Health writer Gretchen Reynolds describes America as the “most sedentary society that has ever existed.”
And she’s suggesting that designation can be reversed with as little as a 20-minute walk every day.
If you’re looking to learn more about health in your summer reading, here are some suggestions.
Reynolds, who writes the popular column Phys Ed in The New York Times, is the author of the new book “The First 20 Minutes.” She covers research showing that the greatest benefits from exercise occur at the beginning of activity and that small amounts of movement are enough to dramatically improve health.
In an interview, Reynolds, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., discussed her book and how she went from training for marathons to being content with a 30-minute jog and push-ups at home.
What are some exercise myths you discovered?
A. I think the single biggest myth is that you need a lot of exercise to get any significant benefit. I think most of us were brought up to think we had to be running for an hour at least or we weren’t getting any benefit and it was barely worth doing. That is very clearly untrue, particularly if your goal is health. If you want to have less risk of disease, live longer and think better, a very small amount of physical activity will give you enormous health benefits. You don’t have to do a lot. It can be walking. It can be gardening. It doesn’t even have to be in one big block. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of “exercise.” What we need to do is get them to rethink it as moving more.
Q. What about cardiovascular health? Don’t you need to do more than walk?
A. It is a cardiovascular workout. If you stand up you will have a higher heart rate than if you’re sitting down. That’s another myth that you have to be hitting some target heart zone to get any sort of benefit. One of the things I think science is showing us is that people need to define their goals. If you want to run a marathon, that’s a completely different goal that living to be 90. If you do want to become faster, stronger, more competitive, you definitely have to be doing more and more strenuous exercise. If not, if you want to be able to lift your grandchild, that’s a completely different goal and you can achieve it with a lot less. People don’t have to be intimidated by how much you need to do.
Q. Does this broaden the definition of fit and healthy?
A. We tend to yoke together health and fitness. They actually are different. Health generally means you don’t have disease, you’re mobile, you’re independent, you feel well. Fitness is a technical meaning for how much oxygen can you move through your body to get to your muscles. They really are two different goals. You can achieve health without raising your fitness a lot.
Q. What about weight loss?
A. The relationship between exercise and weight loss is very complex. Moderate activity, and that would be walking, can actually increase the number of appetite hormones your body is producing. It’s more true for women and probably because our bodies are saying, ‘I want that fat in order to provide for the baby.’ If you’re hoping that exercise in and of itself will make you thin, the research is not very encouraging. You have to cut calories. If, however, you do lose weight, exercise seems to be the only thing that keeps it off.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about walking. Do you think that’s the ideal exercise?
A. For most people, almost certainly, yes. We’re born to walk and occasionally sprint and move briskly. The injury incidence is really low (with walking). It’s not going to give you super great muscle definition. It’s not necessarily going to help you lose weight. If you can just walk for 20 to 30 minutes every day for the rest of your life you will continue to get health benefits from that even if you never increase your pace.
Q. Is this a bare minimum, dumbed-down recommendation?
A. The answer is yes. There has been a public health shift toward “do anything, please do anything.” If you have been doing nothing, then doing anything has profound effects. If you’re fit, if you’re running for an hour, by all means continue.
“The First 20 Minutes” ($25.95) by Gretchen
Reynolds can be found at gretchenreynolds.com.
Here are more summer reading recommendations:
“The Weight of the Nation”
Authors: John Hoffman and Judith A. Salerno with Alexandra Moss; list price $25.99
This companion to the HBO documentary with the same name is a quick, engaging and enlightening read. The book traces how in American kitchens “the chicken in every pot became the nuggets in every microwave.”
Even if you think you know all there is to know about portion sizes, exercise and healthful foods, the book contains some fascinating facts.
25 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are consumed as French fries or potato chips
Most fast-food signs are red or yellow to be noticed from a distance. These are the colors that in nature signify ripeness.
In a restaurant, loud music can raise diners’ heart rates and cause them to eat faster and past the point of fullness. Be mindful of restaurants with TVs. Research shows people eat 14 percent more when distracted by TV.
“Drop Dead Healthy”
Author: A.J. Jacobs; list price $26
Jacobs is the master of using himself to conduct experiments. He sought to live biblically for a year in a previous book, and read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica for his book “Know It All.” In his latest, he embarks on a quest to become the healthiest man alive. He tries a variety of health claims while reading medical reports and interviewing scientists.
The book is broken into easy chapters based on which body part Jacobs is focusing on that month. Jacobs is funny, and there are many things in the book you might not know noise pollution, the negatives of a treadmill desk and the benefits of squatting vs. sitting.
A review in Entertainment Weekly says, “You’ll exercise your abdominals laughing over his adventures.”
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