Is incidental exercise enough to stay fit and healthy?

Spending more time outdoors is bound to make you feel good, if nothing else.
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Spending more time outdoors is bound to make you feel good, if nothing else.

Gyms are expensive, group fitness can feel like PE classes at school, and at times it can all be a bit much. 

Incidental exercise is a compelling concept in that you don't have to take time out of your day, but rather make small adjustments. Walk to work, take the stairs, and go for a swim at the beach rather than just sunbathing. 

You'll save money on petrol and parking, and walking home is a nice separation between work and leisure time. 

Scott Duncan, head of research at AUT's school of sport and recreation.
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Scott Duncan, head of research at AUT's school of sport and recreation.

Is it enough for fitness, though? That depends on your goals, experts say. 

Scott Duncan, head of research at AUT's school of sport and recreation, says if you're not currently exercising much at all, it's a perfect way to start. 

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Lynne O'Malley, senior academic staff member at Wintec's centre for sport science and human performance.
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Lynne O'Malley, senior academic staff member at Wintec's centre for sport science and human performance.

"We have quite a focus on obesity and losing weight and I think it's not productive – it's a naive way of looking at the problem," he says. 

"If you can try and get someone to take pride in being healthy and being fit, that's going to be a more sustainable change."

A more positive approach is key, Duncan says, as decades of negative messaging around obesity clearly haven't worked. Judgment isn't an effective motivator. 

So much the better if you've got some dogs to walk.
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So much the better if you've got some dogs to walk.

However, if you're wanting to build muscle, you're going to need to get some weights involved. 

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"One thing that isn't that widely understood is that putting on lean muscle mass is really good for your basal metabolism – you can lift weights to lose weight," Duncan says.

"Cardio is important but if you build lean muscle mass you'll be burning when you're sleeping."

While people should do what works for them, Duncan notes that getting more movement into your day isn't always easy. 

"In a city like Auckland that's not that walkable, people do get stuck in their cars," he says. 

If that's you, setting aside time for the gym might be more achievable than spreading movement throughout your day. 

Lynne O'Malley, senior academic staff member at Wintec's centre for sport science and human performance, cites the United States Department of Health guideline of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. 

"You should be able to talk but not sing, so walking is great," she says. 

For some people, though, O'Malley says the lack of structure can make it easy to skip a day. 

"The thing is – that's fine, but people tend to find they lose motivation. That's where the gym can come in," she says.

"We get bored so change is good."

O'Malley says it's hard to give general exercise advice, because the main thing is to do something and for it to be an activity you enjoy. 

"Whatever you're going to do, you've got to move and it's got to fit into your lifestyle." she says. "We've got to exercise for the rest of our lives."

For women especially, O'Malley emphasises the importance of resistance training. 

"We do need to do that. In terms of our bone density and retaining muscle, it's really important," she says, adding that three times a week is about right.

"It's like an investment." 

O'Malley agrees with Duncan that it's important to think of exercise in terms of how it makes you feel, rather than making up for eating something you wish you hadn't.

"You can't be beating yourself up about it. It's the whole package, it's what you eat, and it's about feeling good," she says. 

Both academics also say that if you are going to incorporate some weights into your week, you're best off getting some help from a qualified instructor. 

"Gyms are great, they have their role," O'Malley says, citing a study published in January that concluded members tend to be fitter and stronger. 

"If you want to build muscle, you want someone who can help you achieve your goals in the most efficient way, and that's what you get from a gym."

They also agree that the mental health benefits of regular exercise, whatever it is, can't be overstated. 

"There's huge evidence that being active is good for your mental health," Duncan says. "You're going to be able to work better, study better, and eat better, because you're in a positive space."

That point, along with O'Malley's assertion that exercise is about the long game, is an argument for incidental exercise. If gyms make you miserable, you're not going to go, or you'll force yourself and burn out. 

"If you want to spend time outdoors, spend time with your friends, and feel a bit better, then perfect," says Duncan. 

"We'd never say it's bad, it just depends how far you want to take it."

That enjoyment might make you feel better about more vigorous exercise and get you into some resistance work, but even if it doesn't, you're still at a net positive compared to doing nothing. 

 - Stuff

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