Gyms are not necessary for fitness, nor is exercise an all-or-nothing game in which you're either a bodybuilder or a hardcore couch potato. The truth is that a better quality of life exists in between those extremes, and it doesn't cost anything. It doesn't require electronic tracking devices or professional trainers, and it doesn't look like washboard abs and bulging biceps--those have more to do with vanity than health or even functional strength. Building a little bit more movement into your day doesn't have to suck up time, either--in fact, it can give you more time by increasing productivity and simplifying your schedule. The real barriers to taking that first step are usually in the mind. The first thing you must do is to convince yourself that you are worth that ten-minute investment.
When it comes to exercising, doing the absolute, bare minimum has a bigger impact than many people realize. Simply getting up and moving around occasionally during a long day of Zoom meetings, gaming sessions, or Netflix binges helps prevent blood clots, chronic disease, and early demise. Not a little but a lot.
Add the teensiest bits of duration and intensity to body movement, and you'll reap striking rewards over time. One ten-minute walk--not a power walk, not some cumbersome activity involving ankle weights and sweatbands--just taking a ten-minute, leisurely stroll from one place to another--provides an immediate, significant, measurable boost in cognition. That, in turn, can help you to keep on thinking of ways to give your daily habits a subtle glow-up.
Whenever I do a sit-down activity, like watching a movie or writing this blog post, in the same day as my five-hour work shift, I make sure to separate those two seated sessions with at least 10 minutes of physical activity, whether it's a walk outside, a few passes with the manual lawnmower, a few household chores, or a quick YouTube workout. It's like a palate cleanser and wholesome performance enhancer for the mind, boosting my memory, creativity, focus, and physical energy to get things done for a lot longer than the ten minutes it took me to get moving.
The health and mental benefits of a ten-minute (or longer!) walk can be supercharged just by walking past trees and foliage. The ancient practice of forest bathing has received a lot of attention and scientific affirmation lately, as more people have moved into urban spaces. Again, this isn't an all-or-nothing game. Wandering through a shady neighborhood or spending time in a well-cultivated backyard are so much healthier than jogging along a busy street. You don't have to travel to an unfortunately-packed-and-heavily-polluted national park to binge on a natural setting in order to receive the benefits of greenery. You can find a little bit of chill close to home, wherever you live, and a little goes a long way.
The all-or-nothing mentality of our society that tries to sell us on 10,000-step rules and fitness machines and harmful fad diets is so sad, but we can kick it to the curb with minimal physical effort once we accept that whatever we can do is good. And no matter how limited our current ability is, using that ability to do something, anything, makes an outsized difference and gifts us with the ability to do more.
More is not always better. If you are already fit, hitting the gym or the running trail excessively won't make you healthier. Professional athletes do not live longer than regular people who take decent care of themselves. You can overdo a good thing. I know people who are risking their lives to get back into illegal gyms during a pandemic. It's ridiculous.
I know others who refuse to take the smallest break from a sedentary lifestyle, convinced that it won't do any good unless they can achieve some kind of mystical Instagram #bodygoals (which are absolutely fake, as I hope we all realize by now). I have witnessed several friends and acquaintances making small but consistent changes to their lives—eating a little more produce, walking a little more—and successfully reversing pre-diabetes and high blood pressure. These folks achieved meaningful changes to their health and quality of life without making big sacrifices or getting skinny or hyper-athletic. You can be fat and healthy, but you can't be self-loathing and healthy. Often the greatest challenge to changing small habits isn’t physical, it’s mental.
Swapping an extremely unhealthy lifestyle for a slightly less terrible one is not physically hard, so if you can't bring yourself to add something as little as a ten-minute walk into your day, you probably need mental health care rather than a gym membership. Self-harming behaviors can lock sufferers into a doom spiral of frustration and self-punishment that require both professional help and the patient’s motivation to heal psychological wounds. Doctors in Canada are now advised to prescribe psychological therapy rather than exercise to patients with obesity-related chronic conditions, because patients can’t use good advice if they believe that they don’t deserve health or that nothing they do matters.
I learned this the hard way by watching another friend deteriorate despite many people's efforts to help. My first clue that my friend's mind didn't work the same as mine was when she purchased a couch that she initially loved but, after a few days, regretted buying. When I asked her why, she said, "It's comfortable at first, but after four hours, my back starts to hurt." I laughed out loud, awkwardly failing to realize that she was not joking. I couldn't fathom how anyone would want to sit still, in one position, for four hours unless relegated to a hospital bed or a seat on a long-distance flight. Sadly, my friend scoffed at my suggestion to get up and move every hour or two, and she scorned everyone else's advice too, even tips from friends who started out with a similar weight and lifestyle.
While mutual friends nipped emerging health issues in the bud with small lifestyle changes, this friend dug in and began identifying with her illnesses, earning compound interest in all of her can’ts. By age 40, she was suffering from a host of debilitating, painful, and entirely preventable conditions. It's an awful tragedy, and stories like hers may end differently if people receive the right kind of help earlier, in a therapist's office rather than a gym.
I know other so-called perfectionists, type-A hustlers with stuffed wallets and cut muscles who share the belief that exercise has to be formal and intense to "count" and that it must be scheduled tightly in between working hard at a desk and driving a car at top speed. These "in a hurry to meet their maker" types are also at risk of dying young from cardiovascular events (or car accidents, I suppose), and they share the belief that designing casual movement into the rhythms of daily life is a waste of time.
I am confronted by this delusion over and over again, every time someone expresses shock to discover that (until the pandemic shut down my daughter's school campus) I have walked my daughter to school every day for the past three years and that I prefer to walk, rather than drive, to my parents' house. Both journeys take about ten minutes of walking at a comfortable pace.
The overworked consumers of America have been conditioned by relentless marketing campaigns to believe that we don't deserve to take anything slow and gentle, that there isn't any gain without pain, and that things that don't cost us any money are worthless.
Just like this advice right here, which I offer free to anyone who can use it. No child needs to hear it, but some adults have been reprogrammed to forget that all we need to do is get our wiggles out once in a while, and we don't need any special programming or equipment to stretch our limbs and move.
Use it or lose it. Ten minutes at a time is all it takes. If you can't believe that, please seek help before it's too late.