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This is the first in a series devoted to the topic of exercise–and how exercise best fits into a whole food plant-based lifestyle.

We live in a technologically advanced world with its shopping malls, washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, cars, and smartphones. And of course computers of all shapes and sizes.

Today, sophisticated tools make it possible to live our entire lives sitting in a chair. We can work from that chair. Connect with others. Even pay our bills!

The possibilities of a virtual life are beautiful–except when it comes to our bodies.

Because we need physical activity to live a long, healthful and happy life.

And yet the subject of exercise has its share of controversies.

Like food, there are endless theories and myths about what you should (or should not) do.

So the purpose of this article–and the series to follow–is to clarify the misinformation so that we can all design the healthiest lifestyle possible.

Let’s Start With Definitions…

Many people use the words ‘exercise’ and ‘physical activity’ interchangeably.

But they are not exactly the same thing.

Physical activity is “defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure (measured in kilocalories)”.

In other words, physical activity is the general level of movement you achieve in any given day, and it may include occupational, sports, conditioning, household, or other activities.

A physically active person may walk or bike to work, enjoy hiking on the weekends and play softball or dance twice a week. Any physical movement ‘counts’ in the sense it contributes greatly to a well-rounded healthful lifestyle.

Exercise is “a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive and has as a final or an intermediate objective the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness (viewed as a set of attributes that are either health- or skill-related)”.

While both require movement, exercise is very specific; it involves adjustments in duration, frequency and intensity for the purpose of increasing physical fitness.

Physical Activity Is WAY More Important Than Going to the Gym

Research has clearly shown that focusing on our overall daily level of physical activity is far more important than obsessing about going to the gym.

National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner expanded on the demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who first described Sardinia, Italy, as the region with the highest concentration of male centenarians.  He examined additional longevity hotspots or ‘Blue Zones’ in the world, where people reach age 100 at 10 times the average rate.  Besides Sardinia, these Blue Zones include Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (California, USA).

What Buettner observed is these people shared certain lifestyle characteristics including family coherence, avoidance of smoking, plant-slant diet, moderate and daily physical activity, and social engagement, where people of all ages are socially active and integrated into the community.”  

Interestingly, Buettner and others have noticed that while centenarians lead active lifestyles, they do not necessarily ‘go to the gym’. From walking everywhere (between five and six miles per day), engaging in chores and home maintenance projects, enjoying physical activities like gardening, or playing with pets and grandchildren, being active in the Blue Zone is simply a natural way of life.

The Benefits of Being Active…

Of course, the benefits of physical activity are not specific to the elderly–they apply to all of us!

Few lifestyle choices have as large an impact on lifespan as physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that people who are physically active for just 7 hours per week have a 40% lower risk of early death than those who are active for less than 30 minutes per week.

Physically active people have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, cancer, and premature death.

A review of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials comparing the effectiveness of drugs and exercise showed that exercise seemed to be as effective as many frequently prescribed drugs in treating some of the leading causes of death, i.e. heart disease, chronic heart failure, stroke and diabetes.

Physical activity is so critical to health that not walking an hour a day is considered a high-risk behavior (along with smoking, excess drinking and obesity).

So How Much Physical Activity Do We Really Need?

The short answer is not a lot.

The current recommendation is a minimum of a thousand calories of exercise a week – the equivalent of walking one hour a day, five days a week.

An hour a day commitment may seem somewhat daunting to you. But here is the good news: you do not have to do it all at once! You can break up the hour into 15-minute walks throughout the day. Walk in the morning, before and after lunch and in the evening.

Let’s Put Physical Activity in Perspective…

Despite its great and important benefits, we still need to put the benefits of physical activity in perspective.

Many consider physical inactivity to be ‘the biggest health problem of the 21st century’.

Statements like ‘sitting is the new smoking’ suggest that if we just exercised more, everything would be okay. This is not entirely accurate.

In fact, physical inactivity ranks only fifth in terms of risk factors for death and sixth in terms of risk factors for disability.

An unhealthful diet is by far our biggest killer.

Yes, being physically active is really important. However, it is not a panacea for all health ills.

If you exercise and still eat poorly (or smoke), being healthy over the long-term will prove to be challenging.

Follow the 4 Pillars of Health

Physical activity alone is not an adequate health ‘insurance policy’; it must be part of an entire lifestyle, which includes the following health ‘must haves’.

  1. No Smoking. A lethal killer, cigarettes have no place in any healthful lifestyle. Quitting smoking should be Number One on your list to get healthy.
  2. Frequent Movement. Avoid long stretches of inactivity. Integrate regular enjoyable physical activity into your day to ensure the muscles move and the circulation flows.
  3. Plant-Based Eating. A diet of primarily fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains will add energy to your day and years to your life (especially beans!).
  4. Stress Management. Stress kills. Regular meditation, journaling, breathing exercises and creative activities are all helpful relaxation tools and ideally should be used daily.

Combining a healthful diet and stress management with regular physical activity is the best way to achieve optimal health.

Start by taking baby steps. For example, add 15-30 minutes of walking per day for the first week. Then gradually increase your physical activity in following weeks, incorporating standing more at work, walking to nearby locations rather than driving, or joining a group activity that you enjoy.

Before you know it, you will be exceeding the recommended hour per day activity level without even realizing you are ‘exercising’.

And your body and mind will definitely thank you for it.

Up Next…

We will be covering several topics around exercise in the coming weeks including: how physical activity increases longevity, the difference between walking and running, how exercise and diet interact, what to do if you have a desk job, and whether or not to rely on exercise as a weight control tool.

Through these series, we will explore these issues (and answer your questions) as best as we can.

Let’s crack the exercise code together!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.