A Physical Activity Increase in Order?

April 5, 2016 in Exercise, Fitness, Health, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

When I work in the garden (It’s spring again – Wonderful!) or walk up a hill (Yipee! Hiking season has returned.), I realize that my body is aging. It rather creeps up on us; we don’t really notice it daily; but when we think back a few years we can notice the difference. I’m thinking about a trip to Scandinavia that we took in 2007; I drove for three weeks. It was a wonderful trip and a wonderful part of earth. This past year 2015 we took another driving trip through Spain and Southern France; it was only eight years after the Norway, Sweden and Denmark trip and this latest trip was barely over two weeks. Again, I was the driver and Vic was the navigator. While driving (sitting for long hours in the rented car) my right hamstring would get cramped. Just sitting using my foot for braking and accelerating (not a challenging exercise) would make this muscle fatigued and cramped. That was the beginning of even knowing that the muscle could get cramped. Bummer! Now, it’s become a tradition; if I sit too long at the computer or driving, the muscle lets me know it is unhappy about sitting still. The pains of aging are seldom fun; but there are joys too, and continual adaption seems mandatory.

Recently published research in Circulation helps us to realize how important it is to stay physically active and probably increase our physical activity above current levels. This study is very informative; Jarrett D. Berry, MD, MS, meta-analyzed twelve different studies that averaged 15 years. There were 370,460 participants with 20,203 heart failure events. This kind of study was valuable because the individual studies did not provide dose-response information. “Dose-response” is medical jargon for how large a “dose” of exercise you need) to get the better responses. What they found was helpful and motivated me to progress to more exercise. They found that walking the current recommendation of 150 minutes a week was associated with only a modest reduction (3.4%) in risk of heart failure. But people who quadrupled the minimum recommended level saw a 36.4 percent lower risk of heart failure – that’s going to cost you some moving around to get that reduction in risk. Don’t multiply 150 by 4 then think you need 600 minutes (10 hours). Read on about METs – you can get more benefit in fewer minutes by making the exercise more intense. The study’s authors used METs and there are all kinds of ways to get 500 to 1000 METs a week.

The studies published in the Circulation journal used METs. If you’re not familiar with METs (metabolic equivalent of task) and you want to really get into calculating your METs you can go to the Cooper Institute’s website where you can learn how many METs you get for various tasks; (walking, running, cooking dinner, repairing the home, doing laundry, etc). Check out the compendium of Physical Activities link to find the MET values of many different activities – it’s about three-fourths the way down the first page of the Cooper Institute’s website. This compendium reminds us that we don’t need to get all of our exercise as formal exercise. You will notice that many daily living activities are part of the MET chart. If you don’t want to get into METs, but you do want to have the benefits of increased physical activity, you may want to make a goal to exercise more each day. I think I’ll get my Fitbit out of the package. Just getting up and walking around the yard or house a little keeps that crazy hamstring happy; maybe my arteries and neurons can be happier if I strive to move more, and more vigorously, than my current 6-day a week exercise provides.

Because so many people are sedentary, public health professionals like myself have been sharing recommendations to encourage people to move a little; and that’s still a great place to start. But I want to be sure that you realize that while it’s true that a little moving can be a big improvement and lead to a significant improvement in your health, the greatest benefits come from meeting or even exceeding the guidelines for physical activity.

The nice thing about going for an increase in activity is that it may affect your heart, your brain, and your entire body. That’s motivating! A study published in NeuroImage a couple of months ago is one of the many studies that shows that higher aerobic fitness is associated with improved cognitive function. So increasing our activity may be able to protect us from a ‘brain cramp’ – that’s what I’m thinking.

I’ll attach the Fitbit that I was given some years ago and never used; and maybe it will become my private game to increase my physical activity. Maybe that would be encouraging to see some improvement just walking from one end of our lot to the other in addition to my regular METs. In the back of my mind I will be not only be avoiding a hamstring cramp or a brain cramp, but in addition, reducing my risk of heart failure and Alzheimer’s.