Exercise: The Good & Bad News

We have written often about the value of exercise. In fact, there are three proven ways for each of us to improve our health and healthy aging: exercise, proper diet, and regular medical checkups to find any diseases. All three of these are up to us. A number of recent scientific papers have been published in the past year looking at the effect of exercise on healthy aging and the news is good and bad, depending on one’s view of exercise.

The Good News

All of the new information supports the many previous studies that show benefit to exercise. Papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, Circulation (the journal of the American Heart Association), and Biomedical Research International have all reported healthful results of exercise. In general, what has been reported is that the more exercise one does the better the benefit in reducing death, stroke, heart attacks, and dementias. This is good news since it is something we can do to prolong a healthier life. Further good news is that city planners and transportation agencies are encouraging cycling and putting bus stops further apart to encourage exercise. (Charleston City Council did a wise thing in approving the Ashley River Bridge bicycle lane!)

The Bad News

The bad news, if one dislikes exercise, is that the World Health Organization, the U.S. Government, and the American Heart Association have not recommended enough exercise to overcome the sedentary trends in our work and in the elderly in retirement. Most publications (including in this column) have stated that 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five days a week is adequate. The new studies reveal that 150 minutes a week is not enough to get maximum benefit. In fact, the newest information, published in the July issue of England’s prestigious Lancet medical journal, show that to overcome the typical sedentary lifestyle most of us have, we should exercise vigorously an hour a day. This comes as bad news for those who have felt good about 30 minutes of mild exercise (like walking) five days a week – sorry!

So What Is a Person to Do?

The bulk of the new and old data show that there are two important variables at play in this discussion. First, is what we do most of the day. If we are active, moving around, and not sitting around then we are not as sedentary and therefore not as at risk for bad health or mortality. The more sedentary our existence is then the higher our risk for diseases such as some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. There is interesting new information that links watching three or more hours of television with worse health outcomes – not because TV causes diseases, but because one sits in one place and often is putting something in one’s mouth of a liquid or food nature that does not promote health. However, if one is doing many different activities and not seated at a desk or on a couch for long periods of time then one’s risk decreases.

Exercise is the second variable and is generally defined as vigorous or light to moderate. Exercise is like many medicines – too little does no good, but the correct dose is just what one needs. And, too much can be bad. The newly recommended “proper dose” of exercise is a daily dose of 60 minutes or more of a mixture of moderate and vigorous exercise, understanding that the more vigorous the better. Vigorous exercise is defined as anything that makes you breathe more often and deeply and increases heart rate. Vigorous exercise should cause us to sweat. The table shows exercises in the moderate and vigorous categories.


  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Fast bike riding or on an incline
  • Singles tennis
  • Pushing a push mower
  • Playing basketball
  • Walking up flights of stairs

Light to Moderate

  • Walking fast
  • Water aerobics
  • Biking on flat terrain
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Pushing a power mower
  • Walking the golf course

Finally, it is important to note that the exercise does not have to come all at one time – the exercise can be spread out, say in four 15-minute segments during the day. In other words, one does not have to spend an hour a day at a time to get to the hour of exercise.

The Bottom Line

Exercise is good medicine and so is an active lifestyle. The more active one is the less exercise one must have to counter the sedentary existence we tend to choose as we age. The next time you have an urge to watch the news – go for a walk: it will make you feel better and it is better for you!