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Why not all workouts have to feel like boot-camp torture

CrossFit, high-intensity interval training, marathons and (ahem!) ultramarathons. I’m convinced that if someone were to create a time capsule for today’s most popular workouts, the people of the future would assume we’re all preparing for war — or that we’re crazy, twisted masochists.

Quite possibly both.

In the world of harder, faster, stronger, ever-more-brutal and bone-crushing fitness routines, it becomes easy to downplay and even scoff at the validity of low- to moderate-intensity exercise. Which is sad, because really you don’t need to get electrically shocked while crawling through cold mud (it’s a thing!) to improve your health.

The idea that you might have to is actually pretty absurd, and the science of exercise combats the notion altogether. In fact, the guidelines for health-related fitness published by the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest a total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.
That’s walking, folks. Walking. Or yoga, yard work, swimming, a family bike ride. Not 48-inch plyometric box jumps, 100-yard sprints wearing a weighted vest or a 100-burpee challenge. As long as we’re just talking about health-related fitness (not sports-related fitness, which does require more specific training), mild to moderate exercise is king.

The physical and mental benefits of mild exercise

If everyone just followed the basic guidelines for health-related fitness (150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise that also incorporates some form of strength training, balance training and flexibility training — think barre, yoga or lower-intensity circuit training), we’d all be a lot better off. This level of exercise is associated with improved cardiovascular, muscular, joint and neuromotor health. It’s the level of exercise that can help preserve your range of motion as you age, prevent heart disease and diabetes, maintain bone health, reduce the likelihood of life-altering falls and prevent weight gain.

Pretty great, right? But even if you don’t meet the 150-minute guideline, sticking to any exercise routine can offer significant health benefits. Amanda Dale, certified personal trainer and wellness coach, points to three studies as just a small piece of the growing body of evidence:

  • An April 2014 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that three, 30-minute walks a week resulted in improvements in body composition and VO2 max (a measure of cardiorespiratory function).
  • A 2014 investigation published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that just 15 minutes of walking a day resulted in a 25 percent decreased incidence of death from ischemic heart disease.
  • A 2012 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that pregnant women who maintained a consistent, moderate-intensity exercise program through their second and third trimesters experienced a 12 percent reduction in maternal weight gain and also reduced the adverse outcomes of gestational diabetes.

To boil these results down, Dale states, “Taken together, these studies suggest that it is neither quality nor quantity of exercise that truly matters — rather, it is the consistency with which one performs their chosen exercise that makes the greatest difference to lifelong health.”

It’s not just physical benefits that mild exercise delivers. It’s also mental and emotional benefits. For instance, a 2013 meta-analysis of multiple studies published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports investigated the relationship between exercise and the reduction of symptoms in individuals with depression. The results were impressive and “showed a significant large overall effect favoring exercise intervention.” In other words, moderate exercise can help improve symptoms of depression.

But pointing to specific studies actually feels limiting — there is such an overwhelming body of evidence that supports the positive impact that exercise plays on mind, body and soul. In point of fact, there’s evidence that just five minutes of outdoor exercise (gardening, walking in a park, cycling) can boost self-esteem; that overweight teens engaged in mild exercise see improvements in self-perceived social and scholastic competence; that a holistic exercise program incorporating elements of yoga and tai chi can improve quality of life for dementia patients; and that moderate exercise can reduce cravings in cigarette smokers trying to quit.

More: Best energy-boosting fitness routines

The individuals in these studies aren’t battling it out at CrossFit or killing themselves in SoulCycle — they’re just making an effort to incorporate some form of exercise into their daily routines.

What mild exercise looks like

On a day-to-day basis, a mild exercise program that meets the 150-minute guideline for physical activity might look something like this:

  • Monday: 30-minute family walk or a bike ride with a friend
  • Tuesday: 15 minutes of strength training (a full-body bodyweight circuit is perfect), plus 15 minutes of yoga or stretching
  • Wednesday: 30-minute swim
  • Thursday: 15 minutes of strength training (full-body bodyweight circuit), plus 15 minutes of yoga, Pilates or barre
  • Friday: 30 minutes of gardening, yard work or outdoor play with your kids

One thing to note about all of these activities is that they’re low impact. According to Heather Peterson, CorePower Yoga’s senior vice president of programming, this designation is one of the key benefits of lower-intensity exercise. “It’s great for long-term safety of the joints, protecting the joint capsules and adding lubrication. Let’s face it, getting great exercise that doesn’t ‘wear’ on your joints is the smartest longevity investment you can make.”

It’s also important to point out that flexibility training is a key component of any exercise program, and that minutes spent stretching count as minutes of exercise — just because you’re not huffing and puffing doesn’t mean you’re not boosting your health. Shalisa Pouw, a senior master trainer and studio owner for Pure Barre puts it this way, “Stretching gets the blood flowing and brings the necessary nutrients to your muscles to help them recover, helping you feel a little less sore. It also ensures that you’re increasing flexibility, releasing tight muscles and joints and moving through your day with a little more ease and energy.”

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