Two years of non-stop pandemic lock downs played havoc with fitness routines. From complete prohibition on outdoor activities to closure of gyms, playgrounds and rec centers to the end of recreational sports, what was a person to do? Walk. Luckily I love walking. I wore out 3 pairs of shoes. Long daily walks are now my regular routine.
We’re built to walk. Or should I say we’ve evolved to walk. I recently read First Steps, a book about the How and Why of upright walking. There’s a lot of discussion about bones and anthropology and how our various ancestors walked on two feet. Most fascinating for me was a discussion of the metabolic impact of walking. We’re encouraged to walk to burn calories for weight management. But the calorie burning part of exercise may be less important for health than the metabolites produced by exercising muscles. Myokines, for example, can exert a beneficial effect on fat tissue metabolism, liver function and glucose control. This helps explain the overall negative effect of a sedentary lifestyle on health. Muscles that don’t move don’t produce those beneficial metabolites.
Move it or lose it
As we age we lose muscle mass; that decline is more rapid if you don’t move your muscles. Muscles that aren’t challenged to work will deteriorate. So a sedentary lifestyle also leads to loss of muscle mass and loss of fitness. Your stamina for activity decreases, so you do less activity and your fitness decreases even more. It’s a downward spiral. The only solution is to stay physically active and keep moving.
Modern life conspires against activity. Most of modern life involves sitting, so you have to plan, make time and schedule exercise. Depending on where you live, walking and biking might be easiest to incorporate into daily life as transportation. Instead of making exercise a separate activity, it’s part of your normal day. With gasoline prices skyrocketing, walking or biking might start to look like an attractive alternative for running errands.
Another benefit of outdoor activities is that you’re outdoors. A new study came to the rather obvious conclusion that spending more time outdoors during the pandemic lock down was good for mental health. Walking is usually done outdoors, so it’s a Win-Win situation: better mental health and better physical health.
The Outdoors is for Every BodyL.L.Bean marketing slogan
I’m not promoting a particular company. I’m just agreeing with and attributing the concept. Exercise isn’t exclusively for thin, fit young people wearing special exercise clothes. Everybody, every body shape and size, at every age wearing simple comfortable clothes can take advantage of the benefits of physical activity, even if it’s simply walking.
Still need more motivation?
There’s research that suggests exercise is more important than nutrition for health. For example, a recent study measured minutes of physical activity per day for almost 5000 people who wore step trackers. At follow up 10 years later, the researchers found that deaths among study participants varied according to the number of minutes of daily physical activity. Subjects with the most minutes of activity per day had lower death rates compared to subjects who were least active.
Not that you should ditch healthy eating, but the message is this: any healthy lifestyle plan must include physical activity of some kind.
When it comes to weaving exercise into your daily life, there are plenty of road blocks. Time, location and weather may be the biggest barriers. If you work full time, time can be your biggest problem unless your employment location enables exercise with outdoor paths, a gym or exercise classes. Even if you’re retired or working a flexible schedule from home, you will have to strategize and plan physical activity into your day.
Physical activity is essential for health and for healthy aging. We’re built to walk. Walking is simple and effective. You don’t need fancy clothes or equipment. But there are plenty of other activities to choose from. Identify the ones you enjoy, that can be integrated into your life without a lot of hassle. Be flexible but be persistent.