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Fitness Tip: The Benefits of a Single Exercise Session

Monday, December 22, 2008 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

So you’ve been thinking about introducing some more physical activity into your life? You’ve heard about all the benefits, you’ve seen the success stories, and still the thought of getting the recommended 30 minutes of activity on most days of the week mortifies you? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, although physical activity is often recommended by physicians, more than half of the North American population fails to achieve a recommended level of activity. What deters many from beginning an exercise program is the thought of moving from a lifestyle that is completely sedentary to one that involves daily activity – quite a drastic change, indeed! It is true that to obtain the greatest health benefits and to shed unwanted pounds you must perform physical activity as recommended – that is, on a regular basis. However, did you know that you can get numerous health benefits from just a single physical activity session? Just a brisk walk with the dog for about 30 minutes after tonight’s dinner, and you will have significantly improved a number of health parameters. Even more, some of these effects may even last until tomorrow or the day after. This is known among exercise physiologists as the acute effect of exercise – read on to find out the details.

Let’s start with insulin sensitivity, or the ease by which the insulin produced by your pancreas is able to remove the excess blood sugar after a meal and store it in your muscle and liver. Poor insulin sensitivity is a key factor in the development of type-II diabetes. Interestingly, a single physical activity session of an intensity which causes you to breathe a little heavy and maybe break a bit of a sweat can improve your insulin sensitivity by up to 25%! This improvement is on par with what is achieved through regularly taking insulin-sensitizing drugs – and it happens just after one brisk walk. Additionally, this effect can last for up to 48 hours after the activity was performed.

How about your blood lipid levels? Excess blood lipids can lead to dangerous plaque build-up in your arteries, predisposing to heart attack and stroke. Fortunately, just one brisk walk can significantly lower your triglyceride levels and increase levels of the good, HDL-cholesterol. Unlike the effects on insulin sensitivity, which occur almost immediately after activity, the improvements in blood lipid levels take a day or two to come into effect.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke, coronary heart disease and its reduction is associated with a significant decrease in the risk of cardiovascular related mortality. The acute effect of physical activity on blood pressure was in fact one of the earliest documented – named post-exercise hypotension (‘hypo’ being the opposite of ‘hyper’, as in hypertension). Especially among individuals with elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, a single session of physical activity can lower your systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 11 and 6 mmHg, respectively. Much like with insulin sensitivity, the effect is almost immediate and can last until the following day. In fact, even 15 minutes of low intensity activity can lead to reductions in blood pressure – that’s a walk around the block - literally!

So there you have it – just one 30-minute brisk walk and look at the improvements to your health. Knowing that every little bit helps should aid you in the transition from couch potato to a healthy and active lifestyle. While the benefits of a single physical activity session are indeed encouraging, the key to optimal health is physical activity performed for 30 minutes on most days of the week.

So get out there and get active!

[NOTE] Today's post is an article I wrote eariler this year for the SpeakWell Newsletter, which I encourage our readers to check out. As I will be away for the holidays, today's post will be my last until after the new year. Travis will be posting solo until I get back, though, given the holidays, I assume less regularly than usual.

Happy holidays to everyone!


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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