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When It Comes To Exercise, 'All Movement Counts.' Here Are 4 Tips To Make It A Habit

An illustration of a man looking at a pegboard wall featuring a variety of tools. He looks pleased and is reaching for a green dumbbell. The wall includes other hanging exercise items such as jump rope, an exercise ball, a yoga mat, a baseball, a tennis racket, and baseballs.
( Shannon Wright
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for NPR)
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It's time to fact check exercise. The truth is that you don't have to be a marathoner or a gym rat to get meaningful health benefits from exercise.

"I've been astounded that even up until today, very educated people don't know — don't believe — that walking actually 'counts' as valid exercise," says Michelle Segar, a sport and health psychologist at the University of Michigan.

Walking absolutely "counts" as exercise, as do a lot of other activities that don't require a sweatband or special gear.

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Let's bust some common misconceptions about exercise right here:

  • You've got to sweat in order to reap health benefits. False.
  • You must exercise in 30-minute, uninterrupted stretches. False.
  • You need to really "feel the burn" or it doesn't count. False.

So what does count and where do you begin? We've got four tactics to help you start (or restart) an exercise habit that can stick. It's a lot easier than you think.

1. Everything counts when it comes to movement.

The expert guideline says we should be getting 150 minutes of moderately intense activity each week, which breaks down to about 22 minutes every day or 30 minutes five times a week. That amount can help ward off diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers.

What counts as a moderately intense activity? There's a geeky but cool resource called the Compendium of Physical Activities — it measures movement using a value called a metabolic equivalent, or MET. You can look up all sorts of activities in the compendium to see their MET value.

Moderate-intensity activities are defined as those that require between three and six METs. Activities in that range include mopping the floor, organizing a room, carrying groceries up the stairs, ballroom dancing, sledding and even mowing the lawn (not on a riding mower, sorry).

Segar says the research shows that "basically all movement counts." And anything — any movement at all — she says, "is better than nothing."

So remind yourself that it's not a choice between an hour-long kickboxing class or nothing at all. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, crawl around on the floor with your kids or put on some music and dance while you vacuum. It counts.

2. Exercise IS NOT all or nothing.

Think of starting an exercise routine like climbing a ladder. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Even short bouts of exercise have value, and they can help you build up your fitness level over time.

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So start small. Try standing up from your chair and sitting back down repeatedly. Stand up, sit down. Stand up, sit down. Kind of like you're doing squats. Or just take a five-minute walk.

Loretta DiPietro, an exercise research scientist at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, says that just moving "helps to clear fat and sugar out of blood."

If you want to kick it up a notch, try three 10-minute bouts of exercise scattered throughout the day — for instance, walking up the stairs or around the block. Studies show these shorter bursts of exercise can give you similar heart health benefits as one longer stint, and they can also help keep you from gaining weight. In other words, you're getting fitter with every 10-minute bout. And eventually, you can build up to working out in much longer stretches.

Plus, setting goals that are actually achievable can help you stay motivated. "When you complete your goals, no matter how modest those goals are, it creates this feeling like I can do more," says DiPietro. (In fact, starting small can help you achieve success with lots of habits, as Life Kit has reported.)

3. Focus on how exercise makes you feel.

Long-term benefits like weight loss or better overall health often take ... longer to achieve, so they're not super motivational in real-time. It can be disheartening when you don't see results quickly.

Instead, focus on immediate payoffs like improved mood and energy level as motivation.

"There are so many positives that happen when you move," says Segar. "We know that it helps people generate energy. We know that it boosts mood. We know that it improves executive functioning and all the tasks associated with that focus, you know, creativity."

Remember, when you feel better, that often benefits those around you.

"When you have more energy and you're a happier person, you bring that much more enthusiasm and energy and performance to your role in your work and your patience as a parent and patience as a partner to someone, if that's a part of your life," says Segar.

4. Figure out what kind of exercise and workout location makes you feel good.

If weightlifting in a crowded gym gives you anxiety, try getting a set of weights for home or following workout videos on YouTube or riding a bike in the park.

Keep trying different types of exercise until you find an activity or workout routine that makes you happy. (If you're looking for ideas, try this 22-minute at-home workout.)

"How can we craft our physical movement so that we want to do it, so that we're able to do it today or tomorrow?" says Segar.

And if you can't do it today or tomorrow, "instead of feeling guilty or like a failure," says Segar, tell yourself: "Guess what? I have the rest of the week and the rest of my life to keep fitting it in."

The audio portion of this story was produced by Chloee Weiner.

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