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  • Dr Amantha Imber

Let’s Get Physical

Learn how to shift your exercise mindset — and transform your health — with these simple, science-backed strategies outlined by psychologist Dr Amantha Imber.
Exercise can be just as effective in short bursts as in longer sessions. Photography by Maksim Goncharenok/Pexels.

Kicking bad habits and forming healthy new ones is as much about changing our mindset as it is about planning and making time for them. Psychologist Dr Amantha Imber’s new book, “The Health Habit: Shape Up, Sleep Better, Feel Amazing”, looks at the barriers that stop many people from exercising more, sleeping better and eating healthier. Drawing on recent research and expert quotes, Imber offers easy-to-incorporate tips based on the latest in behavioural science to help people make changes for good. 

In the extract below, Imber describes two simple habits with the power to transform the way we think about exercise and get us moving. 

Movement Habit 1: Vitalise with VILPA

Exercise suffers from a PR problem. Sort of like brussels sprouts. And in my opinion, the PR problem is just as unwarranted. (Seriously, have you tried roasting brussels sprouts with some fine sea salt and olive oil?) So why does exercise get a bad rap? Well, to start with, exercise is seen as hard work. It’s something you have to make time for. And you’ll probably sweat, which means you’ll need to plan to have a shower afterwards if you want to have a socially acceptable scent, which takes up yet more time.

If you’re not a fan of exercise but you are a fan of living a longer and healthier life, then VILPA might just be the ultimate solution you’ve been looking for. 

VILPA stands for Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity. This may sound impressive, but what does it actually mean?

Think about the last time you were running late to catch the train to work or an event. You possibly had to break into an all-out sprint for 20 seconds or so to make it to the platform in time. 

OK, now think about when you last took the stairs instead of the lift. 

And if you’re a caretaker of children, think of a time when you momentarily channelled your inner animal guide (assuming said animal is more like a cheetah and less like a wombat) to play chasey with your kids. 

These activities are all examples of VILPA.

Scientists define VILPA as brief (one to two minutes long) and sporadic bursts of physical activity that get us huffing and puffing. VILPA is about incidental things that don’t typically fall into the category of exercise.

I first heard about VILPA when I spoke to Professor Martin Gibala, the Faculty of Science Research Chair in Integrative Exercise Physiology at McMaster University in Canada. I had been a fan of his research for many years after reading his book, “The One-Minute Workout”, which fundamentally changed the way I approach exercise.

When I first chatted with Gibala, he had just had some research published in the journal Nature Medicine that looked at the real-world impact of incorporating VILPA into one’s day. The research reviewed data captured through wearable devices in a sample of more than 25,000 so-called non-exercisers in the UK over a seven-year period. 

This cohort of non-exercisers was then divided into those who happened to be engaging in some VILPA every day (on average, people in the VILPA group did three bouts per day, with each bout lasting between one and two minutes) and those who did none. 

“Three to four one-minute bouts of VILPA a day was associated with up to 40 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality compared to not doing any VILPA,” Gibala explained. “And the numbers are actually even a little bit higher for cardiovascular disease mortality.” 

Gibala and his colleagues at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre also analysed data from more than 60,000 people who engaged in exercise regularly. They found that VILPA non-exercisers (who didn’t do regular exercise or go to the gym, but had a median VILPA duration of about four minutes a day through non-exercise physical activity) experienced a reduced risk of dying from heart disease that was comparable with the risk reduction experienced by those who did between 75 and 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. In other words, if you build in a couple of sprints to the railway station and play a quick game of tag with your kids every day, you could reduce your risk of dying from heart disease as much as someone who goes for a 30-minute run five times a week.

Put it into action

  1. Think about opportunities for VILPA that you could naturally build into your day. For example, if you commute to work, could you build in a one-minute run in the final dash to your bus stop? If you encounter the choice between stairs and a lift regularly in your day, could you choose the stairs and run up them quickly? And perhaps you can commit to playing a quick game of freeze tag with your kids after school, or build in a final 100-metre sprint home at the end of taking your dog for a walk.

  2. Aim to incorporate three or four one- to two-minute bouts of VILPA every day.

No time for exercise? Embrace the micro workout 

Finding a spare 30-minute window for daily exercise can feel like searching for your missing blue sock in the laundry of life. And those 30 minutes don’t even include changing into workout gear, trekking to the gym/park/pool, making the voyage home, washing off the evidence and getting back to the daily grind. Reputable organisations such as the Mayo Clinic recommend that we aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every single day, a task as challenging as assembling IKEA furniture without the instruction manual (or even with the manual …).

When we see a number like that, we tend to assume that the activity must be completed in one block. Happily, the experts have crunched the data and there is some good news. Professor Gibala’s research into high-intensity interval training (which has received a huge amount of scientific attention, not to mention been featured by media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN) suggests that you most definitely do not need 30 uninterrupted minutes.

When it comes to exercise, Gibala told me, “A little bit can go a long way. What I mean by that is some people tend to put off physical activity or particularly structured exercise if they don’t have that 30-plus minute time block in a day. It’s important to remember that benefits are felt with even small amounts.”

Indeed, in 2020, the World Health Organization removed its previous requirement that bouts of physical activity had to last 10 minutes in order to be of benefit, which Gibala says was never actually based on strong scientific evidence.

It is now thought that the recommended 10,000 steps a day was a figure chosen for marketing purposes. Photography by Maksim Goncharenok/Pexels.

Professor Barry Braun is also a big fan of squeezing small chunks of exercise around everything else we have going on in life. I first connected with Braun via my personal trainer.

Since 2014, Braun has been head of the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University. My trainer described him as giving the most entertaining talks he has ever attended — and “an absolute genius”. No pressure, Braun.

“Coming from a background of running track and cross-country, I used to think if you don’t have at least 30 minutes, why even bother?” Braun shared with me. But over the years, his views have changed. “Now, if I have two minutes, I’ll take it. If there’s a two-minute break on a Zoom meeting, I’ll do a hundred squats or I’ll do 10 laps around my house.’

I often think about Braun’s approach to movement when I am doing something like reheating a meal in the microwave for a minute or waiting for the kettle to boil. Rather than just standing around (and inevitably opening the microwave door 10 seconds early because I am bored and impatient), I now try to do a few squats or jog on the spot. While it doesn’t feel like a workout, in that I’m not dripping in sweat, I can be confident that I’m doing my health a favour, not to mention allowing my food to reheat for the correct amount of time.

So rather than struggling to set aside significant chunks of time to exercise, find several two- to five-minute periods during your day instead. Braun recommends aiming to do movement that is higher in intensity, where you get a bit out of breath. For example, skipping, jumping or jogging on the spot, or doing squats or push-ups, are all high intensity movements. Or if you’re a sucker for punishment, do some burpees for a great whole-body workout — these are the full-body exercises that involve performing a squat, transitioning into a plank position, jumping your feet back to the squat stance, and finishing up with a vertical jump.

Movement Habit 2: Step 7,500

Back in 1965, a Tokyo-based pedometer manufacturer, Yamasa Tokei Keiki Co, came up with the idea to market a pedometer called “ManpoKei”, Japanese for “10,000 steps meter”. The name was purely a marketing tool, since the Japanese character for 10,000 looks a bit like a man walking.

Is there any science behind the magic number of 10,000 steps per day that anyone with a pedometer feature on their smart watch strives for? Turns out, the answer is “no”.

Thankfully, there is science behind how many steps you should actually walk per day to improve your health and decrease your risk of premature death. Because it’s best to base health habits on science, not spin doctors.

A group of researchers across the United States recently set out to investigate the ideal number of steps per day required to reduce the risk of premature death. The study, led by Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, followed more than 2,000 adults aged between 38 and 50 for two years. Participants wore an accelerometer (a device that measures the vibration or acceleration of motion) and researchers checked back in with them 10 years later.

It turns out that 10,000 steps per day wasn’t the magic number that Japanese marketers would have us believe. Paluch and her colleagues found that those who walked just 7,000 or more steps per day (compared with those who walked less), had a 50 per cent to 70 per cent lower risk of mortality.

Dr I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, was also interested in whether the 10,000 steps idea was simply a myth. She led a study involving more than 16,000 older women and measured the number of steps they took for one week. Four years later, she then followed up with these women to see what happened to their health. Compared to sedentary women (who averaged 2,700 steps per day), those who averaged 4,400 daily steps had a 41 per cent reduction in mortality. A big result for fewer than 2,000 additional daily steps.

“The Health Habit: Shape Up, Sleep Better, Feel Amazing” by Dr Amantha Imber (Penguin)

But what is particularly interesting is that Lee found that there was a magic number, where after hitting that step count, increased mortality rates started to level off. That number was 7,500 steps per day. Lee discovered that walking 10,000 steps compared to 7,500 steps a day didn’t lead to a significant difference when it came to the chance of premature death.

Another study that examined the impact of steps per day on mortality recruited nearly 5,000 adults living in the United States aged over 40 (a mean age of 57 years old). Participants wore an accelerometer for six days and were then followed up a decade later.

There were some stark differences when the researchers compared those who walked fewer than 4,000 steps per day against those who walked 8,000–12,000 steps per day. Compared with those who walked more than 8,000 steps per day, those who walked less than 4,000 steps daily were seven times more likely to have passed away at the 10-year mark. In addition, they were 10 times more likely to have died from heart disease.

Interestingly, walking at a fast versus a leisurely pace yielded no significant impact on mortality, meaning even if you dawdle for your 8,000 daily steps, you’ll be doing yourself and your health a massive favour. 

This is an extract from “The Health Habit: Shape Up, Sleep Better, Feel Amazing” by Dr Amantha Imber (Penguin), $36.99.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 22 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Let’s Get Physical”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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