Move—be physically active

Despite the benefits of physical activity, the inertia to start and continue is high


“Every move counts”, is WHO’s new slogan. The more you move, the longer and healthier you live. It is as simple as that.

“If exercise could be packaged into a pill, it would be the single most widely, prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation”. Dr Robert N. Butler said this in 1978 when he was the director of the National Institute of Aging. The data accumulated since then has proven him right over and over again. Based on the  same evidence and data, I would now adapt his statement to say, “If physical activity could be packaged into a pill, it would be the best medicine for people to live longer, healthier and disease-free lives.”

So, which form of physical activity (PA) is the best? Walking? Running? Strength training? Yoga? Pilates? Zumba?

Perhaps, the simplest is walking. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” Henry David Thoreau.

While we don’t have to spend hours walking as Thoreau did, walking 30-45 minutes (3-4 km) every day, for at least 5-6 days a week is a great way to be active; 4,000 purposeful (not just the total steps per day, but the steps accrued during a leisure-time activity like walking or running) steps are the sweet spot. All you need our good shoes and a decent park or garden or pavement or road to walk on and you are ready to roll. 

Running is better for PA-related health benefits than walking. One of the problems with running is its association with running races—marathons, half-marathons, which tend to put off a lot of people from taking up running. Just the thought of having to run 21 or 42 km can be daunting. You don’t need to participate in races to run. Even if you can run, 30-45 minutes, 3-4 days a week that’s good enough. Or you can mix walking and running—alternate days or short bouts of running during a walk, or 1-2 minutes of walking for 5-6 minutes of running; it’s all fine.

Running does increase the chance of injuries, as any strenuous sport would. But there is no real data that suggests that it damages the knees. In fact, PA of any kind protects the cartilage in all weight-bearing joints. 

I run, and for a long time, have been thinking less of those who walk. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the other benefits of walking—the aimlessness of direction and the ability to disconnect and let the mind wander free, as a perfect antithesis to meditation where you either want to focus or become thoughtless, depending on which side of the zen debate you are on.

There are so many ways to walk. You can walk briskly, fast, slow, amble, saunter, walk mindfully, or do a Buddhist walk, pace up and down, shuffle, skip, keep changing pace, especially with someone shorter or taller. There is variety and experimentation. Similarly, you can run slow or fast or follow Zone 2 training. I will discuss this more in the weeks to come.

Adding strength training to aerobic exercise (walking, running) is even more beneficial. The best is when walking/running and strength training (free weights, machines) are done together as part of a composite training session. If that is not possible, you can walk/run on some days and do strength training on other days.

Yoga is very popular and is good for stretching and activating different muscle groups in the body and improving balance. Does it increase our healthspan and lifespan? The data is sparse, and the current form of yoga is just about 100 years old, so we don’t really know. But if “every move counts”, then yoga counts and if it makes you feel good, by all means, go for it, but make sure you practise with a teacher and avoid injuries during unusual postures. The best would be to add yoga sessions to your walking/running and strength training and alternating among these various forms of PA.

You can also increase the intensity or add high-intensity bursts. If you convert a 14-minute stroll into a 7-minute brisk walk, it leads to a 14 per cent reduction in cardiovascular disease rate. Similarly, 15-20 minutes of running/week (not per day), is also associated with a 16-18 per cent reduction in all-cause and cancer mortality and a 40 per cent reduction in cardiovascular mortality. Not only that, even 2 minute bouts of vigorous activity as part of your normal lifestyle (running up the stairs, running to catch a bus, etc.) can reduce mortality by 26-30 per cent.

Even just climbing stairs on a daily basis can significantly improve healthspan and lifespan.

It doesn’t matter what time of the day, you do all this. It doesn’t matter at which age you start. There is no limit to when you can start, though the earlier you do so in your life, the better it is, as long as you don’t stop. Indoors, outdoors, in parks or gardens or on urban streets… it doesn’t matter. The less polluted the environment, the better it is, but if you live in a constantly polluted area (AQI  > 100), then you don’t really have much of a choice. So, just be active whenever it is convenient.

Wearing a tracking device seems to help increase motivation by setting goals. If you can, do wear a Fitbit or Apple Watch or equivalent device to track your PA.

To summarise:

Any activity is better than none

Walking is the simplest form of PA - 30-45 minutes / day, for 5-6 days a week (approx. 4,000 steps per day). You can add some bursts of vigorous walking or running.

Running is the best aerobic exercise, if you are able to run.

Strength training should be part of the PA schedule.

Yoga is fine, but should not be the only form of PA - it should be combined with walking/running and strength training

Use a tracking device.

The bigger question though is why more of us are not active. 25 per cent of adults worldwide and 50 per cent  of adult Indians are inactive. Despite the obvious benefits of PA, the inertia to start and continue is high. 

One major reason for this is because PA is linked to weight and weight loss. If you start walking/running and strength training because you want to lose weight, that is not really going to happen. Weight loss is a complex topic that is dependent on many issues, starting with caloric intake, the quality of food, your basal metabolism, and other factors. Of these, food is more important than PA when it comes to weight loss. If you start becoming active, with a view to losing weight, you will be disappointed and then lose interest at some point and give up.

We have to look beyond weight and weight loss to understand that physical activity’s relevance lies in its ability to reduce disease incidence, to mitigate the severity of the disease if it does occur and to help us live long, healthy, as compared to a situation if we were not active. PA reduces cancer risk, the risk of heart attack and strokes, dementia, falls and improves your ability to manage high blood pressure, diabetes, improve balance and overall well-being. These are the things to be aiming for and not weight loss.

The motivation though has to come from within. Perhaps, joining a walking or running group or a gym or hiring a trainer, can help make a difference. Sticking with the habit for at least 27-30 days at a stretch, irrespective of where in the world you are, generally helps create a lasting habit. It should be such that if you are not active for more than one day, you should be itching to get out and walk/run or lift weights. Once you reach that stage, things should get easy. Unfortunately, there are no other short-cuts to help you with the one factor that is guaranteed to increase your healthspan and lifespan. 

Remember, physical activity trumps bad food and poor sleep. This means that even if you sleep badly and/or eat rubbish food, if you are physically active, the good effects of PA cancel out or even override the downsides of bad food and poor sleep over the short-term.

Remember, “every move counts”.

Jankharia’s new book 'Atmasvasth' available online dives deeper into this concept. He can provide references for all statements of fact and can be reached at