Exercise: How Much is Enough?

We’ve all heard recommendations for exercise, but then we try it and we don’t see the results we want. So how much exercise is enough?

Let’s talk about money for a minute. Just like exercise, we talk about saving for retirement.  But the reality is, by the time we get to the end of the month, we have $5 left, and it hardly seems worthwhile to put that in savings.  $5 a month isn’t going to get us a retirement nest egg of a million dollars, but it might be enough for a nice vacation, or the down payment on a car.  If I want to have enough for retirement, I might have to cancel my cable and drive an old car for awhile in order to save a significant amount of money.  Significant savings require significant sacrifice.

Say we did put $10 a month away. Every month. And every year we earned a measly 5% interest on it every year.  At the end of 10 years, we’d have $1575.  That might not be enough to retire on, but it would keep me from having to put the car repair on my credit card.  It’s a start, and it’s certainly better than nothing.

Back to exercise.  What are the benefits of exercise?  Improved sleep. Better sexual function, Decreased risk of diabetes and obesity. Bone strength. Decreased risk of depression, heart disease and stroke. Decreased risk of many cancers, and improved survival from the bad ones. Less back pain. Almost all the studies that document these benefits use 150 minutes of brisk exercise “most days” as their measure.  That’s right: 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.  Not a huge sacrifice, but if you’re not there yet, don’t despair- just start today with five minutes.


But now you say you want to lose weight.  (Remember: moderate exercise leading to a 5-7% weight loss over 4 months decreases your diabetes risk by 58%.  That’s right: for a 200lb woman, a 10lb-weight loss is enough to cut your DM risk in half!)  How much do you have to exercise for that?

On average, walking 1 mile burns 100 more calories than you’d burn sitting. Not a perfect calculation, but it will do for our purposes.  So say in the morning, I get up and walk 2 miles in 30 minutes.  I burned about 200 calories more than I would have otherwise, and then I have a Pepsi because I feel good about walking in the morning.  My 1 can of Pepsi is 150 calories.  So what is my net burn? Only 50 calories.

To lose one pound, I have to burn 3500 extra calories over what I took in.  In a week, that’s 500 calories a day to lose 1 pound in a week—and that’s without replacing my calorie-burn with extra food or drink calories.

Those extra calories often are hidden in beverages, or portion sizes.  For example, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a large soda is 1,380 calories.  Or: a 13 mile walk.  If I have a regular cheeseburger, small fries and a water: 540 calories, or a 5-mile walk.

If it takes you 30 minutes to walk around the 1 mile park, I say “Good for you!”  You are outside, getting vitamin D and doing enough walking to decrease your risk of many cancers, stroke, heart disease, depression, sexual dysfunction and insomnia.  As you do it every day, little by little it will be easier, and in that 30 minutes, you will cover 2 miles. That brisk walk is enough to reduce your risk of diabetes.

But if you want to lose weight, you can’t expect exercise to do the whole job. If you’re currently gaining a pound every week or two, it means your current intake is 3500 calories more each week than you are currently burning.  If you’re eating three large meals and snacks and sweetened beverages, a 30 minute walk isn’t going to bring your weight down.  But if you start cooking smaller meals at home, snacking on fruit only, drinking water instead of sweetened drinks, and walking 3 miles a day twice a day, you’re going to lose weight. Slowly, sensibly, and in a way that will be sustainable over the long term.

Let’s talk for a minute about the dreaded weight loss plateau.  What’s going on?  You’ve changed your diet, been exercising and have lost 40 pounds, but now you’re stuck.  The weight just won’t come off any more.  Two things have likely happened. First, you weigh less now, so the number of calories you expend sitting, sleeping and walking is less.  That 2-mile walk burns 50 fewer calories for the same amount of walking when you were 40lbs heavier.

Second, your body has become more efficient.  Two miles used to wipe you out: you were sweating and exhausted at the end. Now you feel energized and invigorated by a two mile walk.  The solution? Cut a few more calories (leave the top piece of bread off your sandwich, maybe?) and add a few more miles to your daily walk. Change it up: add pool walking once a week, or an exercise bike for half an hour.  Doing a different kind of exercise will feel hard and use different muscles, thus increasing your calorie expenditure.


If you put your $10 away for 10 years and then start drawing money out of your account little by little, what happens? Your balance dwindles. It’s math.  Losing weight is a lot of math, too: energy out must be greater than energy (food) in if you want to lose weight.

But if you want to live a longer, fuller, healthier, happier life, a brisk 30 minute walk every day should do the trick.

Click to read more on the other benefits of exercise, or what you can do to decrease your risk of diabetes.  Next month I’ll post on sleep: more than zzzzs.

The OTHER Benefits of Exercise

Our health clinic started participating in Walk with a Doc, a national volunteer program in which a doctor (or other health care provider) meets at a park on a weekend to give a free informational talk and to spend time walking with people from the community.  (All the better if her own patients show up, too!)  We started in the autumn, and I’ve given a few talks that I thought I would share here, too.  This month: The Other Benefits of Exercise.  Next month I’ll share about a little bit about diabetes and how to prevent it, and in August I’ll share my talk on Exercise: how much is “enough”?


Cousins getting exercise in 2013.

The OTHER Benefits of Exercise

We’ve all heard about how exercise can help with heart health, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and weight loss.  Exercise can decrease your risk of cancer.  But even in a healthy person, exercise – whether it’s a daily walk, a run, a swim, or a yoga class—provides a myriad of benefits.

  1. Bone strength.  Weight bearing exercise (walking, running, soccer, basketball, volleyball, Zumba, dancing…) helps prevent age-related bone loss.  Even before menopause, weight-bearing exercise adds to the strength of our bones, so that when we start losing bone mass, we’re starting our downhill roll from higher on the hill.
  2. Improved sleep.  Exercise (especially in the mid- to late afternoon) raises the body temperature, which can improve sleep at night.  If you sleep poorly and have a hard time waking up in the morning, a thirty-minute morning work-out can be enough to reset your body’s clock.  This is true for those suffering for jet-lag, too.
  3. Prevention of dementia.  Aerobic exercise increases blow flow to all parts of the body, including the brain.
  4. Self-esteem.  Whether it’s the happy-inducing effect of checking something off their to-do lists, or the endorphins secreted when they exercise, people feel better about themselves after they exercise.


  1. Better sex. When we’re feeling good about our bodies, we feel more attractive.  Physically, the increased blood flow associated with exercise improves arousal in women.  Men who have healthy hearts have a lower incidence of erectile dysfunction.  Exercise can improve your endurance, flexibility, and strength, all of which… well, you get the idea.
  2. Improved joint function, especially in the setting of osteoarthritis.  We all grew up hearing about how running would ruin your knees, but studies don’t support this myth.  Instead, we know that running decreases your risk of needing a hip replacement by 50%.  Walking decreased the risk of hip replacement by 16%.  It makes sense logically that strengthening all the muscles around the knee will take some of the stress off the joint itself, but in this case we think the benefit of running and walking is mediated by the decrease in obesity among runners and brisk walkers.
  3. Reducing stress and depression.  Studies in women (though the results probably hold true in men, too) have shown that depression changes not just the function but the structure of the brain.  Exercise can prevent these changes and is part of a treatment plan for depression.  Building exercise into your daily plan for stress management decreases your risk of becoming depressed.
  4. Addiction treatment.  Studies show that aerobic exercise helps decrease recidivism in those recovering from addiction.  True, we might be substituting one high for another, but it’s unusual for an addition to a daily workout to destroy a family or cause someone to lose a job.

The Run that Nearly Wasn’t

I almost didn’t get a run.  With the light changing, it’s too dark to run before the kids are awake, and I was counting on a run in the afternoon, while Owen had cross-country.
Are these flip-flops if they don’t have the thong between the toes?

Owen put on his shoes, and I put on my running clothes.  The girls planned to play at the park, where there are dancing waters, so they put on swimsuits.  Jonah’s plan was to “run around” so he wore flip-flops too.  The sky looked dark, but I was desperate, and if we got rained out halfway through, it would still have been 30 minutes.

I had all of dinner’s ingredients prepped and set out by the recipe for Sam to make if he made it back before we did.


So we were halfway to practice  when the lightning started.  Big, scary, close lightning.  A minute later my phone rang: it was the coach, [wisely] canceling practice.

Okay, regroup. I told the kids we would go to the rec center instead.  The boys could run on the track with me, while the girls did a little rock climbing.  (I know, it would have made sense to have the swim since they were wearing their swimsuits but I would have had to go with them to supervise.  So that was out.)

That was when everyone said, “But I don’t have the right shoes!”  So we drove home to get shoes.  After half an hour of to-and-froing, we pulled into the rec center parking lot.  SweetP then said she couldn’t get her shoe untied… after sitting with it on her lap for fifteen minutes.

Straw + camel = another $20 I need to put into my daughter’s therapy fund.


Once we made it inside, though, we had a grand time.  Girls climbed (though we discovered that rock climbing harnesses are no fun on top of swimsuits) and boys ran.


Eventually SweetP joined us on the track.  I only ran a mile, but it was a mile I so desperately needed.  And what a joy it was to exercise together– the track made it feasible to run together at our own paces.  I’ve never run on a track before, but I’d have to say for what it was, today was a success.


She seriously ran 3 laps without stopping.  Fast!  (She must get that from Sam, cause she sure doesn’t get it from me!)

What was the latest straw to your camel?  And how did you put the hump back in place?

Summer Plans: Part 2

When we proposed a reading plan, O mentioned that he’s not a reader (exactly the point of the summer reading program!) and that he’d like an exercise club.  Hence, we formed the Family Exercise Club.

Like our summer reading program, we have multiple goals in mind.  As a family, we’d like to foster a culture of physical activity.  Some of that is daily exercise for health reasons, but I’d also love my children to find a sport that they can do for the love of it.  So I’m hoping we can try out some different sports.  (We’ll see how that goes.)
I gave each child a step counter, and I’d like them to record their daily steps (goal: 10,000.)  We will keep track of the days we did significant exercise (either laps around the park, or playing soccer, or swim team, etc., or achieving 10,000 steps in a day) and have prizes for different levels.  So far the step counters are a huge hit.  Even SweetP, who can’t read the numbers consistently, keeps showing it to me to ask how much she’s done.

Like the summer reading program, there’s a fine line between rewarding effort toward a goal and turning my children into legalistic automatons.  (I’m hoping this fosters the former.)

But I also wanted to recognize O’s valid point, that he has different passions than his brother does, and they are worthwhile and good.  And just as we can all learn something from a good book, we can also learn a lot about ourselves from physical exertion and setting goals.

Are you setting exercise goals for the summer?  How do you foster a healthy love of exercise in your children?