“Walking is man’s best medicine”- Hippocrates (Greek physician 460 BC-377BC). That is one of my favorite all-time quotes. I can’t say it enough or hear it enough. Hippocrates didn’t have scientific studies, he didn’t have fitness trackers, yet it was inherently obvious to him that physical activity and simply moving our bodies provided unparalleled physical and psychological benefits.
Combine that with more modern observations from Dan Buettner’s book The Blue Zones, and it becomes clear that regular physical activity is an essential key to our health and longevity. Mr. Buettner evaluated the most common personal habits in societies where they routinely live into their 90s and 100s. He found that they didn’t hit the gym every day, they didn’t train for marathons. They simply moved their bodies consistently. They worked in the garden, they walked to do their errands, they walked for social purposes. They moved their bodies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big proponent of regular exercise, including high intensity interval training and resistance training (more on this in another post), but it is becoming clear that the basis for health is moving our bodies. But why is this a challenge?
Technological Advances = Health Disintegration
Our society does not encourage regular physical activity. Most of us work desk jobs sitting in front of computers for hours at a time. We live as part of urban sprawl with longer commutes. And what minimal leisure time we have is spent on computers, tablets and video games. The days of centralized communities encouraging regular physical activity are largely gone.
This isn’t necessarily all bad. The technological advancements in the past few decades are unprecedented. It just hasn’t been good for our health. The priority has shifted. Now it’s time to shift it back!
It is time to re-examine all our unconscious habits. Why do we automatically go to the elevator or escalator? Why do we instinctively look for the closest parking spot? Why do we automatically sit on the couch instead of going outside for a walk?
Don’t just read these questions and keep going. Stop. Think. Answer the questions in your mind and resolve to re-examine those reasons and change them! Look at your daily habits and find places to purposely add more physical activity.
As I frequently say, you don’t have to try to be perfect. Just try to be better. If you can change one unconscious habit today that helps you move your body more, then you have a major success. If you can change another one tomorrow…even better!
My advice: Get an activity tracker and use it!
“But wait! Didn’t I just read a story about activity trackers being useless? Doesn’t that mean being active isn’t helpful?” I’m glad you asked.
There was a study in JAMA that asked a specific question: When it comes to weight loss, is a simple pedometer better than a program with regular encounters and encouragement from research staff? The answer, not surprisingly, was no (read a more detailed analysis of this study here).
Regular human interaction and encouragement is one of the most important factors when it comes to successful lifestyle changes. In this study, those in the activity tracker group didn’t have that interaction. It’s no surprise that they didn’t fare as well.
It is important to realize that activity trackers are one part of an overall health program. They are not an end-all tool for weight loss. And remember, weight loss is not the best marker for health. Healthy habits themselves should be the goal, the weight loss will follow.
So, don’t throw out your Fitbit, Jawbone or Apple watch just yet. When used correctly, activity monitors are a powerful tool to get you moving.
You may feel like you did a good job being active today. But then you glance down at your wrist and see a measly 4000 steps for the day. Now you know it is time to get moving. You can’t talk your way out of that one!
Or you may notice you hit your 10,000 steps and you are feeling good about yourself. You log in to the computer and see your good friend is already at 12,000 steps today. Time to put down your remote control and get another 2,001 steps in just to show him that you can!
That’s the power of activity monitors. Objective motivation day after day. Get one. Use it. Listen to the motivation.
Exercise Lowers Risk of Death
Ok. So, it’s well established that being consistently physically active is important for our health. But what about exercise? Aside from being physically active, how much exercise should we try to get?
It turns out, we don’t need that much to save our life.
A 2015 study in JAMA followed 661,000 Middle Aged adults over 14 years. They found the highest risk of death in those who did not exercise at all. Even a “little amount” of exercise (less than the official guidelines but more than no exercise) reduced the risk of death by 20%. The benefit continued to increase linearly with increasing exercise duration until it plateaued at 450 min per week. The following table summarizes the results.
Amount of exercise per week
Highest mortality and cardiovascular risk
Less than 150min
Reduced death by 20% over sedentary
Reduced death by 31%
Reduced death by 39%
More than 450 min
No additional benefit, but no increased harm either
In addition, the Copenhagen City Heart Study showed that “light” running, even just 20-minutes once per week, resulted in reduced risk of death. The maximal benefit was in those who jogged at a slow or average pace between 1-2.5 hours per week.
So, although the official recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, even minimal amounts of exercise provides some benefit. And it wasn’t an obscure benefit that you may or may not care about. It was reducing the risk of dying! That’s something we can all get on board with.
Move Your Body
If your goal is to reduce your risk of death, move your body.
If your goal is to improve your health, move your body.
If your goal is to feel better, move your body.
Be active, and add in at least small amounts of exercise.
The science supports. Hippocrates supports it. Now it is your job to get out there and do it.
(Read more about Resistance training and high intensity interval training Here)
Thanks for reading.
Bret Scher, MD FACC
Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health
Tomorrow, wake up and set your intention to seek out ways to move your body. Spend the entire day parking further away, taking the stairs, walking or biking to do your errands, go for a walk with your kids, and anything else you can find. Make it the focus for your day. You will be amazed at how many ways to can improve your activity level. Then, if you can do it once, you can incorporate it into your life and make it a new healthy habit. But you have to start with the first step. Wake up tomorrow and set that intention!