Exercise resolutions worth the trouble

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There's next to nothing special about the Earth's orbit around the sun right now. January, in that sense, is just another month in the natural world.

But because we think of this time as the start of the next page on our calendars, January can be a great time to start fresh with some new personal goals. And medical science will support you in making some real changes in your life.

Besides, there's nothing like the dry residue of old fruitcake on the kitchen counter to make health-related resolutions this time of year seem more appealing. Certainly in my own case, I know I could use some changes.

If you're in the mood to address your fitness and likely improve your health in the process, there's a lot of good news. Medical science shows that moderate exercise benefits adults in a whole slew of ways. And we don't need to pretend we'll ever be triathletes to benefit a lot from a bit of reform.

What might you gain from exercise? Research has shown the list is long. You could help yourself avoid a whole range of maladies including diabetes, heart disease, depression and, of course, obesity. Even if you already have developed problems, research shows you can improve your lot.

The bottom line is that medical science shows that while exercise may not be an actual fountain of youth, it's one of the most potent aspect of our daily lives that influences our health. Some doctors think it's actually the very most important part of what we do that influences longevity.

One modest set of goals for physical activity comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Recommendations for adults state that adults can improve their health substantially by two and a half hours per week of what's called moderate aerobic activity or one and a quarter hours of vigorous aerobic workouts. The moderate level of aerobic workouts includes brisk walking and even ballroom dancing. Vigorous activity can include jogging, swimming or jumping rope.

If you're a couch potato or have health problems, the government warns you should check with your doctor before you start a workout schedule. But, on the other hand, if you are in good shape and are already doing what was just mentioned, you can get more extensive health benefits by doing more. You could aim for five hours a week of moderate activity or two and a half hours of vigorous workouts.

Besides just doing more aerobics, you should consider adding some form of weight training twice a week to what you do. That could mean going to a gym, but it doesn't have to. Heavy gardening work and doing exercises like you used to do in school (sit-ups and push ups) all count in this category.

For me, walking and swimming are easy enough and a real pleasure. I regularly do both, far more often than the government's basic standards. I think that's because there's something about the mesmerizing effect of aerobics that appeals to my peculiar mind.

But weight training is quite another matter. After all, it hurts! So that's where I could reform, increasing how often I suffer through the weight machines at the gym.

There are also those pesky details like flexibility, where some of us earn a clear "F." Only real diligence in 2011 is going to help me reach my toes again.

If you've got kids, you also could think about their physical activity levels. Playing outdoors and doing sports rather than succumbing to full days spent with electronics can help set up a lifetime of healthy habits.

If you think that some structure to your New Year's resolution might help you or your kids, you could check out the President's Challenge program at www.presidentschallenge.org. In just six weeks, if you stay on the fitness wagon that's described, you'll qualify for the active lifestyle award. That might give you a great start on changing habits in the New Year.

E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at epeters@wsu.edu.

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