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Studies are showing that people who train hard and long at running have death rates similar to couch potatoes, while those who exercise moderately or even lightly are likely to live much longer. Experts discuss how much exercise is enough and how to make the most of light exercise.

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  • Dr. Carol Ewing Garber, Professor of Movement Sciences, Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Dr. Vijay Vad, sports medicine specialist, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York, Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College and author, The New Rules of Running

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Moderate Exercise – It’s better for you

Nancy Benson: The weather’s warming up and store shelves are filling up with books on the latest running trends – how to run faster/farther/longer. When it comes to exercise, most of us have grown up assuming that more is better. But many fitness experts are changing their tune; they’re now learning that running fast and hard isn’t so good for your health. Apparently there is such as thing as too much exercise.

Dr. Carol Ewing Garber: There’ve been recent studies, one in particular, that suggested that people who run a lot actually had poor outcomes or more deaths and disease than people who did less exercise. In fact they’re mortality was similar to that of sedentary people which is concerning.

Benson: That’s Dr. Carol Ewing Garber, Professor of Movement Sciences at Teachers College, Columbia University. And you heard her correctly; research now shows that intense runners have a mortality rate similar to sedentary people – couch potatoes. The studies authors speculate that too much running may damage the heart. The people who live the longest, according to the study, were those who exercise lightly or moderately. Garber says just a small amount of exercise has great health benefits.

Ewing Garber: It does seem to be a fairly moderate amount. Our recommendations currently are for about 30 minutes of day of moderate activity like a walk for example and you wouldn’t have to do that all at one time. We do have some recent studies that suggest even doing less than that might be adequate in terms of getting health benefits. I think kind of most important thing is that people are active, so something is better than nothing and that you do this on a regular basis.

Benson: But for couch potatoes, even 30 minutes a day might seem like too much. That’s when advice to simply get out of a chair can be helpful.

Ewing Garber: One thing that people can do that is not too difficult to attain is just doing things like getting up out of your chair every hour and walking around for a couple of minutes and that has been shown to having very powerful affects on some health related biomarkers. The reality is that for many of us, we spend 10, 12, or more hours of sitting and not moving at all and that is really bad for our health.

Benson: It’s hard to know how much exercise you’re getting, that’s why Garber says that a pedometer is a great tool for monitoring physical activity throughout the day.

Ewing Garber: Our recommendations are that you are as active as possible in your daily life and that you reduce the amount of time being spent sitting and doing sedentary things. But also that it’s recommended that you do them kind of intentional physical activity. And that could be going for a walk, it doesn’t have to necessarily be something where you go to the gym or do something that requires you to change your clothes.

Benson: Experts say even physically fit people more than 40 years old lose 1% of muscle mass every year. But it doesn’t take much exercise to minimize those effects.

Dr. Vijay Vad: If you go back to the hunter and gatherer days we ran in spurts a little bit here and there, and that was body maintenance. As a matter of fact, if you want to minimize muscle loss you can minimize that by as little as 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity a couple of times a week. So the human body needs very little for maintenance.

Benson: That’s Dr. Vijay Vad, a sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College. He’s also author of the book, “The New Rules of Running,” where he outlines a program for the recreational runner who wants to stay fit, not run a marathon.

Vad:: We all run differently, we all run at different speeds, our running mechanics are all individualized and different, so your running speed should be geared towards you. If you wanna be a light walker or runner, do it at a comfortable pace just for you.

Benson: In other words, don’t feel intimidated by all the runners speeding past leaving you in the dust. Vad says running at your own slow pace has tremendous health benefits.

Vad:: There’s lots of data now that running makes you smarter, preserves your brain, even if you’re doing something as little as 2 miles a couple time of week at a slow pace, that’s enough to have a huge positive impact as far as endorphins, as far as preservation of the brain. So you don’t have to be running 15 miles, 3 times a week to get those benefits.

Benson: In addition, Vad says slow running for shorter distances, is much better on your joints.

Vad:: Slow running, what it actually does is avoid a lot of the negative side effects of very hard, very fast running. It really minimizes what we call the “sheer loads.” Sheer loads is the sort of loads on the joints that are uneven loads and the joints really don’t like that because you can start getting arthritis in the knee joint if you’re putting too much sheer loads on it. Life is a marathon and you gotta pace yourself, so you can’t burn trough it in the first 50 years of your life. If you look at my personal example, I cut running down to 2-3 days a week, really more 2 days than 3 days a week, because I’m getting into that mid-40’s range and I want to preserve my joints into 50s and 60s and so I combined that with Stairmaster and elliptical and low impact.

Benson: But how do you stay motivated to exercise just a little bit everyday?

Ewing Garber: I think that you just noticing how you feel after you do exercise and start learning to be a bit more mindful or aware of how you’re feeling and often people aren’t that mindful at noticing how they feel. So I think that paying attention to that and even keeping track can be really helpful. Sometimes you don’t realize, especially when you first start exercising, you might not feel like it’s very pleasant and you’re wondering if you want to keep going. And after a while, there are some points where people usually report that they feel so much better.

Vad:: But you gotta do it throughout your life, you can’t do it for 2 years and think the benefits will last for a lifetime. So it’s one of those things you gotta do in small moderation, you can do it throughout your life. The human body is an amazing machine and it needs minimal maintenance to stay fine tuned, so get off your butt and do something 30 minutes, 5 days a week.

Benson: Perhaps knowing that just a moderate amount of activity can keep you healthy may inspire some of us to start moving a little more each day. So the next time you’re out shopping and wasting time looking for the closest parking spot possible, take the farthest parking spot and walk the extra distance, you’ll feel better and better the more you do it. You can learn more about our guests and find a link to the book, “The New Rules of Running” through a link on our website, RadioHealthJournal.net. You can always find our shows on iTunes and Stitcher. Our writer this week is Polly Hansen, our Production Director is Sean Waldron, I’m Nancy Benson.

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