The lazy person’s guide to getting (a bit) fitter

Kate Carter
As soon as it becomes habitual, you won’t even consider it exercise. Photograph: Holly Harris/Getty Images

The trouble with health warnings – the latest of which comes from the British Heart Foundation, suggesting that 20 million couch potatoes are risking an early death – is that they seem so abstract. How do you go from knowing you should exercise more, to actually doing it? Especially when you still have flashbacks to school sports day humiliation, or worry that the solitary pair of shorts in your wardrobe may no longer fit.

1 Walk more

Just get off your bum and on your feet. It sounds obvious, but research shows that walking can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and more. As soon as it becomes habitual, you won’t even consider it as exercise – just try and do at least 30 minutes a day. Get off the bus early and catch up with a podcast or immerse yourself in an audiobook and time will pass much quicker. If you hate walking alone, Walking for Health has an online group finder.

Running packs in a lot of exercise in a short time. Photograph: Ryan Edy/Getty Images

2 Do it in intervals

Sometimes people feel they need to set aside hours to feel the benefits of exercise. But scientists have long extolled the virtues of short, hard workouts. A study from McMaster University in Canada comparing health markers for a group doing longer, steady workouts with another doing short, intense ones showed virtually identical gains. A sample session on an exercise bike would be a gentle warmup of five minutes, then 30 seconds of all-out cycling four to six times, with a four-minute easy pedal between the efforts. Though you do really have to make those 30 seconds count …

3 Try the NHS’s Couch to 5km programme

Running might seem an unlikely recommendation to the lazy-at-heart, but it has the great advantage of being time-efficient – you get a lot of exercise done in a short time, with minimal faffing with kit, equipment or facilities. Now is the ideal time to start, with lighter evenings and warmer weather. The brilliant Couch to 5k app from the NHS offers a way in for the most reluctant runner. And if you need a last push out the door, a recent study showed that even five minutes running a day can significantly lower your risk of dying prematurely.

4 Hit the weights

Despite study after study proving its benefits for all, strength training is still sometimes viewed as something that is only for bulky guys in old-school gyms. But lifting light weights won’t bulk up your muscles – it will just keep them strong, and help you to burn more fat, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, and improve insulin sensitivity. It’s particularly important for women, as it cuts the risk of osteoporosis – and it may also be effective for reducing low back pain.

Lifting weights helps burn more fat. Photograph: Mike Harrington/Getty Images

5 Set targets

Study after study has shown that incentives can help you stick with plans. Why not reward yourself every time you exercise – get a jam jar and put in a £1 coin for every class you attend – or, if you prefer, sign a binding online contract, or make a bet with a friend you really, really want to prove wrong. Sometimes, stubbornness is the most powerful force of all. And if that’s not enough, remind yourself of this: a National Institutes of Health study that followed 250,000 men and women between 50-71 found that those who were just slightly active but didn’t manage to exercise 30 minutes five times a week, were still 30% less likely to die early than those who were totally inactive.

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