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[Exercise is Medicine]

[Patient Adviser]

Simple Steps for Increasing Activity and Losing Weight

Ross E. Andersen, PhD


It's probably no surprise that being inactive or overweight increases the risk of heart disease and other diseases. And most people know that regular exercise (combined with healthy eating, of course) helps fight excess weight.

What you might not know is what, exactly, "regular exercise" means. For years we have been told that for exercise to "count," it had to be done for at least 30 minutes, three or more times a week. Also, it had to be hard enough to cause you to sweat and breathe hard. This type of exercise is definitely effective. However, day-to-day activities like playing with the kids, housework, or gardening are exercise, too—and they can also help you boost fitness and shed pounds.

Boost Exercise

For those striving to lose or maintain weight, regular physical activity—whether traditional exercise like walking or lifestyle activities like yard work—is important because it:

  • Burns calories;
  • Slows down the loss of muscle that typically comes with aging;
  • May speed your metabolic rate, which is how fast your body burns calories, even at rest; and
  • Is strongly associated with successful long-term weight control.

If you are able to participate in and enjoy traditional aerobic exercise like brisk walking, running, swimming, in-line skating, aerobics classes, or bike riding, by all means do so. But being overweight may make it harder to do these more traditional workouts regularly. You may find that you get out of breath quickly or simply do not enjoy them.

If so, it may help to focus first on how you can burn more calories by building more motion into your daily activities. Some examples:

  • Parking the car at the far end of the parking lot;
  • Gardening, mowing, and doing other yard work;
  • Vacuuming, dusting, and doing other housework;
  • Using stairs instead of elevators and walking instead of using moving walkways;
  • Walking during lunch breaks; and
  • Playing with children.

The goal is to be active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days. To make it easier, remember that your 30 minutes can be broken into shorter periods of 8 to 10 minutes or more. For instance, you could pull weeds for 10 minutes in the morning, walk for 15 minutes at lunchtime, and vacuum for 10 minutes in the evening. This is especially helpful to those who have busy schedules.

The key is to choose activities you will enjoy or can easily plug into your routine and then do them regularly. You may find that your exercise program is easier if you pick a variety of activities.

The more you increase your daily activities, the fitter you'll become. As you gain fitness, you may find that you can add regular walks or another aerobic activity to your regimen. Stretching exercises and strength exercises like weight lifting will round out your program. Increasing your fitness is good even if you don't lose weight: It'll mean more stamina, less tiredness, and even a shot at a longer life!

Decline Reclining

Cutting back on TV watching and other physically inactive pursuits is another important change for adults and children trying to lose weight. A physical activity log (next page) can help in identifying active and inactive times. Make copies of the log and keep a record for a few days. The results will surprise you. The log can help you identify times when you could work activity into your day.

Daily Physical Activity Log
Hours Minutes of
Physical Activity
12:00 midnight-1:00 am __________ __________
1-2:00 am __________ __________
2-3:00 am __________ __________
3-4:00 am __________ __________
4-5:00 am __________ __________
5-6:00 am __________ __________
6-7:00 am __________ __________
7-8:00 am __________ __________
8-9:00 am __________ __________
9-10:00 am __________ __________
10-11:00 am __________ __________
11:00 am-12:00 noon __________ __________
12-1:00 pm __________ __________
1-2:00 pm __________ __________
2-3:00 pm __________ __________
3-4:00 pm __________ __________
4-5:00 pm __________ __________
5-6:00 pm __________ __________
6-7:00 pm __________ __________
7-8:00 pm __________ __________
8-9:00 pm __________ __________
9-10:00 pm __________ __________
10-11:00 pm __________ __________
11:00 pm-12:00 midnight __________ __________
Total Activity _____ minutes
Date: ______________________________

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Andersen is an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.