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A new study says you might need to exercise twice as much. But who's got the time?

Cyclists ride their bikes along the Charles River by Storrow Drive in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cyclists ride their bikes along the Charles River by Storrow Drive in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Exercise. You know you probably should do it more. But who’s got the time?

“Sometimes I could be at work 16, 18 hours, sometimes a full 24 hours. It all depends on what was on the agenda for that day,” Flagumy Valcourt, officer with the NYPD’s intelligence bureau, says. “So that really made it hard to eat correct and dedicate time to work out.”

A new study suggests that not to most people not work out enough — they should be exercising twice as much as previously recommended. And how are we going to achieve that?

“For people that are getting started, the more pragmatic things are, incorporate it into your day wherever you can,” Dr. Eddie Phillips says. It’s sort of a – get on a bike desk in my office because I have one; meet friends for a walk rather than just sitting down for coffee.”

Today, On Point: How to double your workout time.


NiCole Keith, physical activity researcher and kinesiology professor at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. (@nicolekeithphd)

Dr. Eddie Phillips, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. Co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast.

Also Featured

Flagumy Valcourt, officer with the NYPD’s intelligence bureau.

Transcript: Highlights From The Show’s Open

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: New Years 2020. New York Police Officer Flagumy Valcourt was like, No, finally, this is it. This year is going to be different.

FLAGUMY VALCOURT: I was tired of being sluggish. Not happy with my overall physique and health. So I figured I need to make a change. And what’s the best way to do it is by, you know, changing up your diet and getting into a nice exercise routine.

CHAKRABARTI: Officer Valcourt was five foot ten, 225 pounds, and sure, he wanted to trim that weight, but what he really wanted was to get his energy back. So Valcourt had the goal, he had the motivation. But there was one thing he did not have. Any extra time.

VALCOURT: At the time, my schedule was really hectic. I was part of a fuel intelligence unit where it required me to do a lot of search warrants, and stuff and that matter. So the time really fluctuated. So sometimes I could be at work 16, 18 hours, sometimes a full 24 hours. So that really made it hard to eat correct and dedicate time to work out.

And that’s a struggle that many officers probably struggle with. I know the ones that are dedicated, they will find the time. And the facilities and our precincts, they have gyms. So you can, if you’re lucky, and you have time and you can take an hour break … instead of eating, you can choose to use the gym or the facilities.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, this was before the pandemic. And at the time, like Officer Valcourt said, there was a gym at the precinct. Except you also heard him say something else. All that’s good, but:

VALCOURT: So you could choose to either eat or if you wanted to work out, they’ll use their meal time. … I’ll take on the gym for like 45 minutes and maybe last 15 minutes, eat something if they could, or probably take a quick shake on the go. Something had to give.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So working out at the precinct gym wasn’t going to work out for Officer Valcourt if he also wanted to have a healthy diet. So maybe he could hit the gym when he was off duty. But another roadblock there. At the time, Valcourt lived in Coney Island and there weren’t a lot of gyms he could get to quickly.

VALCOURT: You have to take in count for actually going to the location and working out. I’m going to the gym, it’s going to take me an hour to work out. Plus I have to schedule at least 15 to 20 minutes to actually travel to the gym. And then the next 15 minutes, after you’re done working out, to travel back. And then get ready to go, whether if you’re going to work, or go about your day.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Officer Valcourt, though, he’s not a guy who’s about to give up that easily. He was also checking out a kickboxing gym at the time. It’s something he enjoyed more. But that gym was an hour long round trip for him. And those different gyms that Valcourt was trying, they led to another barrier. Because as much as he enjoyed his kickboxing workouts:

VALCOURT: Between that and the gym, they can get pricey. And each of them require a monthly dedication. And sometimes I felt like I was paying these monthly dedications and I wasn’t even going.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, that is salt in the wound, isn’t it? Paying the money, but being unable to go to the gym. This particular story, though, has a happy ending. Because Officer Valcourt eventually found a workout program that helped him meet his goals. He lost weight, he eats better and he feels healthier. All improvements, at course, back into his life at home and at work in the NYPD Intelligence Bureau. But obviously, it was a struggle. And a familiar struggle, I guess.

If you have an affordable gym nearby, the problem might be time. If you don’t have a safe, convenient place to exercise, the issue is both time, money and safety. All the while, Americans, though, have been told that they really, really, really need to be exercising at least half an hour a day, five days a week for good health. Well, times change and research advances. So now those recommendations also could be changing.

And I’m sorry to say you’re not going to be getting a break here. Because there’s evidence that you might need to double the typically recommended 150 minutes per week, meaning instead of half an hour a day, you might need to be exercising at moderate intensity for an hour a day, five days a week to maximize longevity.

Interview Highlights

When we say moderate intensity exercise, what do we mean?

Dr. Eddie Phillips: “Let me take on moderate, vigorous and even light. And give you the simplest test in the world, which is called the talk test. So if you and I go for a walk and we’re able to talk to each other, but we can’t sing. Or in terms of holding a note, we’re working moderately, relative to our fitness. If we push the pace and we get to the, Meghna … I have that … We’re now working, by definition, vigorously. If we’re able to walk and talk and sing to each other, we’re working at a light intensity. So the moderate intensity is just where you can’t hold a note.”

How does that map to an actual sort of biological measure? Is there a certain heart rate that we’re trying to meet?

Dr. Eddie Phillips: “We could certainly measure heart rates. We could get into heart rate reserve, which is from your lowest heart rate at sleep to your highest at exercise. What percentage you’re doing. We could measure Mets, metabolic equivalence. And as you sit here quietly or you’re lying in bed with no activity, you’re at one met.

“When you get up to six multiples of that, that’s considered vigorous activity. So there’s lots of ways in the lab or with a fancy watch or some sort of app on your phone, to measure other otherwise. But the talk test sort of wins out. Because it’s just so simple. And you know where you are relative to other people, and to your level of fitness.

We’ve defined moderate intensity. Now, give me the definition, as you understand it, of what kind of exercise we need to maximize longevity.

Dr. Eddie Phillips: “So when we look at your total activity, and I’m going to start to veer into discussions of physical activity, which is any kind of movement where you burn energy. Exercise is actually defined as repetitive and planned and it already sounds boring, kind of like a chore.

“So any sort of physical activity, as soon as you get off of the couch, and we start adding up the minutes at moderate intensity, then we already start to see a plummeting of all cause mortality. So all steps count. Some steps count more than others, the first few. In other words, going from 0 minutes per week towards 150, you don’t have to get to 150. You already start to see a dramatic decrease in all cause mortality.”

On the implications of the fitness study

NiCole Keith: “They make sense in a way. And, you know, Circulation is an excellent scientific journal, and the methodology of the research was wonderful. What struck me is that much of the data that were collected were self-report data. And people don’t do great with self-report data.

“It’s really important to collect surveys from people. But when people are asked about how tall they are, they tend to report they’re taller. When they’re asked how much they weigh, they tend to report they weigh less. And when they’re asked to report how much physical activity they do, especially at the moderate level, they tend to report more than they actually do. And part of that is because there’s a little bit of a lack of understanding of the difference between light, moderate and vigorous physical activity.

“And part of it is because people don’t typically keep track of how long it takes for them to walk from their parking space to their office or from the bus stop to the grocery store. And so that gets overreported. And when that is compared to their health outcomes, that overreporting can sometimes be misinterpreted to say you need more.”

Have we been thinking about exercise all wrong?

NiCole Keith: “The fitness industry has conditioned us to think about what the ideal human looks like and does. First of all, there’s no such thing as a perfect human, and we don’t have to have this ideal body weight or this minimum body composition to be healthy. And 2 pounds of weight loss equals positive outcomes in diabetes, for example. You don’t have to lose half of yourself if you weigh 240 pounds, in order to be healthy. You have to lose 2 pounds, and that can be done.

“Reducing sedentary behavior is what Dr. Phillips was talking about, and that our lifestyles have been engineered to be sedentary. Don’t be. Stand up when you’re doing your radio show. Raise your microphone and stand up. Walk around between shows when you’re having your meetings, stand up and walk around. And so Dr. Phillips and I are frequently not together, but I imagine he’s in meetings.

“I’m in meetings. I stand up when my back starts hurting or my legs start hurting because I’ve been sitting too long. I stand up and it’s socially acceptable. I teach students and I tell them it is unfair that I get to stand before you for the duration of this class and walk around in lecture and you sit there and listen. So you can walk around too, because I want you to be healthy.

“And so it’s about reconditioning ourselves for it to be acceptable, for us to get off at a bus stop early and walk the rest of the way. To condition ourselves to save fuel and to save the environment by burning fewer fossil fuels, by doing destination walking, if we can. And even if we can’t, when we pull into the parking lot, take the first space you see, and then walk to the building. There are ways to get steps in.

“And unfortunately, the fitness industry is this billion dollar industry … selling this idea that you have to have certain clothes, that you have to have certain shoes, that you need certain equipment, that you have to go to these places to become this ideal person. And that is not necessary to be fit. You just have to move more.”

On incorporating more exercise into daily life

NiCole Keith: “A colleague and I have coined these as physical activity deserts, and you’ve talked about some of them. So transportation walking is hard because the sidewalks go nowhere, and there aren’t traffic coning measures. And many of our urban areas and our rural areas were built for vehicles and not human transportation in the form of walking or cycling.

“The time issue. And so I get really frustrated when I hear that message that anybody can put on a pair of tennis shoes and go for a walk after dinner, when not everybody owns a pair of tennis shoes and not everybody gets to eat dinner at a time when they can go walking afterward. Because they work the third shift or because they don’t get dinner. You know, there’s food insecurity. And the cost of physical activity. While you can go to the playground and play with your kids, there has to be a playground. There has to be greenspace.

“People have to feel safe in their environments. And it’s not just about traffic, and it’s not just about crime, but it’s the perception of, do you belong in my neighborhood? Why are you here? Are you a safe person? Are you a criminal? And then we know also that issues related to social justice and physical activity. And so that’s a barrier. And I tell many people who are caregivers, that in order for you to be a strong caregiver, you have to be healthy and physically fit. But these caregiving responsibilities frequently get in the way of physical activity.

“So to find a way to be physically active with your loved ones is really important. I know Dr. Phillips and I know each other. He’s got a wonderful wife who jogs with him. And so if that’s part of your relationship, it’s really strong to do things with your spouse, or with your kids. And I know he said sometimes you have to do it to get away from them, but sometimes you can do it with them. And it really builds a strong bond and sets a great example for your children, that even us older folks can still be physically active. Enjoy it.”

” … But the point is, there are several barriers, but also opportunities to overcome those barriers. And I tell people things as simply as, if you have a desk job in your responsibility, like you’re a receptionist. And you have to be at that desk. On your break, go to the furthest restroom available and then come back.

“… You don’t have to change your clothes. You don’t have to get all sweaty. Moderate physical activity is an outdoor walk. You can go outside. You can walk for 30 minutes, come back in, eat your lunch. You can reverse that if you’re super hungry, but you can do that all well within an hour and and still get back in time to do your job.”

On pursuing health equity in America

NiCole Keith: “Physical activity to achieve health equity is the low hanging fruit. Most people can be physically active. It doesn’t cost anything, except for time and energy that we need to spend. It’s available to everyone, and that is where the focus should be. Medicine is expensive. Health care is expensive. Physical activity is free. It is the most sensical way to achieve health equity.”

Related Reading

Circulation: “Long-Term Leisure-Time Physical Activity Intensity and All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort of U.S. Adults” — “The 2018 physical activity guidelines for Americans recommend a minimum of 150 to 300 min/wk of moderate physical activity (MPA), 75 to 150 min/wk of vigorous physical activity (VPA), or an equivalent combination of both.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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