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People exercise along Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto on Friday, July 20, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood for/The Globe and Mail)
People exercise along Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto on Friday, July 20, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood for/The Globe and Mail)

Do you get 150 minutes of exercise a week? Here's why you should Add to ...

Two hours and 30 minutes: It makes up less than 2 per cent of the total minutes in a week. It’s one-third of the typical workday. It’s even 44 minutes shorter than the movie Titanic.

Two hours and 30 minutes also happens to be the recommended amount of time adults should spend being physically active each week. But as a report published last week in the prestigious journal The Lancet makes clear, few of us are meeting that goal – and it’s doing serious damage to our health.

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How much damage? We are literally dying because we don’t move enough. The report estimates that a lack of physical activity is responsible for about one in 10 deaths worldwide, putting it on the same scale as mortality related to smoking.

If the stakes are so high, why do so few Canadians devote the recommended 150 minutes to physical activity each week? A Statistics Canada study published last year found only 15 per cent of us meets that benchmark.

I must admit there have been many nights where my best intentions to hit the gym disappeared once I found myself on the couch with a good movie. Given the demands and obligations we all face, isn’t it only fair to have some quality downtime?

My sister Tannis has struggled with this in a larger way. As a mother in her early 40s of two children under age four, her days are consumed with feeding, clothing and cleaning. I asked her to describe the toll her busy life takes, but all she could manage is “I’m too tired to even respond.”

Are we too busy and tired to jump on a bike or take a walk around the neighbourhood a few nights a week? Or is our screen- and schedule-obsessed society so out of touch with what it means to be physically active that we have simply thrown in the towel?

I decided to chronicle my activity levels over a 48-hour period to see just how difficult – or easy – it is to reach the 150-minute mark. But what is physical activity? Does it only count if I’m doing aerobics? Does walking to get my lunch or typing furiously at my desk qualify? According to the authors of the guidelines, physical activity is anything that gets you moving, whether it’s brisk walk, a bike ride, gardening, or more vigorous pursuits, such as swimming or running. Sitting at a desk doesn’t count, but walking around the office does.

My experiment began when I rolled out of bed last Wednesday morning. This is how I did:

 

Wednesday

The commute: 10 minutes, walking. I’m lucky to live close by the office, so this bit of physical activity is already built into my day.

Lunchtime:10 minutes, walking. I usually bring lunch, but wasn’t organized enough that morning.

After-work errands:15 minutes, walking, to pick up a dress from the seamstress.

Boot camp:60 minutes: Twice a week, I subject myself to a gruelling, sweating-into-my-eyeballs workout that, while tough, always leaves me energized.

TOTAL:95 minutes

Thursday

The commute: 10 minutes, walking.

Lunchtime:10 minutes, walking. Apparently I’m on a disorganized streak; I needed to go out and buy lunch again.

Social hour:Walking, 45 minutes. A friend is coming over, so I picked up some wine and hit the grocery store on my way home.

TOTAL:65

My two-day total? 160 minutes. I didn’t think the number would be that high, or that I would meet the weekly benchmark in two days. Other than boot camp, the past few days have felt very relaxed.

But that’s the point: “Physical activity” doesn’t have to mean donning spandex and biking for half a day. Somewhere along the way, we have confused “exercise” with being physically active, which may be sabotaging our own efforts to get moving, said Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

“I think, over time, we’ve somehow programmed [into] people that it’s more of a George Jetson approach, that it’s treadmill-based and I need a personal trainer,” said Dr. Tremblay, who was instrumental in creating Canada’s exercise guidelines. “[Physical activity] can be incredibly easy. It doesn’t require any resources and very little planning.”

For me, finding time to get active is fairly easy. I live downtown, meaning I walk pretty much everywhere. I also don’t have any kids, so I can head out at a moment’s notice. And since I have much more energy and stamina since starting my new regime of boot camp and running more regularly, I’m far more motivated to keep off the couch.

Here’s the hard truth: Having a packed schedule or seemingly endless list of things to do in a day isn’t a valid excuse to skip physical activity. That’s especially true, considering that Statistics Canada has found the average Canadian spends more than two hours every day watching television.

“We have time. It’s not a legitimate excuse,” Dr. Tremblay said. “It’s a matter of prioritizing healthy active living into your lives.”

For my sister Tannis, time is definitely a barrier. But she even admits it’s no excuse. Months ago, she was tired of the endless routine of falling onto the couch after a long day. So she did something about it. She started taking turns with her husband going for nightly walks through the neighbourhood after the kids fell asleep.

She’s adopted other good habits, such as strapping the kids into the stroller and walking, instead of driving, to pick up groceries. When she started, she’d be out of breath by the time she got home. Now, she wants to double the length of her walks, and instead of falling asleep at 8 p.m., she has the energy to do stuff around the house in the evenings.

“Once you sit down, and most parents would agree, you’re done,” Tannis said. “PVR can wait till after the walk.”

Follow on Twitter: @carlyweeks

 

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