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Just 20 minutes: The surprising science of exercise

This week on Take Care, an interview with Gretchen Reynolds, journalist, author and fitness advocate. Her most recent book “The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer” explains that being fit doesn’t have to mean running a marathon. In fact, just getting up and moving around regularly can greatly reduce your risk of dying prematurely.

(click on "Read more" for the podcast of this interview and more information)

Credit Penguin Press
Gretchen Reynolds' book "The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer" from Hudson Street Press.

Reynolds explains one of the most recent studies and the key concept behind her book -- most of the health benefits of exercising can be attained in the first twenty minutes of moving.

“It’s a very interesting development in exercise science that scientists have found that the first twenty minutes of getting up and moving around – and that means doing anything, just standing up, particularly if you’ve been very sedentary – is the most important part of any exercise routine,” she said.

Being sedentary, which Reynolds defines as sitting for 20 to 30 minutes or more at a time, can cause a lot to happen to your body. When your muscles aren’t moving regularly, your body starts producing less of the enzyme that breaks up fat in your bloodstream, and instead, that fat can end up in your muscles, your heart, and your liver. The body can also get a buildup of blood sugar that muscles would have otherwise used as fuel.

“All you have to do to undo those unhealthy changes,” Reynolds says, “is stand up. Stand up about every twenty minutes.”

And even better, if you can walk around for a few minutes, the muscles in your legs and back will start contracting and will therefore start to burn fat and blood sugar, and increase the blood circulation to your brain.

Finally, Reynolds says the best way to overcome a lack of motivation to exercise is to not think about physical activity as exercise.

Here are some simple ways Reynolds recommends to disguise exercise as simple movement:

  • When taking a break at work, walk to the further restroom or water cooler.
  • Any time you’re in the car for more than 20 minutes, park a little further away from your destination and use the distance as an excuse to stretch your back and leg muscles.
  • Take the stairs.
  • Even if you can't leave your desk every half hour, make it a point to stand up out of your chair once or twice.
  • If you can, increase the distance when walking your dog.
  • Go dancing.
  • Gardening can also be a great form of exercise.

For over a decade Gretchen Reynolds has covered health and fitness for Runner’s World, Bicycling, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. These days she writes for the New York Times “Well” blog and her works appears in their monthly print magazine.