Improve Your Heart Health Without Running a Marathon

If even the thought of stepping on a treadmill makes you cringe, get excited: Researchers say you can count any kind of physical activity toward your daily exercise goal, meaning cardio machines and pricey gym memberships are totally optional.  

According to a large international study published last year, logging 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity (the World Health Organization’s current recommendation) could prevent 1 in 12 deaths and 1 in 20 cases of cardiovascular disease worldwide. But that activity doesn’t have to happen in the context of a workout class or a long-distance run: Researchers considered everything from walking to work to cleaning the house as exercise.

“The results are good news for non-gym-goers as our study shows that it is not where you do the activity or even what you call it,” says the study’s lead author, Scott Lear, Ph.D., a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “You just need to get active—not necessarily pay for a gym membership.”

When Lear and his colleagues set out to study the topic with their Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiologic (PURE) study, they looked at the food and fitness habits of more than 130,000 people from 17 countries. Among other results, the researchers found that meeting the 150-minute moderate-intensity weekly activity goal reduced the risk for death from any cause by 28 percent and reduced the risk of heart disease by 20 percent, regardless of what kind of activity the person did.

”Don’t get me wrong, going to the gym can be a great workout, but there are other options,” Lear says. Tons of other options, according to health experts—and sneaking in subtle bouts of activity throughout your day can make a big difference.

How to Sneakily Boost Your Heart Health

“You can easily fit more physical activity into your day and you​ should ​definitely count it as exercise,” says San Francisco-based certified health & wellness coach, Shawn Casey. “Exercise isn’t limited to the things you do while in gym shorts and sneakers.”

Setting realistic goals is one way to set yourself up for success, and finding more active ways to accomplish everyday errands may make tackling those goals a whole lot easier. “I find the most beneficial activity is the one that a person enjoys and will do regularly,” Lear says. “Activities that we might not think of as exercise, such as cutting the grass, washing the windows, raking leaves, etc., are great and can be just as intense as a brisk walk or light jog.” And while lightly dusting your furniture may not count as “moderate intensity” exercise, Lear says more physical forms of household chores like mopping the floors or vacuuming the carpets can definitely count.

According to Casey, the key to amping up activity is to incorporate it into everyday tasks. “​Add in extra steps by getting off at an earlier bus stop, parking farther away, or opting for the stairs over the escalator,” she advises. “We’re programmed to conserve​ and optimize​ our energy, so it ​might feel weird to purposely avoid convenience, but ​if you re-frame it as an opportunity to fit fitness into your day without having to go to the gym, you may start to see opportunities everywhere.”

Lear says that by sprinkling these seemingly small activities into your lifestyle on a regular basis, “they add up and can definitely help prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.”

How Much Movement to Strive For Every Day

According to Lear, the current guidelines of 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity activity translates to about 20-30 minutes most days of the week. “People can accumulate their 20-30 minutes over the day, but we recommend that people work towards doing 20- to 30-minute stretches once their fitness allows,” he says. “From our results, people who did more continued to see reductions in risk.”

And if you don’t consider yourself an active person, now’s the time to get moving: According to the PURE study, participants who reaped the biggest rewards were the ones who started slow. “The greatest reduction in risk occurred when comparing people who had essentially no physical activity to those who just met the guidelines—going from none (or almost none) to 20-30 minutes per day,” Lear says. “As people increased their activity levels, the reduction in risk continued, and there was no point at which the benefit of activity stopped.”

Still need some activity inspiration? “My personal favorite is to add movement to mundane tasks, like cleaning, by turning it into a dance party,” Casey says. “Blast your favorite music and bust some moves between sweeps—good for cardio and your mood!”

3 Comments   Join the Conversation

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi Michelle,
    I’m 68 years old 6’4” and weight 260 lbs. last October l had an open heart surgery for a new Aortic valve. I have been doing fine recuperating and following the doctor’s order and to this date they are very satisfied of my progress.
    I did start very slowly by walking daily and watching my diet. I also followed a cardiac rehab education and l am getting on my elliptical stepper daily for 1 full hour each day now seven days a week.I fell just fantastic and looking forward to keep it up.
    My question is should l increase my activities. Would like also to mention that l was always actif. 10 years of summer kayaking 3 days weekly and in the last 5 years l enjoy biking,last year l completed 1,600. km.

  • So, how does playing 18 holes of golf three times a week while pushing/pulling clubs on a 2 or 3 wheel cart measure up?

  • Thanks Michelle I have tried to incorporate extra effort into all of my daily activities and it has been very helpful. The data you provided gives me the added boost to keep going. Down 71 pounds and still going!

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