Reality Check: How Much Exercise Do You Really Get

Can active-but-average folks possibly hope to stay in shape by mixing a little formal fitness time with a healthy dose of everyday life activity? To find out, we spent a week monitoring four people with different fitness obstacles AND objectives. The results were encouraging.

You know you should work out. Most days, you probably want to work out. But even when exercise is a priority, sometimes real life – with its bounty of meetings that run long and alarm clocks that mysteriously don’t go off – doesn’t let you get in a regular sweat as often as you’d like.

The dilemma made us wonder: Do daily activities, such as running errands or walking to class, really compensate for, say, 30 minutes on the StairMaster? More important, is it possible to meet an exercise goal, whether it’s to lose 5 pounds or bench-press one’s weight, through a combination of regulated exercise and unstructured activity?

A 1999 study done by the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research found that lifestyle activities, such as gardening or chasing after kids, were as beneficial for fitness levels and cardiovascular health as structured gym time. But we wanted to find out for ourselves. So we recruited four people for a fitness reality check – each with different backgrounds, exercise interests and goals – and had them document their daily activities for one week.

We asked them to wear a pedometer to track how many steps they took during the day. (Ten thousand steps a day – roughly five miles – is considered the gold standard for maintaining optimal health.) We also wanted to examine our subjects’ formal fitness regimens and offer them some expert advice on how they might improve and balance their routines. So we invited Gregory Florez, an American College of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, to evaluate their routines and make constructive comments.

Overall, he was impressed that all four completed a respectable amount of activity in a regular week, despite the fact that they all faced time limitations and other commitments. “The lesson here is that you can meet your exercise goals without living at the gym,” he says.

By following their lead, you too can blend workout time with real time to help reach your fitness goals.

The Squeeze-It-In Type

Elizabeth Larsen
Age: 39
Occupation: Journalist and mother of two young sons (4 years and 18 months old)
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Exercise Profile: A former runner and gym enthusiast, Elizabeth now considers herself more active than during her pre-children days. “I don’t have regular, sweaty exercise sessions on a daily basis any more,” she says, “but I don’t sit at a desk for long hours either, and I’m constantly chasing my kids around.” Often one to walk her errands, Larsen favors outdoor activities (“If there’s a trail and free time, I’m there,” she says), even in the infamous harsh Minnesota winter. In fact, when winter hits, she welcomes the opportunity to take her older son skiing and snowshoeing on weekends.

Exercise Goal: “Simply to do any,” she jokes. Actually, her biggest concern is developing muscle tone. She can now fit into her pre-pregnancy clothes but admits she would like a more Madonna-esque upper body and to lose at least 5 pounds.

Elizabeth’s Activity Log

Day 1: 9,867 steps, 5.02 miles

  • 20 minutes of raking leaves
  • 60 minutes of playing with my two sons at playground: pushing them on the swings, carrying them across the monkey bars, playing on the teeter-totter, plus walking six blocks roundtrip

Day 2: 10,973 steps, 5.48 miles

  • 20-minute roundtrip bike ride to take my son to school, towing both kids (66 pounds total) behind me in the Burley
  • 30 minutes of playing with my kids at playground
  • 1 hour of Body Pump (a weightlifting class that targets all the major muscle groups; emphasis is on lighter weights and many repetitions)

Day 3: 8,687 steps, 4.41 miles

  • 30 minutes of raking leaves
  • 45-minute walk around lake (2.8 miles)

Day 4: 9,201 steps, 4.67 miles

  • 1 hour Body Pump class
  • Played with sons – chased after them, carried them up the stairs, tickled them – throughout the day
  • 1.5 hours of dancing at a party

Day 5: 6,324 steps, 3.21 miles

  • Slept in after the party – no morning hustle

Day 6: 6,799 steps, 3.8 miles

  • 30 minutes of tidying the house

Day 7: 10,214 steps, 5.1 miles

  • 50-minute walk around lake (2.8 miles)
  • 20-minute roundtrip bike ride to and from meeting

Gregory’s Evaluation

Elizabeth is proof that no matter what your time commitments are, you can fit in exercise, and, in her case, meet your goals. Her routine is terrific. She’s got a nice mix of activity, from formal classes to playing with her kids – that fits in perfectly with her lifestyle.

A few suggestions: Since she can’t get to the gym as often as she wants, she should think about consciously monitoring her intensity during aerobic activity, which would increase her calorie burn and help lose weight while also ratcheting up her cardiovascular fitness.

For example, on a bike ride, Elizabeth could pick a fire hydrant in the distance and pedal as hard as she can until she reaches it. She might also look for a little more balance in her routine. Although the Body Pump class is great, noticeably absent are any yoga or flexibility exercises. With growing sons, she needs to be sure her musculoskeletal system is in great shape. I’d recommend finding a 20-minute yoga or stretching video she can pop in during a break in her day, and try to do that one or two times a week. She could also use some hand weights or tubing at her house in case she couldn’t make it to her regular class.

The Yoga Devotee

Heidi Wachter
Age: 31
Occupation: Grad student/teacher’s assistant, plus part-time paralegal
Location: Oakland, California

Exercise Profile: Heidi goes for yoga, yoga and more yoga. After playing sports as a teenager, then lifting weights and running half-marathons in her 20s, Heidi took her first yoga class more than a year ago and has been singing the discipline’s praises ever since. “I like that it’s both physically and mentally challenging,” she says, “I have to concentrate on my breath or I’ll mess up. I also like that after my workout, I feel energized and not like I’m about to pass out.” She realizes there are some holes in her routine, like cardio, but she is appeased by one fact: “I now have more muscles than I ever did while lifting weights.”

Exercise Goal: To find an exercise routine that complements, and doesn’t complicate, her busy life. Strict training regimens, and well as organized classes, are out of the question, she says, because she simply doesn’t have the time. She’d like more cardiovascular capacity, but, for the moment, doesn’t see how she could fit it in.

Heidi’s Activity Log

Day 1: 9,179 steps, 4.19 miles

  • 1-hour yoga video: “Yoga for Athletes” by Rodney Yee – emphasis on stretching and balance
  • 20 minutes of walking from class to class around campus
  • Walked around the office a lot, grabbing files, making copies, going down the hall to my boss’s office (which I do about 30 times a day)

Day 2: 8,217 steps, 3.75 miles

  • Walked to and from BART, the public transportation system (.5 miles roundtrip)
  • Walked around the office doing tasks
  • 15-minute walk at lunch

Day 3: 9,729 steps, 5.2 miles

  • 1-hour yoga video: “Power Yoga” by Brian Kest, level one – emphasis on strength and athleticism
  • 20 minutes of walking to classes around campus

Day 4: 7,247 steps, 3.31 miles

  • Walked to and from BART
  • 20 minutes of walking to classes around campus
  • Walked around the office doing tasks

Day 5: 10,011 steps, 4.57 miles

  • 1 hour of walking
  • 30 minutes of yoga: self-led exercises focusing on abs and posture

Day 6: 8,119 steps, 3.71 miles

  • 30 minutes of self-led light yoga: mostly stretching
  • .5-mile roundtrip walk to favorite breakfast spot
  • 1.5 hours of cleaning: laundry, dusting, sweeping

Day 7: 9,714 steps, 4.43 miles

  • Walked to and from BART
  • Grocery store shopping
  • Walked around the office doing tasks
  • 15-minute power walk at lunch to clear my head

Gregory’s Evaluation

Heidi’s regular yoga routine is giving her a good base for strength and flexibility. It’s also the best exercise for stress reduction – obviously beneficial in Heidi’s busy life now. She should be applauded for reaching her personal goal, but she’s definitely missing a cardio component and could use more strength training.

To increase her cardiovascular strength, she might turn her BART walks into intervals: fast and hard for 30 seconds, then back to normal for 30. Or during her lunchtime walks, she could find a bench and do step-ups or perform a series of walking lunges. As for strength training, I’d suggest getting some tubing or light dumbbells and doing 10 or 15 minutes of strength training either before or after a yoga video, so it’s a package deal.

As far as scheduling goes, she seems to lose steam as the week progresses, so she should try to schedule exercise into her daily routine and protect that time as best she can. Down the road, when Heidi’s done with school, she can look into a more formalized routine and perhaps ramp up her athletic goals, but for now, it’s clear she’s not letting herself forget exercise, which is great!

The Gym Rat

John Lane
Age: 43
Occupation: FedEx Courier
Location: Skokie, Illinois

Exercise Profile:John began lifting weights with his football team while he was a high-school sophomore and has never stopped. But these days, he’s dealing with arthritis in both his knees and a partially torn meniscus in his right knee, so his routine has been significantly altered. “I get to the gym four or five days a week and do what I can,” he says, and adds that he attends physical therapy twice a week. The stationary bike is his cardio equipment of choice, and he stays in the same heart-rate zone during every session.

Even though he realizes flexibility is missing from his routine, it’s hard for him to be motivated to do it on his own. (He used to stretch after karate, which he practiced for 15 years, but his knee has sidelined him.) “I can go in and lift by myself anytime,” he says. “But when it comes to stretching, all bets are off.”

Exercise Goal: Maintaining his health and energy level as he ages. “As he has gotten older, had a couple of injuries, and seen other people his age physically deteriorate, he’s realized that what’s important is balance, energy and health for the long haul,” says his wife, Betsy.

John’s Activity Log

Day 1: 17,959 steps, 7.39 miles

  • 10 hours of work: the first two hours are sorting and loading packages at FedEx station; the remainder of the day is spent delivering them (in and out of the truck at least 200 times a day)
  • 45 minutes on exercise bike (16.21 miles at heart rate 135)
  • 1 hour of physical therapy: intensive stretching and rehabilitative exercises like leg curls and extensions

Day 2: 15,694 steps, 6.43 miles

  • 10 hours of work
  • Weight workout focusing on triceps, biceps, shoulders and abs; 8 exercises, 4 to 5 sets per exercise, 20 seconds of rest between sets

Day 3: 16,816 steps, 6.89 miles

  • 10 hours of work
  • Weight workout focusing on chest, back and abs; 5 exercises, 3 to 5 sets per exercise, 30 seconds of rest between sets
  • 1 hour of physical therapy: intensive stretching and rehabilitative exercises like leg curls and extensions

Day 4: 15,354 steps, 6.4 miles

  • 9 hours of work
  • 45 minutes on exercise bike (16.25 miles at heart rate 135)

Day 5: 8,234 steps, 3.34 miles

  • Rest day from work and gym
  • Went to Home Depot, took a trip to the recycling center, cleared out construction debris

Day 6: 4,586 steps, 1.88 miles

  • A true rest day: lots of sleep, not a lot of exercise

Day 7: 15,121 steps, 6.22 miles

  • 10 hours of work
  • Weight workout focusing on chest and back; 5 exercises, 2 to 4 sets per exercise, 30 seconds rest between sets

Gregory’s Evaluation

John has a great foundation, and the great news is that he takes a ton of steps – 40 to 50 percent more than even moderately active Americans. He could stay healthy on that alone, but it’s obvious he enjoys exercise. One big problem, though, is variety, and I understand that’s partially because of his knee issues – arthritis is common in men his age who have played sports.

It’s critical that he continues to attend physical therapy, where I’m hoping there’s a strength component. When therapy is over, he should continue the leg exercises he did with his physical therapist on his own. Also, it might be a good idea to see a personal trainer about once every other month to get some new exercises to challenge his muscles.

On the cardio end, it looks like he’s hit a plateau; his body has adjusted to the demands he has placed on it. If he wants to increase his cardiovascular capacity, he should add some variety, such as intervals – one minute of getting his heart rate to 150, one minute easy, repeat 10 times – or longer sessions like 60 minutes. It also would help if he switched it up occasionally and got on the stair climber or elliptical trainer or in the pool.

Finally, his flexibility is another issue, especially given his knee and other injury problems. Finding a 15-minute stretching class or video, and doing it five days a week, would be excellent. It would provide a whole new kind of challenge and would help him meet his goal of staying healthy and energetic for the long haul.

The Competitive Athlete

Alice Dunning
Age: 52
Occupation: Radiation therapist
Location: San Rafael, California

Exercise Profile:A runner-turned-oarswoman, Alice is passionate about rowing, a total-body sport that demands strength, agility and endurance. Her off-the-water workouts include lifting weights once or twice a week, doing 12 runs up and down 164 stairs, and pre-rowing stretch sessions for a chronically weak lower back. Also, her job requires her to be on her feet 90 percent of the day. “We had our phone systems changed and there’s no paging anymore,” she says, “so I’m constantly chasing down doctors.”

Exercise Goal: To become a faster, stronger rower and, not coincidentally, to build core strength, since a capable core is integral to the rowing stroke. “I’m in the second boat most of the time because of my small size – I’m 5 foot 6, 115 pounds,” she says. “I’d love to be able to be more of a factor in the speed of the boat and to regularly be in the first boat.”

Alice’s Activity Log

Day 1: 7,754 steps, 3.85 miles

  • 30-minute walk before work (2 miles)
  • Slow day at work: no patients scheduled
  • Did the laundry, took out the garbage, watered the yard

Day 2: 10,592 steps, 5.5 miles

  • It was my turn to instruct the crew, so no rowing
  • 4-mile walk with an elevation gain of 500 feet
  • Washed the car and went to Costco, a big discount grocer warehouse, where they had moved everything around, so I had to hunt down lots of items

Day 3: 7,237 steps, 3.29 miles

  • 30-minute walk (2 miles)

Day 4: 10,328 steps, 5.22 miles

  • 15 minutes of stretching for lower back
  • 1 hour of rowing: 30 minutes of drills (various exercises to help with rhythm and technique), then 30 minutes of full pressure (giving 110 percent all the time)
  • 30-minute walk at lunch (2 miles)
  • One therapist out sick, so walked probably 50 percent more than usual

Day 5: 11,589 steps, 5.82 miles

  • 30-minute walk with dog (2 miles)
  • 25-minute walk at lunch (2 miles)
  • Moderately busy at work, so a fair bit of walking

Day 6: 5,498 steps, 2.48 miles

  • 15 minutes of stretching for lower back
  • 1-hour morning row: intense seat racing (competition to be in the best boat)

Day 7: 8,164 steps, 4.06 miles

  • 15 minutes of stretching for lower back
  • 1-hour morning row: moderate workout
  • 30-minute walk at lunch (2 miles)

Gregory’s Evaluation

Congratulations! At an age when most women have lost 20 percent of their bone density, Alice is a healthy, competitive athlete who is juggling many different aspects of her life. She has nailed her aerobic work, both intense and more relaxed.

My concern is with her back and the demands rowing places on it. She should try to lift weights, either with machines or free weights, twice a week – exercises like the superman, where you lie on your stomach with your arms and legs stretched out, and other core-centric motions on a stability ball would be helpful.

To ensure proper form and to get a variety of exercises, she should schedule a session with a personal trainer or coach. A quick way to build her core is to sit on a stability ball when she’s at her desk or in a meeting. Even if she only sat on it 20 percent of the time, it would help with her stabilizing muscles. Also, she could try a power yoga class, which would counterbalance the repetitive motion of rowing and help with her flexibility. I’d like it if she could squeeze in 15 more minutes of stretches for her whole body, not just her back, a few times per week.

Bottom line? Concentrating on her core strength and flexibility will allow her to remain at the top of her game for many years.

Dimity McDowell is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, N.M.

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