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Even a little exercise can mean big improvements in your health

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Everyone knows exercise is good for you. But not everyone knows just how good. When you see the health benefits of physical activity in a list, they can seem almost too good to be true.

Exercising consistently can help prevent heart disease and muscle weakness; control and treat chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and hypertension; increase bone and muscle strength; improve brain function and sleep; and boost mood and enhance your overall quality of life, says Dori E. Rosenberg, an associate investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

And it does all that without causing the side effects of some of the prescription drugs used to treat those conditions.

While the share of Americans who exercise regularly is climbing, many are still lagging behind.

Only about half of adults get the 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as jogging) recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a quarter of Americans are almost completely inactive, reporting virtually no exercise at all in a year, according to the latest survey by the Physical Activity Council. That means millions of Americans are missing out on potential health benefits.

Becoming — and remaining — consistently active can be a challenge, even when you understand all the benefits. So follow the advice below to find easy ways to get moving­, whether that means taking walks around the neighborhood, hitting the gym or investing in home fitness equipment. Before you know it, aerobic exercise will be a regular part of your routine.

Tailor routine to lifestyle

“Some people prefer exercising by themselves at home; others prefer a social environment,” says Lyndon Joseph, an exercise physiologist in the division of geriatrics and clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. “Whatever gets you moving and active is what you should do.”

Exercising at home on a treadmill or an elliptical can make being active easier because it removes many of the barriers people can face. For example, you don’t have to worry about the weather, finding a safe place to walk, hitting traffic on the way to the gym or jostling for equipment.

Strength training (such as weightlifting) can benefit your bones and your muscles, but aerobic exercise in particular strengthens the heart, Joseph says. And you don’t need to run marathons to see the benefits. Brisk walking can be just as good for you as more vigorous exercise.

“The most recent physical activity guidelines reviewed all the evidence on aerobic physical activity and health, and found that walking can offer many of the same benefits as other types of physical activity,” Rosenberg says. “But you may need to increase the speed to make it a moderate-intensity activity.” (Depending on your fitness level, a moderate-intensity walk will usually be 3 to 4.5 mph, which results in 13- to 20-minute miles.)

Running or jogging can burn calories more quickly than walking and can potentially offer more bone-strengthening benefits. But not everyone can tolerate the pounding, especially on a hard surface.

If you’re worried about stress on your joints, exercising on an elliptical might be a good way to get an aerobic workout without the impact, especially if you’re looking for a higher-intensity activity.

For variety, try swimming, biking, group exercise classes, dancing, hiking or sports such as tennis.

Make every minute count

You can shorten your exercise routine by upping its intensity.

You need only a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Even walking can be vigorous if you pick up the pace, walk uphill, or increase the speed and incline if you’re using a treadmill.

Remember that some activity is better than no activity. Studies have shown that even 20 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise once or twice per week will provide at least some health benefits. And a small study found that even 10 minutes of easy exercise seems to have a positive effect on brain function immediately afterward.

Build exercise into daily life

Picking a cue that turns exercise into a habit can help to you build a routine that you actually stick with. That could mean always jumping on the treadmill after you brush your teeth or stopping at the gym on your way home from work.

Making a detailed, concrete plan rather than setting an overarching goal can also help you follow through, says Katherine L. Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative.

“Block out in your calendar the dates and times you intend to work out this week,” she says. One study found that people who joined a gym and went four times a week could develop a habit that stuck with them in as little as six weeks.

So try getting consistent exercise that you enjoy. “When you find ways to make exercise fun, you’re more likely to do it than when you only focus on how it will be effective,” Milkman says. Soon you’ll see your health improve, and before long you’ll be asking yourself why you didn’t start sooner.

 Copyright 2019, Consumer Reports Inc.

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