Why Less Exercise Means Better Health: A HealthCentral Explainer

SSuchy Editor
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    Let’s start by stating the obvious: An active lifestyle is better than a sedentary one, and exercise, no matter how you do it or how often you do it, is good for you. To put some authority behind this statement, a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine said, “regardless of body weight…an increased level of exercise increases health.”


    Exercise is good for you.


    If a little is good, more is better


    We apply this kind of logic to just about every area of our health. If a little bit of vitamin C is good, a massive dose must be better (not true); if celery is good, several stalks per day must be better (maybe, but that will get very boring very quickly); if exercise is good, then surely it must be to our advantage to do it as often and as intensely as we can. Right?

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    Not quite. A study from researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham found that while exercise is indeed very good and necessary to health, exercise every day may have some unexpected drawbacks.


    More formal exercise, less overall activity


    The study assigned 72 women ages 60 to 74 to one of three different groups. The first group was assigned to one cardio workout and one weightlifting workout per week. The second group did two cardio workouts and two weightlifting workouts per week. The third group did three cardio workouts and three weightlifting workouts per week.


    You would probably assume that the group that exercised the most came out of the four-month exercise program with the most weight loss, the best physical endurance and the best overall health.  But that did not happen.


    Instead, the women in each group lost about the same amount of weight and made similar gains in fitness and endurance, regardless of how often they exercised.


    The women who worked out four times per week—two cardio, two weightlifting—gained the most benefit.  Not only were they more physically fit than when they started, they also burned more calories throughout the day in addition to the calories they burned during formal exercise--about 225 more calories per day to be exact.


    The women who worked out twice per week burned an additional 100 calories per day on top of the calories they burned during exercise.


    But here’s the surprising part: the women who were assigned to work out six times per week actually burned 200 fewer calories throughout the day than they did at the start of the study. 




    It turns out that the women who worked out fewer times per week made more healthy decisions throughout the day. For example, they often walked up stairs instead of taking the elevator, or ate a healthy snack rather than an unhealthy one. Those little decisions in addition to the formal workouts added up to more calories burned throughout the day.


    The women who were working out almost every day, however, felt that they devoted enough time to exercise and were less likely to seek out other ways to be active.  


    The case for an active life


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    A study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands saw a similar phenomenon.


    The study divided 18 normal weight men and women into one of three groups: one group was completely sedentary throughout the day, one group was mostly sedentary, except for one high-intensity 60-minute workout, and the last group was moderately active by walking or standing for four to six hours each day,  but it did no formalized, intense workout.


    The results? The group that was moderately active throughout the day had much healthier blood lipid levels and better insulin sensitivity. 


    Translated to real world circumstances, this study means that a waitress who spends most of her day on her feet is probably healthier than an office worker who is in front of a computer all day except for the hour or so she spends in the gym.


    Get up, get moving


    What these studies ultimately reveal is that you need not be a gym rat to be reasonably healthy.  In fact, a day spent moderately active is better for you than a sedentary lifestyle with short bursts of activity throughout the day. 




    New England Journal of Medicine, Myths, Facts and Presumptions About Obesity. (January 2013).


    Pub Med.gov, Combined Aerobic/Strength Training and Energy Expenditure in Older Women. (January, 2013).


    Public Library of Science (2013, February 13). Long, low intensity exercise may have more health benefits relative to short, intense workouts. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130213173127.htm

Published On: February 21, 2013