One of my biggest frustrations is that important information we can use to improve our health is often dumbed down. We're given the lowest bar compared to what science shows, and often that information comes from people who are supposed to be partners in our healthcare decisions. When we ask for health advice, it's often assumed that we won't do the harder things – the things that can actually improve our health – so they don't bother to tell us. How presumptive of them. We follow their low-bar recommendations and when we don’t see results, we give up and feel like it's our fault. They use that as the reason to lower the bar further. This is largely what has been happening for decades. We are often being given information that is based on the bare minimum for human survival, not the information that helps us to thrive.
Impacts on Exercise
If you Google “how much exercise do I need?” you are likely going to find pages from health associations and the government recommending “150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise weekly.”
But did you know that is actually the bottom bar and the lowest baseline for survival? Per This study the actual recommendation is 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 of vigorous intensity. Most people benefit from doing the highest amount. But you often won’t hear that because someone else has decided ahead of time that you won’t do it anyways. How can people make the right decisions for their health if those tasked with helping them only give them advice on how to survive rather than thrive?
The best information we have currently is that if someone does more activity, they see enhanced benefits, continuing beyond 600 minutes/week.. This is especially important because these levels are what we should be looking towards if we want to live a longer, better, life as we get older. Especially for women. Often, we hear that women have a longer lifespan, and we use that to assume we are healthier than men. But it’s actually the opposite. We live longer, but we spend more years in an unhealthy, declining state. Men enjoy a better quality of life even if they don’t live quite as long, and a lot of that is because of their ability to more easily maintain muscle mass.
What does thriving actually look like from an exercise perspective? The study I linked above explains it clearly. Ironically, the study was done by the AMA - American Medical Association. This should be info that doctors share with their patients and yet they mostly continue to give us the lowest bar. The truth is that most people see the biggest benefit – the largest improvements to their health – from doing 300-600 minutes of moderate exercise or 150-300 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly. The most benefit comes from combining intensities. This is how you thrive rather than survive. But everyone is afraid to give us this information because they think we aren’t capable of doing it, and I think that’s a ridiculous assumption. I think giving people a lower bar is harmful. It means people are making life-altering decisions about their health without having the whole picture and all the information – all because someone else decided we wouldn’t listen anyways. Some people won’t listen, but we all deserve to have the information from which to make that decision.
This doesn’t mean that if you have been mostly sedentary for 20 years that you should start exercising 90 minutes a day out of the gate. You will see immense benefits from adding in small amounts of exercise. But as your body adapts, you will need to increase that. We often get excited about results once we add a 2-mile walk to our day, but if you do the same 2-mile walk for 5 years, you’re no longer seeing the same degree of benefit as you did the first few months. There are still benefits, such as better insulin sensitivity and joint health, but doing the same walk daily won’t continue to produce improvement. You need to add distance, turn it into a ruck walk, or speed it up to see progress again, whether you are looking to lose some fat or build cardiovascular health. This is always the case with exercise. Exercise is hard because our bodies are not adapted to it. Once we adapt, our health improves, but adaptation – improvement – only comes with consistently applying challenging forces to your body. The normal caveats apply: don’t push through pain, check with your doctor especially if you are under care for a health concern, and start slowly.
I have found the exercise times given in the study to be true for me. It isn’t that a 2-mile walk isn’t beneficial. But it is a way of maintaining – not consistently improving – my health. After paying a lot of attention to what produces meaningful, measurable results, I know I need a minimum of 90 minutes a day of exercise, and that aligns with the higher recommendations. When I get in 90 minutes, that is when I sleep the best, feel the best, and my stress is the most improved. It is also where I see the most changes to measurable metrics like body composition and heart rate variability.
One of the biggest realizations I’ve had in decades of being interested in health and fitness is understanding it is a years-long ambition. Health is a lifetime pursuit, but even within that, smaller goals take time. I think we’re often afraid to consider that. We want to think of things in terms of beach season or New Year’s resolutions. But I found that realization freeing because it takes the pressure off of expecting immediate results. It helps to understand that improvements move the right direction over time.
So how in the world are you supposed to get in that much exercise? In chunks. Of the 24 hours in a day, don’t you deserve an hour of it to take care of yourself? I am very lucky to have a flexible job (and one that prioritizes health and fitness). For me, this looks like cardio in the morning, usually a ruck walk or a 360 session. The ruck session gets me outside so I shoot for that most days. I do strength training in the afternoon which is usually around an hour and includes our Momentum app. And then on the weekend I do something more adventurous and get outdoors for snowshoeing or hiking. At other points in my life, I got the time in by riding my bike to work or going to the gym after work because it was right down the street. There were times I was exercising at 10pm because that is when the time was available to me. When I was a kid and couldn’t sleep, I’d get up and do crunches and pushups in my bedroom.
It means making fitness a priority every day. I can convince myself that I don’t have the time, but when I look at my combined screentime, it shows me otherwise. I don’t want future me to wish she’d made the time, I’ve already been there and it’s not a good view! I had to create space in my life for more fitness and it had to be a priority. Sometimes that meant saying no to other things. Often, it meant combining activities so I was getting exercise in while my kids played at the park. Or by carrying them or pulling them in the wagon. It can be joining a community sport. It can be yoga classes. It doesn’t have to be an hour moving weights, that is just the most fun for me, so it’s easy to stick to.
Nutrition is impacted by this issue of setting a low bar as well. The RDA in the US for protein is .8g per kilogram of body weight. As with exercise, this recommendation is survival-based, not thriving-based. Dan, in comparison, eats closer to 1g per pound of body weight, which is about 3 times the recommendation. I’d say Dan is thriving, not just surviving. For some people, especially those in the latter half of life, the recommendation of .8g of protein per kg can even lead to loss of muscle mass. Most people need more protein than that, but it can be a starting point.
Often, people worry about their kidney health if they eat too much protein but the upper limit is much higher than most people realize. 3.5g per kg of body weight is considered the upper tolerable level for a typical person with healthy kidneys. This would be equivalent to someone who is 180 pounds eating 285g of protein a day versus the RDA which would see them around 62g of protein a day.
The hard thing about nutrition is that it looks different for every person because our bodies are their own chemical laboratories that all process things a bit differently. You might be fine on 75g a day of protein while someone similar to you needs 120g. You have to play around with it and figure out what feels good and also what is doable for you. It doesn’t matter how ideal anything is if you can’t sustain it.
Protein is best spread throughout the day. Often, we eat most of our protein for dinner, but the body needs a steady flow of it. If I ate meat 4x a day, I’d end up feeling over-full all day. I’m also not a breakfast eater which makes it harder. I usually eat protein for my early lunch and then I have a protein shake after my workout, and then dinner always has protein. Usually that gets me enough. I find that when I focus on protein and fill in with some decent carbs and healthy fats, that is what feels the best for me. Meaning, I’m not starving and reaching for cookies but I’m not full, either. I have energy for my workouts without feeling exhausted, and I feel adequately recovered the next day. When I start to feel “off” my nutrition is the first thing I look at because it has a swift impact on me.
In summary, you are the captain of your ship. That’s good news, because it means you have all the control. The bad news is that being a captain takes a lot of work. If you aren’t achieving what you desire, it’s time to review. It doesn’t matter if your desire is to deadlift 400 pounds, to backpack 2,000 miles, or to get down on the floor with the kids. What “results” mean is up to you. What you need to achieve those results will look different for you than it does for Dan or I.
Are you thriving or just surviving? Are you happy with the conclusion you’ve reached? If not, increase your exercise time and increase your protein. See where it takes you.
Have a thriving, wild weekend!