Suffering with sciatica and lethargy from sitting at her desk too much, writer Lisa Bowman took on a month-long fitness challenge to see if it would improve her health and wellbeing.
The NHS recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week, spread evenly over a minimum of four days.
While I’d like to consider myself fairly active – doing at least half an hour of YouTube yoga every morning, as well as going for a run every other day – as a freelance writer, the reality is that I spend much of my day sitting at a desk. I’ve never felt fitter than when I used to cycle 10 miles to and from work, but now that I work from home, my commute involves a few steps from my bed to my chair.
After bouts of sciatica and a period of feeling down and sluggish, I realised I simply wasn’t moving enough, so pledged to move for an extra 20 minutes per day (on top of yoga and running) for a month, to see how I’d feel. I chose 20 minutes as it seems a lot more achievable and much less daunting than 30.
Adding additional movement to my day encouraged me to try new things, like runner-specific pilates, glute activation exercises and stress-busting HIIT workouts – all available on YouTube. Keeping a diary to track my extra activity was great to look back on, and helped me to stay motivated.
Can 20 minutes of exercise really make a difference?
Even after just a few days of getting out of my stagnant routine, I felt fitter and stronger in body, healthier in mind, and found I had more energy and focus.
A long-term study of over 330,000 adults published in 2015 showed that even if you go from being totally inactive to moving 20 minutes a day, you can reduce your risk of premature death by up to 30%. Small changes really can have a huge impact.
Walking 20 minutes has surprising health benefits
Heading out for a brisk walk was one of my new flexes, and I was surprised at the positive effect on my mental and physical health. A lunchtime stroll got me out in nature, eased my chronic anxiety and helped me focus more when I got back to my desk. It was also super beneficial for soothing my sciatica – research reveals that walking can be beneficial for sciatica prevention.
Studies have also shown that brisk walking can improve cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle strength and body composition. One 2015 study revealed that higher levels of physical activity and walking were linked with better health-related quality of life in women with depressive symptoms.
Is 20 minutes of pilates enough?
I’ve tried pilates twice at a studio and hated every second as I found it so difficult. Doing a 20 minute YouTube class was much more manageable, which meant I didn’t give up and kept going back for more. With most studio classes lasting an hour or more, I wondered if 20 minutes was enough to reap the benefits.
“Even 20 minutes a day can help because pilates activates muscles and wakes things up,” says Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates.
“It also helps you build body awareness, and the best way to do this is little and often. You’ll see results because you’re consistent and doing something different. The important thing for everything is consistency and enjoying it, which will help you progress.”
Variety is the spice of life (and the key to exercise benefits)
A study by the University of Florida showed that people who had a varied exercise routine enjoyed their workouts 20% more than those who did the same thing every time, and 45% more than those who had no set schedule. They were also 63% more likely to stick with their routine, than those with no structure.
“It also challenges your body – for example, one of my clients is a runner who’s used to high levels of consistent, aerobic exercise. She tried surfing and really felt it the next day with her DOMS as her muscles had to react differently. This helps promote faster improvement in your fitness levels, but to take advantage of these improvements it can’t be an exercise that is done all the time.”
I really enjoyed trying a variety of different activities during the month – covering endurance, strength, balance and flexibility – as my goal was simply to move more, but it may be more beneficial to repeat the same types of workouts if you have more focused targets.
“The level of variety you need in your workout is dictated by your goals,” explains personal trainer Joe Mitton.
“For example, if you’re purely looking to improve your strength you’ll need to do the same routine over a prolonged period of time, periodically increasing the weight. Having a huge variety in your programme and constantly mixing it up would be very inefficient for strength training.
“However, if your goals are more about functional fitness, a wide variety of exercises can help to ensure you’re maximising your ability through all movement patterns.”
If you’re looking to make bigger changes to your body, Myers advises building a routine that includes a less intense activity (like walking) one day and a more intense one (like running, HIIT or heavy lifting) the next: “It’s not advisable to do high intensity workouts every day – rest is as important as exercise.”
If you plan to try a month of moving more, Myers also recommends staying motivated by planning it in to your daily schedule: “Our bodies crave routine, so plan it in and your body and mind will accept is as part of your day. You’re most likely to notice incremental improvement with this methodology – slow and steady wins the race.”
My body is now so used to moving more that I’ve continued beyond the trial month. Here’s to moving more.
Want to stay motivated alongside the Strong Women team? Join us at the Strong Women Trek this June.