several days a week. That involves quite a lot of movement & at times considerable lifting. It all counts.

    Then you have the hyper people like me, though when people think ‘hyper’, then think ‘thin.’ Partly because of the CP, but mostly because of abuse issues & my natural temperament, I am very nervous & highly-strung & do not sit still well. I wiggle, tap my feet, swing my legs, I rock in a straight chair, have since infancy. Even when engaged in reading or using the computer, I am up frequently, getting a drink, going to the bathroom, doing a chore I thought of, or just walking around for a few minutes because I feel stiff. I think most of us are more active than ‘they’…& usually ‘we’…believe.

    And the articles I have read about the orthopedic surgeries were referring specifically to sports/exercise injuries, with a large number of them being surgeries done on thin to average-weight people in their 40′s & 50′s, when it used to be mostly those in the 70′s & 80′s, as well as a great increase in sports/exercise injuries seen in children & adolescents. And, since someone mentioned osteoporosis, also an increase in fractures caused by that, especially among those who exercise vigorously & also have osteoarthritis.

  9. Interesting. I don’t think there is a way to measure the benefits of walking outdoors, in nature, even though it often helps to fill a deep emptiness in me. It’s the time, each day, when I most easily *find* myself–and I’m not sure I can explain what I mean by that statement.

    I get cranky (feel a loss) when I’m prevented from taking my morning walks for any length of time (such as post surgery or when recovering from flu). I’ve tried substituting a treadmill, but…bah. Not even close.

  10. The late Jim Fixx appeared to be the picture of health, yet he died from cardiac arrest at the age of 52. I’m not saying that we can’t benefit from exercise–I’m trying to get back into a regular routine now that my internship is done. I’m only pointing out that someone who looks fit as a fiddle may not necessarily be so. You can’t judge by appearances–as you said.

  11. Pingback: Things to read « Living ~400lbs

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