Recent research sheds light on some common misperceptions we might have about exercise—and some facts that can help us design our own optimal exercise plan.

Myth #1: Exercise only benefits the body.

Exercise benefits our hearts, muscles and bones, and reduces the risk of an array of health problems, from diabetes to kidney disease to arthritis. But many people are unaware that another very important organ—the brain—is also damaged by inactivity. You’ve probably read about “brain fitness games” and special computer programs to build up the mind and memory. But exercising our muscles is just if not more important when it comes to protecting brain health. Physical exercise strengthens connections in the brain and lessens the damaging effects of stress and depression. It also slows the shrinkage of the brain that happens as we grow older. Experts say activities that simultaneously engage both mind and body may be especially beneficial. Tennis or square dancing, anyone?

Myth #2: There’s a one-size-fits-all fitness routine.

With very few exceptions, everyone can benefit from adding more physical activity to their lives. But the appropriate type and intensity of exercise varies from individual to individual, depending on age, physical condition and other factors. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to be in good shape. No matter what the intensity level of your workout, it should include aerobic, strengthening and flexibility components, as well as exercises that improve balance. Bicycling, dancing, walking the dog, working out on adaptive equipment at the gym, chair exercises, even playing active video games can all provide a good workout. Ask your doctor about an exercise “prescription” that best meets your needs.

Myth #3: Running is better exercise than walking.

The American Heart Association reported that moderately paced walking can be just as effective as running for reducing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the risk for diabetes and heart disease. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California examined the data from the National Runners’ Health Study, which collected information on 33,000 runners and 16,000 walkers over the course of six years. The study compared the benefits by the distance people covered, not by the amount of time the workout took, and found that whether people walk or run, they gain similar health benefits over the same distance. Said principal author Dr. Paul T. Williams, “The more the runners ran and the more the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits. If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable.”

Myth #4: Exercise must be scheduled and structured.

Sporadic, occasional activities like a hike every couple of weeks don’t provide the same benefit as regular, frequent exercise. However, recent research suggests that your daily exercise goals needn’t be achieved during a single time period, nor do you need a strict routine. Oregon State University researchers reported that small amounts of activity—even as small as one- and two-minute increments that add up to 30 minutes per day—can be just as beneficial as longer bouts of activity in the gym. OSU professor Brad Cardinal says, “We are designed by nature as beings who are supposed to move. In our society, you will always be presented with things that entice you to sit or be less active because of technology, like using a leaf blower instead of a rake. Making physical activity a way of life is more cost-effective than an expensive gym membership. You may be more likely to stick with it, and over the long term, you’ll be healthier, more mobile and just feel better all around.” Look for small ways to be more active: instead of driving half a mile, try biking or walking the same distance; instead of using a riding lawn mower, use a push mower; instead of sitting through TV commercials, use the time to do some sit-ups or jumping jacks; and when you’re talking on the phone, walk around rather than sitting.

Myth #5: The baby boomers are the most physically fit generation ever.

The baby boomers, that large group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, have a reputation as being very fitness-conscious. The stereotype boomer goes running every day, works out at the gym, and has a personal trainer. Yet contrary to this image, recent research suggests that the boomers are actually in worse shape than their parents, with a higher rate of poor health and disabilities. What is responsible for this startling trend? Only 18 percent of boomers get the recommended daily amount of exercise. Many sit at a desk for eight hours or more. Once they’re off work, their leisure hours are often spent engaged with a variety of tempting—but sedentary—electronic entertainments. Despite their image of active senior living, the boomers shouldn’t rest on their laurels—or their recliners. Follow a regular exercise program in addition to making time for small amounts of activity throughout the day.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners.

The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that’s right for you.

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