The lazy guide to getting fit: Experts reveal the bare minimum you can get away – and still get results
- Scientists have found that even the most sweat-resistant among us can transform our health and fitness by doing remarkably little
- READ MORE: Why it’s NEVER too late to start exercising
We all know that getting fit – and staying that way – is a job in itself. And, with all the other pressures of modern life, many of us struggle to find the time to prioritise exercise.
Happily, scientists have found that even the laziest, most sweat-resistant among us can transform our health and fitness by doing remarkably little.
From blink-and-miss-it daily bursts of exertion that leave you puffed, to a brisk monthly walk, three-minute cold swims, or simply pottering around the house with the vacuum cleaner, there are many low-effort ways to improve your strength, brain and heart health, balance and longevity. And that means you’ll be left with plenty of time to hit the sofa.
Welcome to the lazy guide to getting fit and healthy …
Make like a flamingo
Dr Pollock says: ‘The evidence base is that exercises that include both a little bit of strength and balance make a lot of difference’
Consultant geriatrician Dr Lucy Pollock, author of The Book About Getting Older, balances on each leg for one minute while brushing her teeth in the morning. So no need for a gym membership or any gym kit.
Dr Pollock says: ‘The evidence base is that exercises that include both a little bit of strength and balance make a lot of difference.’
Indeed, researchers found that the ability to stand on one leg for ten seconds was linked to survival in middle-aged and older individuals.
The BMJ reported: ‘After accounting for age, sex and underlying conditions, an inability to stand unsupported on one leg for ten seconds was associated with an 84 per cent heightened risk of death from any cause within the next decade.’
Dr Pollock says: ‘If you are able to stand on one leg, that is a very good sign. It not only improves your strength and balance, it’s a way of checking that everything else you’re doing is making a difference.’
Sixty-second power squats
One minute is enough to make a difference because it’s such a powerful exercise, Dr Pollock says
Squats preserve muscle mass and strength in quads and hamstrings, but it’s important to have the correct form for maximum benefits.
Dr Pollock says: ‘When you do squats well, you improve core strength by maintaining good posture and keeping your back straight. They’re a very good total body exercise.’
Once again, consistency is key, which is why Dr Pollock adds these to her teeth-brushing-balancing routine to make it a daily habit.
One minute is enough to make a difference because it’s such a powerful exercise, she says.
Celebrity trainer Zana Morris explains: ‘Any form of high-intensity training — which includes squats, in particular full ones, where you go as low as you can — causes a massive disturbance on muscle fibres and oxygen uptake.
‘It increases the heart rate and stimulates production of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps push protein back into our lean tissue. It prompts an increase in metabolism that continues long after the exercise.’ Result!
Burn fat with a chilly dip
A cold swim isn’t for everyone, but how about if you only had to stay in for a few minutes to reap the benefits of more efficient fat-burning, lower inflammation and greater insulin sensitivity?
Dr Susanna Soberg, a Danish scientist specialising in metabolism and stress, has persuasive evidence that just 11 minutes of cold-water swimming weekly (in several short bursts) will do the trick.
A cold swim isn’t for everyone, but how about if you only had to stay in for a few minutes to reap the benefits?
She explains that she wanted to find out whether, if this is healthy, ‘what is the least exposure we can get away with, because [she] was not a winter swimmer’.
Soberg, the author of Winter Swimming (yes, she’s now a convert), discovered that just a few minutes in chilly water activates the ‘brown fat’ in our body, as its purpose is to burn energy to produce heat to keep us warm.
So how cold must this water be? Even 20c water, she says, is cold enough. (The sea on the Suffolk coast is currently about 7c — I know as I recently swam in it myself. Most heated public swimming pools in the UK, though, are between 26c and 28c.)
Soberg says: ‘What we found is that when you activate the brown fat, it will increase your thermogenesis — your ability to increase heat. This needs to be fuelled with sugar and fat from the bloodstream. In that way it burns calories.
‘If you can activate your healthy brown fat, you can lower your white fat — and you also lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases.’
And, she says, long-term exposure to the cold — don’t fret, that just means doing three lots of three or four-minute sessions per week — leads to an increased insulin sensitivity, which, she says, is ‘a really good marker for lowering your risk of modern lifestyle diseases’, such as diabetes.
Do 20 jumps for joy
Doing just ten or 20 ‘jumping repetitions’ per day can increase bone mass and strength
For stronger bones, why not jump up and down while watching Death In Paradise for a few minutes?
Doing just ten or 20 ‘jumping repetitions’ per day can increase bone mass and strength, according to a recent study from Chukyo University in Japan, as the impact stimulates bone growth.
Similarly pleasing results were found in an earlier American study, where 60 women aged 25-50 undertook a daily jumping programme.
Women did either ten or 20 jumps, with 30 seconds’ rest between jumps, twice daily for 16 weeks. All saw gains in hip bone mineral density but the 20-jump group’s improvements were significant (0.5 pc) — which seems small until you read that the control group lost 1.3 pc of bone density over that time.
A little yoga helps the heart
Yoga is powerful because it modulates and balances the autonomic nervous system, lowering blood pressure
Forget about struggling through hours of exhausting tree poses — just 15 minutes of daily yoga can lower blood pressure, your resting heart rate and cardiovascular risk, according to one recent study.
Yoga is powerful because it modulates and balances the autonomic nervous system, lowering blood pressure.
The key is that it involves three types of manoeuvres (stretching, holding a pose and head tilts), says Dr Mithu Storoni, neuroscience researcher, yoga instructor and author of Stress-Proof.
‘Blood pressure and heart rate are controlled and regulated by your autonomic nervous system,’ she explains. ‘When you stretch, you get an increase in sympathetic activation. As you release that stretch, you get a rebound increase in parasympathetic activity, which forces your body into a state of relaxation.’
Meanwhile, contracting and releasing muscles as you hold a pose and release it also increases relaxation, and yoga postures that involve tilting the head forwards and backwards trigger autonomic corrective mechanisms which help regulate your stress response and can add to this calming effect.
As you can reap all these benefits so quickly, you can feel good about rolling up your yoga mat after 15 minutes.
Move faster once a month
A UCL study led by Dr Sarah-Naomi James found that exercising at least once every four weeks (ideally, throughout your adult life) is linked to better cognitive function in later life
Encouraging news. It seems all those people you see pounding the pavements daily may be missing a trick — maintaining the not-terribly-taxing habit of a jog, swim or game of badminton just once a month is enough to be beneficial to brain health.
A UCL study led by Dr Sarah-Naomi James found that exercising at least once every four weeks (ideally, throughout your adult life) is linked to better cognitive function in later life.
Brain-protective effects were greatest in those physically active at least one to four times a month — more than for people who exercised more frequently for a period in adulthood, but didn’t keep it up.
So, consistency is key — even if you only do it once a month.
I confess that, personally, I’m thrilled, as in my 50s I’m running less often and had wondered if there was any point — but even I can manage running once a month.
Yes, vacuuming counts too
Dr Pollock says: ‘People who did more than 15 minutes of vacuum cleaning, beating mats and changing beds per week did better on many domains than those who did less than 15 minutes per week’
Not a fan of structured exercise? But love gardening? Regularly dust and vacuum your house? Excellent.
Researchers from UCL and the University of Sydney found that as little as three or four-minute bursts of vigorous activity throughout the day — for example, playing with children and pets, carrying shopping, climbing stairs briskly, walking uphill or running to catch a train — was associated with a substantially lower risk of premature death from all causes (compared to doing none).
As the researchers note, their findings align with previous studies showing that ‘very small doses of vigorous intermittent activity can improve cardio-respiratory fitness, which is a vital predictor of longevity’.
Dr Pollock says: ‘People who did more than 15 minutes of vacuum cleaning, beating mats and changing beds per week did better on many domains than those who did less than 15 minutes per week.’
So yes, consider Henry Hoover your new workout buddy.
She adds: ‘People who do housework are generally much fitter and less frail than those who don’t.’ She also notes that, provided you haven’t got heart disease, ‘for most people, getting breathless is a very good thing.
‘Getting breathless shows you’re being active enough to make a difference.’
- Check with your GP before making any changes to your exercise routine.
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