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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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An Active and Healthy Life
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James N. Roemmich, PhD

We are designed to be mobile--our survival has depended on it.  During thousands of years, we humans became capable of walking great distances.  We needed mobility--such as hunting and gathering food--to meet our basic survival needs.. And being mobile served us well--our physical activity was the basis of our readiness. It was the stimulus that kept us healthy so we could be mobile for extended periods and at a moment's notice.

Now we know that being physically active reduces our risk of fractures, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, some cancers, depression and anxiety disorders. It helps keep us independent and makes us feel good about ourselves.

Being highly mobile served us well for millennia - until we developed agriculture and transitioned to more stationary societies.  Over only a couple of hundred years, and particularly over the last few decades, mechanization and technological advances have reduced our needs to be active. Today, more than 60% of adults do not have enough physical activity to be healthy, and 25% are not active at all.

The good news is that, because of our ancestry, our bodies can respond to physical activity in healthful ways. 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that each of us get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity 5 days a week, with muscle strengthening activities twice a week. Moderate intensity is like a brisk walk, it makes you breath harder, but you can still carry on a conversation. That may sound like a lot; but break it down into smaller, achievable goals. Start slow focusing on moderate intensity activity.  Then gradually increase the amount of activity. The muscle strengthening can be added later.  If you're considering getting more activity, but haven't been active for a while, or if you have any chronic health problems, check with your doctor to determine how much physical activity is healthy for you before you begin.  You will want to be sure that they don't have undiagnosed heart disease or some other health problem.

A good place to start an exercise program is to keep a log of how many times each day you are physically active for at least 10 minutes without stopping. That's about the effort and time to walk a half-mile. You may be surprised to find that you do not get very many 10-minute periods of activity in a day. If you're getting none, then set a goal of 1 a day for 5 days a week. When you've achieved that goal for two consecutive weeks, set a new goal for a 20 minute session or two 10 minute periods at least 5 days per week.  Then, progress from there. Remember: you don't have to do 20 or 30 minutes in a single session; 2 or 3 sessions of 10 minutes each will improve your health just as much. Avoid getting really sore, and keep it fun!

Of course, there's more to health than just being physically active. The amount of time spent being sedentary also matters. Too much sitting is a health risk, even when we are physically active. A good way to counter the 'sitting effect' is to replace sedentary time with active time. For example, reduce your daily TV/computer time by 30 minutes and use that time to be physically active or do some sort of standing activity in your home, your neighborhood, a mall, a park or at a fitness center.

Many health benefits can be gained from lifestyle physical activities - these are activities that naturally fit into your daily routine and for which you don't need special equipment or gym memberships. Some examples include:

  • Using the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator.
  • Taking advantage of our small and safe community. Walking to places less than one-mile away or biking to places less than 3 miles away.
  • Walking or biking to work. Or catching a ride part of the way to work and walking the rest.
  • At noon, doing a group activity for10-30 minutes and then eating a quicker lunch.
  • Taking a 10 minute walk during work breaks.
  • Taking advantage of the many fitness facilities in town - using them before or after work, or during your lunch hour.
  • At work or home, try doing something to break the stillness every 30 minutes or so.  Rather than sending an e-mail to the next office, get-up and walk over to talk to the person. Stand-up and stretch, fidget your legs while sitting, or walk down the hall and back

You can find more information about physical activity guidelines and monitoring your activities at

A root cause of our having little physical activity while being sedentary for long periods is that we have designed physical activity out of our lives.  That is hurting our health. Next month, look here for a discussion of ways to redesign activity back into your life.

Last Modified: 8/13/2016
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