Any Exercise is Better Than Nothing: The Power of a Little Movement

A couple jogging in a park.Sep 1, 2023

By Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT

We all know exercise can help improve our health. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee published science-based guidelines and research-backed reasons (in their executive summary) for why regular exercise can significantly enhance our lives.

But we’re not moving enough.

In their new guidelines, the committee pointed out something you probably already guessed: Americans aren’t getting enough exercise. In fact, almost 80% of adults are not meeting the recommended amounts (see below) for both aerobic exercise and strength training, and only about half are getting enough aerobic activity.

And as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and registered yoga teacher (RYT), one of the greatest barriers I observe in clients who struggle to have a regular exercise routine is an all-or-nothing approach. For instance, a common thought process is, “If it’s only a few minutes or if I’m just taking a walk, it doesn’t count, so why do it?”

But the committee’s scientific report explains that any moderate to vigorous movement for any amount of time is beneficial to human health. According to the new guidelines, “some physical activity is better than none.”

What the guidelines say

Here’s a short version of how much exercise the guidelines recommend:

  • Adults should sit less throughout the day.
  • They should do at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (five hours) every week, of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking or yoga), or 75 minutes (one hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) every week, of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (like running or aerobic dancing), or a combination of moderate - and vigorous - intensity exercise.
  • Adults should engage in moderately - or greater-intensity muscle-strengthening activities, involving all muscle groups at least two days a week.

For children, older adults and pregnant women, check out the guidelines here.

If you’re not there yet, that’s okay. In their scientific report, the committee pointed out that small increases in regular movement merit major health improvements. In fact, people who do no or little exercise can reduce their risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease by replacing sedentary behaviors with light-intensity movement (like leisurely walking or a casual bike ride) And they found that the same group can reduce health risks by slowly adding some moderate-intensity exercise. In fact, it is the group who is not meeting the recommendations for movement that can benefit most by making small changes, according to the committee. Read more details and findings in the scientific report.

Again, Why Is Moving So Good For Us?

In their scientific report, the committee published new major findings based on recent research around physical activity. Here are some of the committee’s newly-updated and science-backed reasons to help get you moving this year! Overall, they reported that regular physical activity gives us a slew of benefits that help us sleep better, feel better and perform daily tasks with greater ease. In short, our bodies are made to move!

  1. Moderate-to-vigorous activity improves quality of sleep and reduces daytime sleepiness.
  2. Consistent movement reduces the risk of clinical depression and depressive symptoms among those with and without depression diagnoses. It can also reduce depressive symptom severity. It also reduces anxiety symptoms – both chronic and acute, or anxiety felt from time to time.
  3. Single exercise sessions promote improvements in executive function, which includes one’s ability to plan and organize, and regulate emotions. Plus, exercise also improves things like memory and focus.
  4. Physical activity improves physical functioning for middle-aged to older adults, such as ability to climb stairs and reduced risk of falling, since it increases energy and decreases fatigue.
  5. Exercise reduces the risk of several diseases and conditions.

Here are a few tips to help you get moving a little more:

  1. Start small. Remember, anything is better than nothing! Like the research shows, some exercise is beneficial to your health. Set realistic goals – even five minutes of walking can make a difference!
  2. Pick joyful movement. What forms of exercise do you actually enjoy doing? Let go of anything you feel forced to do and embrace movement you love. The chances of maintaining a regular exercise routine is much better when you are having fun doing it, than when you feel like you’re being punished. If you can’t figure out what you enjoy doing, think about what you loved when you were a kid, and tap into your inner child.
  3. Try something new! Step outside of your comfort zone and try a dance or yoga class. Keep trying new forms of movement until you learn what feels the best to you.
  4. Fuel well! If you aren’t eating enough or are eating food combinations that don’t support sustained energy, motivations to move are likely decrease. To learn more about healthy ways of eating, click here and here. If you need some inspiration, we have some delicious recipes with nutrient-dense peanuts and peanut butter – click here.

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