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Lowered expectations

With Canadian obesity levels continuing to rise and overweight and obese people making up 47 per cent of the population, it only makes sense that one public health agency is recommending we… drop our exercise levels?

At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. But when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find it actually makes a lot of sense. Here’s the background. Last year, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) and ParticipACTION released new guidelines for Canadians and their activity levels, actually advocating lower amounts of exercise than previously recommended. And if you take that advice at face value, it would certainly appear they’re saying the answer to combatting obesity and weight problems is to do less exercise.

If you dig a little deeper, though, you’ll discover that’s not exactly true. What CSEP has found is that measurable health benefits can be achieved at lower activity thresholds than previously thought. Hence, the new recommendations of 150 minutes of exercise per week for adults aged 18-65.

Now, it’s true that doing 150 minutes of very light or moderate exercise per week probably isn’t going to have a drastic effect on weight loss. But the CSEP is also advising that these recommendations are the minimum amount, and says we should aim for more than the recommended amount.

But I can certainly understand why they’ve dropped the recommendations. Let’s face it – many people currently don’t exercise at all. If you want to give them an incentive to get out and exercise, don’t scare the crap out of them with unrealistic expectations. For example, if you tell a group of couch potatoes that they should really work out for 60 minutes, five times a week, it’s going to sound way too daunting and they won’t do anything at all.

Instead, CSEP is taking a much more measured, reasonable approach meant to reassure people, not freak them out. Saying to a non-exerciser “you should go for a walk around the block after dinner” is a lot more palatable than saying, “you should run a marathon.” That’s not to say we shouldn’t encourage high levels of fitness – it’s just saying we should know where to start.

I hear it all the time myself when people find out I’m a runner. Whether it’s a friend, family member or a reader, I often get asked, “How should I get started?” I would never hand someone my scary marathon training plan with runs of 30+ kilometres once a week! Instead, I tell them to start off slowly by trying a combination of running and walking for about 20 minutes at a time.

And that’s exactly what these recommendations are: a way to get started. If all Canadians just started off slowly and tried to fit in 30 minutes of exercise, five times a week, they might just get the bug and make fitness and activity a part of their daily lives. And THAT will go a long way to helping us all be fitter and healthier in the end.


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