I love having “what if” discussions with my good friend and colleague, Tim Church. Tim has lots of initials after his name (M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.), and he rarely lacks for an opinion, so our discussions often become fairly spirited debates. Here’s an example, “What if there was only one thing someone could do to improve their health, what would it be?” Obviously there are all sorts of possibilities…eat healthier, lose weight, stop smoking, drink more water, get more sleep, improve fitness, take vitamin D and omega-3 supplements, wash your hands, manage stress, stretch, do yoga or Pilates, spend more time with family and friends, take prescribed medications on a regular basis, etc. All of these would have a positive impact on an individual’s health but on this particular question Tim and I are in complete agreement.
The answer is: improve fitness.
There are plenty of data to support this position so let’s not get wrapped around the axle. The big question now is, “How does one improve fitness? You already know the answer. It’s simple, exercise. Yes, that dreaded four letter word that makes so many folks cringe. Exercise.
Even though each and every one of us was beautifully created to move, physical activity, a.k.a. exercise, has become completely optional. We can’t live very long without food and sleep. We can live without exercise. But we can’t live well. Improving one’s fitness through physical activity has a hugely positive impact on both the length and the quality of life. I contend that the vast majority of humans are driven by the desire to look and feel better and there’s no question, exercise will help you do that.
Unfortunately, the research clearly shows that most folks are falling short of the weekly recommendations for exercise. What we often hear is we need to be physically active for 30 minutes most days of the week. To be more specific, here are the actual recommendations for adults from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (i.e. brisk walking), or
- 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (i.e. running, swimming, cycling, etc.),
- And at least two sessions per week of strength training (i.e. weight lifting or resistance training) that incorporates all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). If you know what you’re doing this should take no more than 20 minutes per session.
So combined we’re talking somewhere between 115 and 190 minutes of exercise per week.
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. We all have 168 hours in a week so 115 to 190 minutes represents less than 2% of our total available time. Why then, when I ask folks who don’t exercise why not, the answer is practically universal: I don’t have the time!
I’m sorry but that’s a lousy excuse! It’s not a time issue. It’s a priority issue…it’s an allocation issue. We have plenty of time but the majority of Americans just choose to invest that time into things other than exercise. Just for giggles, let’s do some rough math regarding what we do with our time every week:
- 8 hours of sleep per day x 7 days = 56 hours
- 8 hours of work per day x 5 days = 40 hours
- 1 hour commute time per day x 5 days = 5 hours
- 2 hours eating per day (a huge overestimation for most of us) x 7 days = 14 hours
- 1 hour grooming per day (just guessing here) x 7 days = 7 hours
That comes out to 122 hours/week. Take 122 from 168 (24 hours x 7 days) and that leaves 46 discretionary hours per week…or 6.57 hours/day. What are we doing with this “free” time?
In March, 2017 a company called eMarketer released its annual survey of how much time Americans spent “with media” per day. Here was the breakdown:
- Mobile (nonvoice): 3 hours and 23 minutes
- Desktop/laptop: 2 hours and 8 minutes
- Other connected devices: 30 minutes
That works out to 6 hours and 1 minute per day on average. I’ll admit I’m always a little leery of these numbers because they seem pretty extreme and they don’t align with how I spend my time but hey, data are data. Add on top of this the average of 3 hours and 55 minutes per day watching television and it’s pretty clear many people are doing a lot of multi-tasking with media. It’s also pretty obvious that when you’re attached to some sort of “electronic rectangle” it’s hard, if not impossible, to be physically active.
So, could it be that we are not moving on a regular basis because of the magnetic power of technology? Might things like email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tinder, DVR, Netflix, Hulu, Candy Crush, etc. consume so much of our discretionary time and mental energy that physical activity doesn’t even enter the conversation?
Anyone with a Smartphone (which means everyone) recognizes that while the device might not control our life and behavior, it certainly impacts it. Dr. Cal Newport (which sounds like the name of a TV weatherman in Southern California) is a professor at Georgetown who wrote the book, Deep Work…Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He points out that social media is intentionally designed to distract and fragment our attention. If you don’t believe him answer his very personal question: How long can you go without a fix?
If our obesigenic environment is so overwhelmingly powerful should we all just throw up our hands and declare being healthy is simply a losing proposition? NO…OF COURSE NOT!!! We need to be two things…selfish and intentional.
“Selfish” means understanding that you cannot outsource your health. Of the over seven and a half billion people on the face of the earth, no one can make healthy choices for you. You have to take personal responsibility and recognize you can’t pay or expect someone else to make it happen. Look in the mirror and realize you, and only you, hold all the power when it comes to your future and quality of life.
“Intentional” means that if you have, give or take, 6 and a half hours of “free time” per day that you are not going to let Mark Zuckerburg (Facebook), Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Instagram), or Ben Silbermann (Pinterest) own that time. YOU own that time! What about carving out 30-60 minutes to invest in yourself? This is not an “either/or” proposition. I’m certainly not advocating completely abandoning technology and social media. What I’m encouraging is balance. Allocate your time so that it benefits you, and not some venture capital-backed company in Silicon Valley that is angling for an I.P.O. or billion dollar buy-out.
A SPECIAL BONUS!
Now, because you have stuck with me this far, I have good news. You really don’t always need to invest 115 to 190 minutes per week in moderate to vigorous physical activity. If you are crunched for time, rather than just not working out at all, I suggest exploring interval training, specifically something called H.I.I.T. (High Intensity Interval Training).
The concept of interval training has been around for years but a flurry of new research really validates its benefit. Multiple studies show that by cranking up your effort/intensity then you don’t have to spend as much time actually exercising. It’s an inverse relationship….as your intensity goes up then your investment of time can go down. The key though is that you have to be willing to really push yourself.
(Now before you move from zero to 60 let me caution you to first consult a physician to receive medical clearance. Moving from “couch potato” to “walker” status is one thing but if you plan to really open up the throttle then be sure to check with a doc beforehand. This applies to everyone but especially guys since we are the ones that seem to believe just because we were studs in high school that we still are. Hint: That’s probably not the case!)
One of the most popular versions of H.I.I.T. is The Seven Minute Workout. It consists of 12 exercises you do for 30 seconds at a time separated by a 10 second rest in between. The exercises need to be done at a pretty high intensity…think of an 8 on a scale of 10. You don’t need to join a gym, buy expensive equipment, or pay a trainer. You just need to start where you are and be consistent.
I don’t believe it’s the only workout you need but I’ve found it’s extremely beneficial, especially when you are on the road. For more information simply Google: “7 Minute Workout.” You can also find several free apps on your phone to help guide you through the routine (this is a rare example of when technology can actually help support physical activity). H.I.I.T. is a terrific way to keep your workouts fresh…and believe me, even though it doesn’t take long, if you do it right you will certainly know you’ve worked out.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes although I’m not sure who to attribute it to:
If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree!