How Much Exercise Do I Really Need to Live Healthier?

by Jamie Simmerman · 17 comments

jogging for exercise
Years ago, I had an elderly patient I loved to visit. She had a huge personality, a quick mind (and tongue), and a sense of humor that would leave you gasping for air. She was just one of those people that others loved to spend time with. She also had the worst case of diabetes I’d ever encountered. She was taking huge doses of four types of insulin and needed to check her blood sugar six times a day. During one visit, I made a call to her doctor to discuss her steadily rising blood sugars. “I can’t put her on anything else,“ he said. “She’s going to have to exercise to help bring it down.” Well, for most folks, a little exercise isn’t such a big deal. But for this gal, even getting to the bathroom was a chore. She was blind, severely obese, and had difficulty breathing to boot.

I broke the news to her and told her we’d do it together. We started small, mostly because we had to. We started by taking three steps every time I came to see her. We ventured outside on nice days to pull weeds out of her flowerbeds for 10 minutes. She did the pots; I did the beds. It wasn’t much, but we keep at it every day.

After a month, we added walking from the door of the bathroom to the toilet once a day. The next month, we upped it to three times a day. After six months, she was walking down the hall three times a day in addition to her other exercise activities. It was enough to help keep her blood sugars from rising and we were able to lessen her insulin dosages a bit. Her doctor was ecstatic. It was hard work, but we kept pushing ahead, even on the tough days. Some days, we could only get in a few steps, but it was more movement than sitting in the wheelchair, so we gladly took it.

The Average Exercise Overhaul

So many times, the average person who wants to live healthier jumps into the exercise ring with both feet. They throw out all the junk food, vow to eat sprouts and drink water, and go to the gym every day. The whole thing lasts for about two weeks, and then they find themselves overwhelmed, eating chips in front of the TV and yelling at Beach Body commercials. We have great intentions and tons of motivation to start, but the change is too much, too soon. We think we should model ourselves after that great-looking guy or gal in the office that runs marathons and never even blinks at a piece of birthday cake. In reality, it took years for that person to reach that physical form and it won’t work for us.

Small Steps Equal Big Changes

The truth is, just like my patient, any small change you make to your exercise routine helps make you healthier. Start small and build on your habits as you become comfortable with each change. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

  1. Park in the farthest corner of the parking lot at work or when you go shopping.
  2. Avoid the elevator and hit the stairs.
  3. Go for a walk on your lunch break.
  4. Play ball with your kids once a week for fifteen minutes.
  5. Use a mini-trampoline to do rebounding exercises while you wait for the morning coffee to brew.
  6. Walk in place for one minute when you begin to feel fatigued at your desk.
  7. Engage in sexual activity once a week.

This principle applies to other healthy habits in your life as well. Try these small changes to start living healthier:

  1. Replace one can of soda or tea with a glass of water every day.
  2. If you smoke, try smoking half a cigarette (instead of a full one) once during the day.
  3. Reach for some fruit or fresh veggies when tempted to snack on junk. If you’re still craving the junk an hour later, go ahead and give in – at least you got in some healthy nutrients.
  4. Go to bed ten minutes earlier than usual.
  5. Sit near a sunny window or go outside for five minutes every morning.
  6. Spend ten minute alone, sitting quietly before going downstairs to start your day.

Enlist a partner to help hold you accountable for each new small change you implement and make a list of what you will gain by living healthier to help keep you motivated. When you live healthier, you not only feel better, but you spend less time at the doctor’s office, take fewer medications, and save money on your life insurance premiums.

What small changes do you plan to make to begin living healthier today?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Steveark says:

    We run three times a week, 4 miles each time. Play tennis three or four times a week plus we are each on two tennis teams that provide additional matches. We play pickleball three times a week. We hike pretty long and steep trails frequently. We fish, which is a surprisingly good upper body workout casting heavy baits hundreds of times. We don’t do gym workouts, we just live an active life. Weight has never been an issue. My wife won the over age 50 title at the full marathon she ran last year at the age of 66. She’s faster than me.

  • Jules says:

    How much exercise? For me, a lot: I walk 20 minutes to and from my job, and at work I’m on my feet pretty much all day. Though I’ve only been mildly overweight, this is what it took for me to lose the 5 pounds that I’d been trying to–this, and paying attention to what I eat. Being healthy is not an easy task, even in the absence of temptations like constant food advertising.

  • Margaret sim says:

    i love exercises especially aerobic. I do aerobic three times a week,swimming once a week. I too love eating lots of fruits and drinks lots of water, i go for water only plus some coffee. no caborhydrated drinks, no saturated food. I always maintain my weight with all these, i feel relaxed and happy after each session of aerobic and making me healthier.

  • Chris says:

    Anybody interested,

    I believe the way to lose weight is both simple and difficult, just swap soft drinks and fruit juice drinks for water only have a maximum of three alcoholic drinks a week. Eat 200 gms lean meat in meat meals, have oily fish twice a week, have much more vegetables than meat, limit fruit to about two serves a day try to eat only whole grain breads and unprocessed foods. Replace sweets for a variety of nuts in moderation. Exercise at least thirty minutes at your own comfortable level every day.
    Although the above at first may seem difficult, after a month or so it becomes much more easy especially after one starts to feel the results. I lost 20 Kg doing this and reduced my blood pressure to more acceptable levels which was what started me in the first place.



    • Jules says:

      That’s a great plan. I find the diet part harder than the exercising part because the former is “limiting what I like to consume” while the latter is “getting up and doing it”.

      Still, just adding exercise helped my overall health and energy level so much.

      Remember also that every little bit of an improvement will help. If you can’t (don’t want to) do everything at first, you can still start!

      Exercise once a week will always still be better than none at all. Skip the steak dinner once in a while and replace it with chicken. Everyone can do at least a little bit and any step in the right direction helps.

  • Pam says:

    I like your advice – and the tips you give are totally doable. You are so right that if you jump in with really high expectations it is way too easy to fail. I am trying to be more disciplined with what I eat, and I love eating fruit so I try to eat that for a snack whenever I am hungry. I don’t get enough exercise but I will have to find a way to motivate myself to go for walks more often even when I am tired. Thanks for writing this.

  • julie says:

    Hate to be negative but here is my lifestyle. My weight never flutuates, I am a non smoker, very moderate drinker, drink plenty of water, walk three times a week, gym twice a week. I eat 5 veg a day and grow them fresh in the garden. I have a very healthy family background with long lived ancesters. Very little stress as I am pretty lucky and easy going.
    I can’t believe that I have just been diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation!!!!! and am now on meds. So much for a healthy lifestyle.

  • Marbella says:

    I live in Spain, late nights till 3-4 in the morning, good unhealthy food with wine and beer. But I go 3-4 times a week at the gym about 2 hours each time or run 15-20 kilometers in the mountains just under 2 hours. Combine the unhealthy life with healthy life so you both feel good and you live longer.

  • Jean says:

    Yea, the crash diet routine never works out too good and only results in gluttony once you give up, like you said, within a week or two. Taking it slower and more gradually is definitely the way to go. Living a sedentary lifestyle both at home and work, I try my best to move about whenever possible. The only real planned exercise I do is my daily walk. I also make it a point to eat fruits daily and always include vegetables in my meals whenever possible. When I’m hungry for a mid-day snack, I usually grab a fruit or munch down a few walnuts.


  • Naomi says:

    Thanks for the encouragement that just small changes are important. I started a new routine this week and it hasn’t gone perfectly but I’ve just looked at what I’ve done well, and for where it hasn’t gone well, looked for where I can make small improvements. I am starting to hit my calorie targets better each day and this morning reduced my breakfast calories by 50kcal by replacing 100ml milk with water. I loved your realistic perspective. Its not about expecting to be brilliant straight out but just making small adjustments and begin aware. No self condemnation or unrealistic expectations! Great post.

  • Matt says:

    The assumption, which must be questioned, is exercise is actually beneficial to your health? Most people believe that exercise will help you lose weight and increase your cardiovascular health. But is that true?

    I lost 40 pounds in 3 months doing absolutely zero exercise (other than just walking up stairs and on lunch breaks – which I did before I lost weight anyway). I decreased my blood pressure and my total cholesterol levels.

    I did not cut my calories (in fact ate more), increased my saturated fat (gasp), and cut out fruit. Blasphemous, right?

    I’m not saying that exercise is ineffective; however, I’m questioning its assumed value. As a thought experiment, think about animals in the wild (like Gorllilas or Lions) that are extremely lean and relatively dormant. Of course humans are not the same as lions or gorillas, but you can get the idea of dormant creatures can still be lean.

    I’m not advocating any particular diet. But if you are interested in changes, look into Paleolithic eating or low refined-carbohydrate eating (less processed grains and sugars). Your body is excellent at losing weight, if you feed it right.

    Most obesity and health related problems are metabolic disorders regarding hormone function in your body (i.e. leptin and insulin) not due to your laziness of not exercising.

    • sarah says:


      how did you loose 40 lbs n 3 months not really doing anything?

    • herman says:

      I also call BS on this. I started out 185 lbs, ~ 20% body fat, reasonably healthy, could do almost 100 pushups, bench press maybe 225 lbs, deadlift about the same and squat maybe my own body weight. Right now I’m 190 lbs, ~ 9% body fat, bench press 315 lbs, deadlift 450 lbs, squat 350 lbs. For me it was about 80% diet, 20% working out. To hear someone say they lost 40 lbs in 3 months doing nothing and increasing calories is just plain BS.

      Comparing us to animals is comparing apples and oranges – the genetic makeup is completely different. I agree – cut out the processed grains and sugars absolutely.

    • Caroline says:

      Most obesity, almost all of it, bar a tiny percentage of specific and quite rare health conditions, is a result of eating more calories than you use on a regular basis. The end.

      Reducing your caloric intake, by even a fairly small amount every day, and increasing your usage, even by a small amount regularly, can help achieve this. Eat as the dieticians would have us eat, more or less most of the time for good general health. No need for clever, expensive diets, or anything complicated or ”special” plans.

    • Caroline says:

      Yeah… this is exactly what the author was pointing out: completely changing your diet, ie ”paleo” or whatever it’s called now is drastic. And that’s fine if it works for you, but for many people, it’s… a lot.

      Most obesity is caused by caloric excess. Obviously eating fewer calories in a consistent way is a big, big part of the solution, and being satiated is important to reduce over-eating in response to hunger. Exercise… burns through calories, increases muscle mass and is good for us humans in a way that’s not necessarily related to weight. Cholesterol, hypertension, stress, anxiety… all massively impacted by exercise.

      No need to commit to no pasta ever again, just decide that once a week will be lean protein and veg only, or that fizzy drinks are only for weekends. Small, achievable changes, consistently applied.

      Animals in the wild have to work hard to eat. They love dormancy because they need to conserve energy, but food is scarce.

  • Mrs. T. says:

    And I started walking a half hour a day this past spring.

  • Mrs. T. says:

    Forming habits is the most important thing. I have been working for three years and have lost twenty pounds through Weight Watchers. I didn’t have to diet or go to gym. I cut out certain foods, one at a time: 2% milk, jam, margarine, crackers. I measure other foods to the point where now I can “eyeball” them. I limit many other foods but don’t deprive myself. Six or seven pounds a year is not dramatic, but the result has been worth it.

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