In the third stage of my 4 Pillar Plan , I explain how regular little bursts of activity could be better for you than a tough workout
We’re designed to be active, yet modern life sees us sitting for hours on our commute before chaining us to a desk for another eight. Physical inactivity is one of the biggest causes of premature death – according to the World Health Organization it’s a greater health risk than being overweight or obese.
Unfortunately, studies have found that we simply can’t undo the damage that prolonged sitting does to us by going to a spinning or gym class for 45 minutes after work.
But there’s good news, too. A 2017 study by researchers in the Netherlands found that breaking up all that sitting with light activities throughout the day had significant improvements on blood glucose levels, over and beyond the kind of structured exercise programme we’d get at the gym.
The answer is to sit less, and stop thinking about exercise as a “chore” done at specific times of the day, in special clothes (often at a particular place that charges us lots of money to do it). Move more during the day, throughout the day, every day and weight loss will be a natural side-effect.
All five of the following interventions will improve your health but if I had to prioritise just one to get you started, it would be the first.
1 Walk at least 10,000 steps per day
I’m the first to admit that walking 10,000 steps a day is a completely arbitrary goal. It’s also true that you can’t outwalk a bad diet – if you’re eating the wrong things, no amount of strolling can reverse the damage you’re doing to yourself – but it’s a good simple rule to set us in the right direction.
I know that 10,000 sounds like an awful lot of steps, but it’s less than you might think; 1,000 steps is only about 10 minutes on your feet. Make it a rule that you never sit down for more than one hour at a time. Put a reminder on your computer or get your Fitbit to buzz you every 60 minutes and, if you haven’t stood up, go to the drinks machine or to the loo. A bonus tip would be to do as much of your walking as possible in the morning, as exposure to natural light helps set your body’s daily, circadian rhythm. One recent study found that exposure to bright morning light correlates with a lower body weight.
2 Do a form of strength training twice a week
Muscle is the forgotten organ: helping to regulate our hormones, increase our potential to make energy, make us less likely to develop type-2 diabetes and reduce inflammation – a key driver of almost every single modern disease we have.
Above the age of 30, if we’re physically inactive we lose up to three to five per cent of our muscle mass every decade. Between the ages of 50 and 60, muscle power declines by around three per cent each year. This can become an extremely serious problem, known as “sarcopenia”, as loss of muscle mass is a strong predictor of late-life mortality.
The best way to reverse it is regular strength-training, so I created a quick kitchen workout to help my patients fit it in around their busy lives. To begin with, aim to do this workout twice a week. The secret is to start slowly and build up.
3 Do a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) twice a week
One recent study found that an 11-minute HIIT workout gives as much benefit as one hour of continuous activity. It’s great for weight loss and especially good at getting rid of dangerous visceral fat around the organs. The very latest research from the Mayo Clinic even hints that it might reverse ageing at the cellular level.
There are a lot of different versions of HIIT, but think of it as any period of high-intensity movement followed by a period of low-intensity movement, which forces your body to adapt.
If you like going to the gym, jump on a treadmill and do 40 seconds at 12km per hour (or whatever pace feels very hard to you). Then, for 80 seconds, go at a much easier 4km per hour.
Doing it in bursts gives you much more benefit, so repeat three to five times.
You don’t need a gym membership or fancy clothes, though: how about doing 10 burpees, 10 star jumps and 10 side lunges sequentially in your living room for 40 seconds? Spend the next 80 seconds walking around slowly and then repeat five times.
4 Make a habit of exercise snacking
Make a habit of doing three or four “movement snacks” five days a week. For me, the kitchen has always been a fantastic place to indulge in a quick movement snack. I do 20 squats with my kids in the time it takes for spinach to steam. You could take two bottles of olive oil and lift them up over your head and to the sides, hop on each leg for 30 seconds or even simply jump from side to side.
The point is to get your heart pumping three or four times a day. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that small bursts of movement like these won’t have much effect, but it’s these little things you do every day that translate into the big health outcomes.
5 Do daily glute exercises to help warm them up
We usually think of our bottoms as something to sit on, but our glutes – our buttock muscles – are actually one of the most important muscles in the body and, if they’re off, there can be knock-on effects for many others. Whenever we stand up, we’re supposed to be using our glutes. Most of us don’t.
In fact, modern life creates an environment where our brains bypass the glutes. It’s easier to use other muscles instead, therefore, they have gone to sleep.
A lot of back pain is actually caused by having sleepy backsides. I know first-hand how important these muscles are, having suffered severe back pain for 10 years, which affected my work, my social life and my family life. After years of looking for solutions, I found four exercises that put your body in a position where the only option available to your brain is to switch on your glutes.
They completely eliminated my pain – now I do them every morning whilst my coffee is brewing, and use them with my patients to great success.
Visit my website, drchatterjee.com to watch videos where I walk you through each of the exercises.
Note: If you have any concerns whatsoever about performing any of the suggested movements in this pillar, you should consult a healthcare professional beforehand.
Tomorrow: Sleep your way to a healthier life
Adapted from The 4 Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, published by Penguin Life (£16.99). To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk