Simon Says: Move Your Legs. And Arms.

(Michelle Pedone-getty Images - Getty Images)
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We have long advocated incorporating activity -- any activity -- into your daily routine to help combat the nasty consequences of sedentary modern living. Now a doctor is taking that line a step further: In his new book, "The No-Sweat Exercise Plan" (McGraw-Hill, 2006), Harvey B. Simon argues that you can get enough exercise to stay healthy without ever breaking a sweat.

Simon, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, cites numerous studies showing the surprising benefits of small chunks of moderate activity, and challenges readers to embrace a variety of opportunities to use calories (like taking the stairs instead of the elevator).

What makes this different from other exercise books advocating an easy approach is Simon's Harvard pedigree and serious research chops. Also, he has spent much of his career dismissing moderate activity as "too easy to be beneficial": In a 1987 book, he urged readers to adopt an intense aerobic exercise habit, including marathon running. He goaded walkers to run, and ridiculed golfers.

But having surveyed recent literature, he says, he is a changed man, one who sings the praises of moderation.

"For years data have been coming in that moderate exercise is good for cardiac health, obesity, diabetes and a host of other illnesses," Simon says. "Moderate exercise is not a distant second, in terms of health benefit," to more intense workouts.

Being something of an exercise physiology nerd, he coins a term -- cardiometabolic exercise, or CME -- to distinguish various health-creating activities from standard definitions of aerobic exercise. Just about anything that burns calories counts, he says. He assigns a point value to each activity and encourages readers to accumulate at least 150 CME "points" a day, through such simple tasks as walking, raking leaves, cooking, watering plants, even (yes) bowling. You needn't track your points meticulously, as long as you get the activity.

Simon makes an important distinction between "exercise for health" (what he is pushing) and "exercise for fitness" -- the higher-intensity cardio and strength training that recreational and serious athletes need. The book includes health and fitness assessments, including a simple calculation for learning your heart attack risk.

"People hear the surgeon general talk about walking and then they see someone running by with a heart rate monitor on and they say, 'That guy's getting benefit that I will never be able to get.' And they go back to watching TV. I am not against intense exercise, but it's more than you need for [good] health."

The book condenses info on exercise physiology -- how oxygen gets around your body, why bones degenerate, how hard your heart works -- and is straightforward and readable, though at times redundant.

The no-sweat program has its own pyramid, founded on nutrition, followed by CME activities and topped with strength, flexibility and balance training. The exercises provided are simple and accessible. The book includes sections for those with illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, and for people who want to go beyond exercising for basic health.

Simon notes that Americans spend an average of 170 minutes per day watching television (yikes!).

"I put that in there for people who think they lack the time to exercise. People should build physical activity into the fabric of daily life so they don't have to set aside time" to work out, he says.

No chat today; back next week. E-mail: .

-- John Briley

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