The Lazy Person's Exercise Plan

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

By now we all know the dangers of eating too much and exercising too little: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc. But even in a society as obsessed with slimness as ours, most of us would rather have a root canal than hit the gym. Well, couch potatoes, take heart! Experts now say that effective exercise can be incorporated into daily life so easily, even the most exercise-phobic among us can shape up.

"The recommendations for physical activity have changed drastically. They make it easier for the general public to achieve the correct levels of exercise because it includes such everyday activities as cleaning house and walking," says Regina L. Tan, DVM, MS, a CDC officer at the Georgia Division of Public Health. After the guidelines were changed from "20 minutes of vigorous activity 3 days per week" to "30 minutes of moderate activity 5 or more days per week," a new questionnaire for assessing activity levels was devised, based on those changes. Tan and colleagues set out to determine whether the new questionnaire offered an accurate means of assessing physical activity levels, and whether those levels had increased since the guidelines were revised.

For inactive people, doing any kind of activity will benefit their health. The American Heart Association recommends that inactive people gradually work up to exercising three to four times a week for 30-60 minutes at 50%-80 % of their maximal heart rate.

Tan's team polled more than 2,000 adult Georgia residents using both the old and new surveys.

"With the new questionnaire, it does look like the average amount of physical activity has increased somewhat," she tells WebMD. "We are, however, still investigating the accuracy of the survey, and the bottom line is that the increase, even if it's real, is very slight. Adults in the United States are just not getting enough physical activity, period. We are getting bigger and bigger."

The No. 1 problem, says Tan, is that most of us have very sedentary jobs.

"We sit at a desk all day long." To stay fit and slim, "you have to overcompensate for that, especially since a lot of what we're eating isn't all that healthy."

But we're not overcompensating. Instead, we're coming home from a day of sitting at the office computer only to sit some more -- at our home computer, in front of the TV, and at the dinner table.

No, you don't have to start training for a marathon. The difference between getting healthy and becoming a statistic "is increasing your activity level gradually, maybe by 20% a week. That will get you up to the recommended levels before too long," says Tan.

How to do it? The following options can be just as effective as jumping jacks, jogging trails, or high-priced gyms:

  • Don't use elevators or escalators; instead, take the stairs. Start with one such substitution a day, and build up slowly. So you work on the 50th floor? Ride up to 48 and walk up from there. Careful, though -- walking down stairs can be hard on your knees. Walk up, but ride down.
  • Stop circling parking lots and fighting for the closest spot. Park a little bit farther away from the office or mall, and walk. You'll not only increase fitness, you'll decrease stress.
  • If you take the bus or subway, get off one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Vacuum more often, change the sheets more often, mop the floor more often. These get your heart pumping, which means they are excellent calorie burners.
  • Cold and snowy where you live? Shovel it, walk your dog in it, build an igloo with your kids. The activity will not only boost your fitness levels, it will help keep you warm!

According to Tan, "That's all you need to do to make a real difference in your fitness level. Everyday activities that you might not think are exercise, are exercise." In the new recommendations, doing the laundry, vacuuming, and cleaning your house all count as exercise.

Tan says that everyone should consult a doctor before beginning an exercise regime, even one this gentle. But, she says, very few people can expect to be told that they cannot or should not exercise.

"Absolutely everyone can benefit from increasing his or her activity level," she says. "Even the most athletic people will improve their fitness level, and this is especially true for sedentary or overweight people."