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Fitness: Taking the first step toward instituting a healthy habit

In the push to get more people active, we can be guilty of overthinking exercise.

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If your vow to get moving never reaches the action stage, here’s a reminder that it doesn’t take a lot of sweat to reap the benefits of regular exercise. And in case you need a heavy dose of motivation, the benefits of regular exercise are huge.

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Anyone who chooses a good sweat instead of the couch halves their risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity as well as lowering the probability of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety.

Getting started can be hard, but according to a team of exercise scientists from the University of Ferrara in Italy, once a habit is formed it’s hard to break — even for those who were exercise-averse. The researchers followed up with 110 formerly sedentary individuals seven years after they participated in a year-long instructor-led walking group sponsored by public health. The goal was not only to see how many of the group were still active, but also to confirm any health benefits they had accrued since starting to exercise.

The original 12-month program included 650 participants, 326 of whom were still walking at the end of the year-long study. Four months after that, 258 were exercising regularly despite the lack of scheduled instructor-led sessions. Seven years post intervention, the researchers were able to connect with 63 women and 47 men of the original walking group, all of whom agreed to undergo the same physiological tests they took seven years before, including measuring their weight, body mass index, blood pressure and walking speed.

The average age of the walkers in the follow-up study was 61. Fifty-nine per cent of them still met the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week (the group averaged 286 minutes of exercise per week). Eleven individuals were sedentary and the rest performed fewer than 150 minutes of exercise per week. Yet despite the difference in weekly exercise volume, the average weight of the active and less-active groups was less than it was before starting the walking program. The sedentary/low activity group had higher BMI than the more active group. Ten of the walkers who had been obese lost enough weight they were classified as being overweight.

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“This could indicate that even a low level of physical activity tends to keep weight under control,” the researchers said.

Another lasting effect of the exercise program is that walking speed, a marker of health and longevity, increased in both the active and less active group, though the more regular exercisers were faster walkers. This is a significant win, as age and excess weight can negatively affect gait and walking speed. But beyond the physiological wins, the walkers established a healthy habit that showed little evidence of waning.

Another take-home from the study is a reminder that something as simple as an instructor-led walking program can have a lasting effect.

Getting people off the couch isn’t easy. They often lack confidence in their ability to maintain any type of sustained physical activity, not to mention the presence of other common barriers to exercise like lack of time, accessibility and affordability. Success often means finding an activity that offers a gentle introduction to exercise without demanding a significant financial or time investment. Scheduled, instructor-led walks add a level of accountability and structure for novices trying to establish an exercise habit. The results of the original intervention led the researchers to champion other walking programs, which are easy to establish.

“Since walking groups are effective and safe, with good adherence and wide-ranging health benefits, they should be adopted as part of public health policy,” the researchers said.

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In the push to get more people active, we can be guilty of overthinking exercise. Something as simple as a daily brisk walk has a myriad of mental and physical health benefits. There can be a social component to the workout, since it’s easy to walk with a friend or group of friends. Walking is a gateway to other, more active pursuits. As endurance and confidence builds, activities that once seemed out of reach become possible. Walks can scale up to bike rides, yoga and swimming.

It all starts with the first step.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to impress anyone with your step count. A 15- or 20-minute route is perfect for the first few weeks. Once you’ve got that mastered, add an extra five minutes every week. Walk as many days of the week as possible, finding a window of time you can consistently schedule without fear of too many disruptions. Ask a friend to accompany you or plug in your favourite audiobook or podcast. And remember: consistency is more important than distance or speed, so pull on a pair of comfortable shoes and get walking.

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