Is an Out-of-Shape Nation Seconds Away From Better Health?

Based on new state maps of adult physical inactivity prevalence in this country released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January, most states show that more than 1 in 5 are categorized as “inactive.” This means they did not participate in any physical activities outside of work. This is yet another sad statistic reminding us of the sedentary lifestyle to which so many Americans have become accustomed, heightened even further by the pandemic lockdown.

“If you sit at your computer all day and then lounge on the sofa for more screen time in the evening, your health can take a hit,” comments Allison Aubrey in a recent NPR health report. “A body of evidence links sedentary lifestyles to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia and death from heart disease.”

By now, such warnings should not be a shocking revelation, nor should advice of what we can do about it. “Getting enough physical activity could prevent 1 in 10 premature deaths,” comments Ruth Petersen, Director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in a statement accompanying the January announcement.

Reports Aubrey, according to the CDC, “more than one out of every three adults in the U.S. has prediabetes, and nearly half of adults have high blood pressure.” Both conditions increase the risk of heart disease, the top cause of death in the U.S.

If you still require a further wake-up call, one study cited by NPR Health found that, “irrespective of whether a person exercised, if they sat for more than 12-13 hours a day, they were more than twice as likely to die early, compared to people who sat the least.”

“Want to feel better, have more energy and even add years to your life? Just exercise,” says the Mayo Clinic stoking the benefits of regular physical activity. “The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore. … It also can help improve cognitive function and helps lower the risk of death from all causes.”

If you think doing household chores alone will check the box as physical activity, you might want to think again. In recent years, public health messages regarding physical activity have shifted from a focus on traditional exercises to activities that can be performed as you go about your day. Many public health officials believe public health messages should now “emphasize the importance of practicing many different kinds of physical activity,” says a Live Science report. Make sure that housework “is not seen as the main method” of exercising, says a study published in the Oct. 18 issue of the journal BMC Public Health. It would be hard to lose weight just by doing housework.

Writes Live Science, according to the Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide, “30 minutes of vacuuming or sweeping floors burns about 130 calories, while 30 minutes of vigorous cycling on a stationary bike burns 400 calories,” and “30 minutes spent mowing the lawn with a hand mower burns 215 calories, close to what you would burn in 30 minutes of combined jogging and walking,” says the report.

New York Times reporter Gretchen Reynolds believes that the definitive word on how little exercise we can get away with and get the benefit is found in a new study published December 2020 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. According to research findings, “a mere four seconds of intense intervals (training), repeated until they amount to about a minute of total exertion, lead to rapid and meaningful improvements in strength, fitness and general physical performance among middle-aged and older adults.”

Researchers studying high-intensity interval training, or H.I.I.T., agreed that “an optimal interval span should stress our muscles and other bodily systems enough to jump-start potent physiological changes but not so much that we groan, give up and decline to try that workout ever again,” writes Reynolds. The approach was to provide an exercise “that consists of quick spurts of draining physical effort, followed by rest, with the sequence repeated multiple times.” Researchers found that these workouts typically produce health gains equal to or more pronounced than much longer, gentler workouts. They arrived at the four-second “quick spurt” by first working with competitive athletes at the university’s human performance lab. It led scientists to wonder “if a more practical, single session of four-second sprints would be enough exercise to improve health and fitness in out-of-shape adults well past their college years.”

For the study, a mix of 39 men and women aged 50 to 68 who were sedentary but had no other major health concerns were recruited. A specialized stationary bicycle was used in this study. “The volunteers were hooked up to continuous glucose monitors to measure blood sugar levels, and their blood pressure was measured, too. Then, the participants took walking breaks of varying lengths and frequency,” says Aubrey.

At the end of eight weeks, on average, participants had “increased their fitness by about 10 percent, gained considerable muscle mass and strength in their legs, reduced the stiffness of their arteries and outperformed their previous selves in activities of daily living, all from about three to six minutes a week of actual exercise,” according to Reynolds.

Will the benefits of this four-second sprint exercise make a difference and get people off their couch? Don’t hold your breath.