The Magic of Minimum Exercise

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of heavy exercise regimes. I was a big sports guy when I was younger, out there on the rugby field giving it my all (I’m Australian, after all). But as I get older the idea of playing sports is just not as appealing.

Having said that, exercise is something we all need. Study after study shows that people who exercise regularly live longer, healthier lives. All of those lifestyle diseases that damage our health—heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, high blood pressure—are far less likely to show up if we exercise. So what’s a non-jock supposed to do?

If we break it down, there are really three choices here: Do nothing. Do something minimal. Do a lot. And my answer is: Do something minimal.

You may be surprised to know that the difference between doing something minimal and doing a lot is much smaller than the difference between doing nothing and doing just a little something. Or, to put it another way, doing just a little bit is vastly more important than doing nothing at all.

This was made abundantly clear in a landmark report in the American Medical Association’s journal Internal Medicine that recently landed on my desk. What the authors wanted to check out was whether the government’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans was still accurate. Those guidelines, which I talk about in my book Fully Charged, recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. In other words, about 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day, or about 10 minutes of intense exercise per day.

In the new report, researchers looked at data on more than 660,000 American and European men and women gathered in previous studies. Those who did the minimum recommended amount of exercise cut their chances of dying prematurely by one third. Not bad for 20 minutes a day of walking.

But here’s the more interesting discovery: If you went past the minimums—two or three times the least you should do—you were only slightly better off.

Other studies seem to back up this idea, that the first bit of exercise is where you get the most payoff. For example, we now know that it’s terrible for your health to sit at your desk hour after hour—that for office workers, sitting is the new smoking. So one group of researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine tested for how little it would take to cancel the bad effects of sitting. And they showed that getting up and walking for just two minutes every hour reduced the risk of premature death for sedentary workers by a third. Results were published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Or course, even doing a little bit can be hard if you are used to doing nothing at all. Once you start something and like it, it’s much easer to go from there to the next level. It’s easier to go from 10 minutes of exercise to 20 minutes than it is to go from zero to anything.

When I speak to Rebooters who exercise a few times a week, they tell me that the first five minutes are always the toughest. That’s when you work the stiffness out of your knees and joints.

I recently returned from a speaking tour, and after having been on the road and not exercising for about a month, I decided to hit the gym. I just wanted to get my heart rate up and the blood pumping.

So I started simply: Just 15 minutes walking on a treadmill per day. Then I started adding in a little burst of running, just 30 seconds every five minutes. Then I worked it up to a minute of running. And I kept inching it up until I was running two and a half minutes every five minutes, and walking in the intervals. I also slowly lengthened my ‘workout’ to half an hour.

The result? I feel great, my heart rate looks good, and my knees feel better than when I was just sitting around. I’m not the jock I once was, but I’m a heck of a lot fitter than if I were doing nothing. And all because I kept it to a minimum when I started.