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The scientific case for not sweating

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

If you’re like most people, you hate to exercise. It’s boring. It’s hard. It takes time you don’t have. As a result, you don’t exercise. You shudder when people talk about daily step counts or evangelize some great new exercise trend you must try.


You’re not alone in the impression that exercise requires intense commitment- going to the gym, sweating like crazy, etc. It’s the message you’ve been relentlessly pushed by the fitness industry selling gym memberships and fad workouts as the key to toned and muscular bodies. This definition of exercise is profit-driven, not science-driven.


So, what does the science say?


Medical Science

It turns out the questions of how much exercise is good for you has interested scientific and medical researchers for many years. As a result, thousands of studies have been completed on millions of people over the last 50 years.


The findings from this deep body of research are consistent:

  1. Exercise is beneficial for health and longevity, as it reduces a host of different health risks proven by fewer adverse health events.

  2. A little daily moderate activity delivers a significant positive impact and there are diminishing returns for those who are very active.

In short, the medical science says all movement counts as exercise, and movement is impactful. This is music to the ears of many people. This is probably a good time to revisit the definition of exercise: It is “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness”.


It says nothing about intensity or duration.


Table 1: How Physical Activity Lowers the Risk of Death*

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From Inactive to Moderately Active

From Moderately Active to Very Active

Male

22%

2%

Female

25%

14%

*Weighted average of 17 studies covering 217,385 people, selected from 12,254 total studies due to their consistency in approach


The results show that longer activity durations or intense activity have a diminishing marginal return. All you need is moderate activity to gain most of the positive impact from being physically active!


One of the best forms of moderate activity is walking. For most people – including inactive and lightly active people – it is the best way to start being active. It’s low impact, easily accessible, and achievable for almost everyone regardless of current activity levels.


In fact, walking is perhaps the most underrated form of exercise. Comparing the results from recent National Runners’ Health Study and National Walkers’ Health Study, moderate intensity walking and rigorous intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. The benefits from walking on physical health, mental health, and longevity are well studied and understood, but largely unknown by the greater population. Apparently, scientists and doctors are not the best marketers.


Table 2: Scientifically Proven Benefits from Regular Walking

Physical Benefits

Mental Benefits

Reduces risk of death up to 39%

Increases creative output by 60%

Reduces fatigue

​Improves mood

Strengthens the immune system

Increased attentiveness

Reduces key biometrics (blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol,etc)

Increased self-confidence

Reduces chronic pain

Lowers the risk of depression

​Improves circulation

Reduces and alleviates anxiety

​Reduces chronic disease risk

Improves memory

And the best thing about walking’s mental health benefits? Studies have shown that a 10-minute walk is just as good as a 45-minute workout for boosting mood and relieving symptoms of anxiety.


Similarly, studies have also shown that it is better to move everyday than for longer durations less frequently. Similarly, studies have shown it is better to move in smaller amounts throughout the day than to sit all day and exercise for 30 minutes.



Behavioral Science

Now that we have discussed what to do, let’s talk about how to make the change. The key lies in proven behavioral strategies.


Here’s what the science says about psychology and behavior: various motivations differ in their effectiveness of getting people to exercise and sustaining a pattern of exercise.


The most effective? Quality of life.


It turns out the most powerful and sustainable motivator to becoming more active is the immediate impact that it has on your daily quality of life. People whose motivation stems in their quality of life are 15-34% more active than people physically active for other reasons.


The least effective? Losing weight and improving physical appearance.


Why? The realization of benefits from exercise towards this goal are too distant in the future to sustain behaviors. The lack of immediate reward makes this group the most likely to stop exercising altogether. This is the New Year’s resolution crowd that sustains the gym industry but no-shows 11 months a year.


The importance of the immediate benefit makes it important put the impact into context. Going for a walk, a bike ride, or taking the stairs are invigorating and refreshing experiences that enhance the quality of your day. You will increase your energy and feel healthier, better, and more vibrant. This energy and positive feeling will boost your productivity, engagement, and impact in all you do – at work as a professional, and outside of work as a partner or parent. All this works together to increase your quality of life.


So What Should I Do?


The first thing to do is to embrace the definition of exercise and what the science says: you do not have to sweat at a gym to be healthy.


The second is to do something that you enjoy – gardening, walking, or dancing are incredibly powerful, as well as simple, practical, and doable.


Don’t have the time for a planned continuous activity? Intermittent activity is still powerful.


Take the stairs. Park in the far corner of the lot. Convert part of your commute into a walk. Take a stretch break, a water break, or walk to the nearest stairs and mix in some movement every hour. This will also break up the monotony of the day, which will leave you feeling refreshed.


Finding ways to carve out small bursts of movement helps build the habit. You’ll feel better. Lower your stress. Increase your energy. Raise your quality of life. And improve your short and long term health.


And remember, don’t feel guilty. The science is clear here: everything counts!

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