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Is Exercising Like Our Great-Grandmothers the Best Way to Stay Fit?

Increasing physical activity improves cognition.

Conventional advice on how to improve, or indeed maintain, our mental and physical health includes recommendations for consistent exercise. Such physical activity would ideally include aerobic exercise to increase the heart rate, as well as routines to sustain or increase muscle mass. We should be getting 150 minutes of exercise a week and, according to several studies, we may be able to accomplish this in short bursts of physical activity, 20 minutes or less.

In one such study, 20 minutes of intense exercise promoted certain cognitive functions, such as attentiveness. The duration of the exercise was 20 minutes, but it should be noted that it was designed to increase heart rate and was intense. In another study, older sedentary adults who exercised at a moderate intensity for 10 minutes three times daily showed improvement in their cardiovascular function.

Indeed, the vogue for short intervals of physical activity has generated a type of workout in which you exercise as intensely as you can in spurts lasting 30 seconds to three minutes. It is called "HIIT," or high-intensity interval training. After you recover, meaning that your breath and heart rate slow down to manageable levels, you repeat the exercise.

But what exercise physiologists seem to be referring to when they discuss the benefits of short intervals of physical activity is any activity that gets the body moving. The objective is to create easy, convenient, and excuse-resistant opportunities for otherwise sedentary people to move—to engage in any sort of physical activity. And suggesting that this can be done for only minutes at a time seems to make it so much easier to do than taking an hour-long Yoga class or walking rapidly on a treadmill for 30 minutes five times a week. The psychology of this approach seems to accept that many sedentary folk will not suddenly throw on their gym clothes (if they have any), obtain a membership at a nearby gym or Yoga or Pilates studio, or buy an expensive home exercise bike or treadmill. Telling them that they ought to do any of the above is going to be ignored. However, mentioning that physical activity lasting only a few minutes, but repeated many times during waking hours, could improve fitness and even support weight-loss efforts might work.

How to do this can be found in any traditional weight-loss book with a chapter on exercise:

  • Climb stairs rather than using mechanized means of ascending.
  • Carry groceries into the house one bag at a time.
  • Go for short walks as many times as possible during the day.
  • Stoop, stand, bend down, pick up, and reach high. (Maybe dust those curtain rods?)
  • If zoning and weather allow, go outside and hang your sheets on a clothesline, but carrying laundry up two flights of stairs because the washing machine and dryer are in the basement also meets the criterion for household-based physical activity.

Additional opportunities for exercise include getting a dog with short legs because one has to bend or squat down to put on the leash. Replenishing daily the food in many bird feeders also qualifies, because this may require bending down to take the bird food out of the bag and then reaching up to put it in the feeder. During winter months, shoveling snow, chipping away at ice-covered steps, and brushing the snow off bushes and the mailbox exercise a variety of muscles.

As I read over these suggestions, memories of my grandmother came to mind. My father was the oldest of four, and his mother was a still relatively young woman when I used to stay with her as a child. Her daily routines met the criteria for frequent bouts of physical activity, and her muscular arms and stamina were the result. She hand-chopped fish and meat for gefilte fish and meatballs, spent hours rolling strudel dough on her long dining room table, hung her wash outside, and ironed the bed linens with a heavy iron. When she went food shopping, which was almost every day, she lugged home heavy bags and walked up two flights of stairs with the bundles dangling from her arms. She did not have an electric vacuum cleaner or a robot to take care of crumbs on the carpet. She had an old-fashioned carpet sweeper that she pushed over the rugs. And if someone she knew was sick or unable to cook for their family, my grandmother would cook a meal, pack it up, and take one or two buses and then walk to the home where the food was needed. She did not perceive that her daily physical activity was a form of exercise. It was what she had to do to take care of her family.

We are obviously not going back to the lifestyle of those who lived 75 or 100 years ago in order to become healthier. But it is important to realize that suggestions on how we can increase our physical activity have to be made because so many of us aren’t even aware of how sedentary we are. We have become desensitized to our reliance on conveniences that eliminate the need to move. We fret because we can’t find our cell phone and have to walk around the house looking for it. We don’t bother going to stores to buy necessities because we can sit at a desk and order what we need and have the items delivered in a couple of days. If we live in a house, we try to have our washing machine and dryer near the bedrooms so we won’t have to go to another floor to do our laundry. We use leaf blowers rather than a rake to gather leaves in the fall, and a snowblower or a hired snowplow driver to clean our driveway. And getting up from a chair or bed to change the channel on our TV set is as archaic as using a rotary phone. The only thing we tend to expend energy on is attempting to remove the cap from a jar; our wrists may get stronger from the effort.

So we need to find ways of inserting back into our lives the physical activity that characterized a now-distant generation. Taking care of children, pets, and relatives with disabilities expends much physical activity, especially if the dogs and children are young. A friend whose husband’s stroke left him unable to dress or walk without assistance told me that some nights she feels as if she has been working out for hours because of the energy needed to help her spouse. However, work, especially if it requires sitting at a desk, displaces much of the time we could be using to move. And if our hours at work are very long, even if the work is being done at home, too little time for frequent bouts of activity may be available.

The solution to getting enough physical activity by doing household tasks is not a reliable one for many people. Unlike my grandmother’s generation, these days most of the physical activity associated with household chores is minimal and unlikely to increase one's respiration rate or heartbeat. Even if these tasks make us huff and puff for a few seconds, are they enough to move us from unfit to fit?

As we age, we lose muscle mass and experience a decline in stamina. Exercise is the only way to maintain our muscle mass and stamina and, ideally, increase these measurements of physical fitness. As the Red Queen says to Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Will the amount of physical activity represented by short bouts of household tasks be adequate to accomplish these goals?

My grandmother had a long life, especially for her generation, and as far as I know she did not suffer from fragile bones, balance problems, or muscle loss. So perhaps imitating her way of life might be an adequate substitute for working out in the gym. But it may be too soon to tell; long- term studies are needed to see if such levels of physical activity are sufficient for those who might be vulnerable to decreased bone health and loss of muscle.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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