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Stand up from your desk every 20 minutes—and other tips that could save your life

The best sports nutrition, how to keep your desk job from killing you and how walking saves your memory: A new book from Gretchen Reynolds digs in with research-backed exercise tips.

Lately, my fellow New Hope editors and I share an obsession: Namely that our desk jobs may be killing us. It's not just water-cooler whining: A slew of studies have come out over the past year or two, linking prolonged periods of sitting with increased risk for heart disease, overweight, and overall mortality.

Partly because we cover natural products and wellness for a living, we are not prepared to take this lying (er, sitting) down. New Hope recently inaugurated a modest in-house gym by popular demand; we've started walking meetings for one-on-one discussions; I've started walking my mail upstairs.

The First 20 MinutesI recently learned my talented friend and former colleague, who covers exercise research for The New York Times, had written a new book. Called The First 20 Minutes (Hudson Street, 2012), it distills the wisdom of all the latest studies into common-sense advice anyone can fit into their lives. It's literally lifesaving advice, so enjoy it—and then stand up from your computer and stretch!

Q: I read a study the other day that compared sitting all day at work to smoking in terms of disease risk! How can you keep your desk job from killing you?

Gretchen Reynolds: It's actually quite easy to not sit all day. Just stand up. That may sound facetious, but it's all that's required to put the brakes on the unhealthy effects of sitting. New science shows very persuasively that standing up about every 20 minutes, even for only a minute or two, reduces your risks of developing diabetes and heart disease.

By standing up, your cause the big muscles in your legs and back to contract, which leads to an increase in certain enzymes that break up fat in the blood stream. You don't have to jog in place or do jumping jacks. Just stand. A very pleasant additional benefit is that standing up every 20 to 30 minutes also seems to prompt the body to burn calories, so you don't gain as much weight from sitting at the office most of the day.

As for how to fit standing time into your schedule, you don't have to have fancy stand-up desks (although if you want and can afford one, go right ahead). I stand up while I talk on the phone now. I keep an inexpensive music stand near my desk, so I can prop papers on it and read or make notes standing up.

There also are many downloadable apps for your computer or phone that you can set to helpfully beep at you regularly, to remind you that it's time to stand. That single action can make you healthier, more productive, and studies suggest, could add a year or two to your lifespan.

Q: What happens in the body in the first 20 minutes—why is it so important?

GR: For someone who's been sedentary for years, the first 20 minutes of being active, even if that activity is very light, such as a pleasant stroll around the block, changes so many physiological conditions in the body.

Even in that short period of time, you start to see different genes being activated than when you're sedentary; blood flow increases to the brain, which improves thinking immediately and also sparks the birth of new brain cells in the longer term; the body's biggest muscles contract, using blood sugar and improving insulin sensitivity, which reduces diabetes and heart disease risk; and you begin almost right away to slow the loss of muscle mass that we all experience with aging.

The health benefits of exercise in fact follow a very steep curve: You get most of them in the first 20 or 30 minutes of being active. You'll continue to get health benefits if you do more, of course; you'll have even less risk of heart disease, diabetes and dementia if you exercise for an hour. But the benefits do level out.

An interesting study from 2010 found that people who started walking for 20 or 30 minutes most days of the weeks had 20 percent less chance of dying prematurely than people who remained sedentary. People who exercised much more vigorously—about 90 minutes most days of the week—had even less risk of dying prematurely, but only 4 percent less than the walkers. The lesson is that any activity, no matter how slight, will be beneficial compared to doing nothing.

Q: What’s the best exercise to do?

GR: Any exercise at all! The human body really doesn't seem to care what you do, only that you move somehow. There's very little scientific evidence, for instance, that all humans are built to run. We seem to be more efficient walkers; we use less oxygen and can maintain a walking pace far longer than we can run.

But the best exercise is the one that you'll enjoy and do. If you like to run, great. If you don't, then find a friend and go for a walk. Dogs are good in that capacity; they'll go at whatever pace you want for as long as you want and enjoy every minute. Gardening is fine "exercise," too.

If you have athletic ambitions that extend beyond just being healthy, though, you probably need to do some more intense exercise. The only way to improve your aerobic fitness is to make yourself tired, at least occasionally. You don't have to wear a heart-rate monitor or follow complicated workout formulas. Just get outside of your comfort zone, so that your heart rate goes up and you're breathing harder than is strictly comfortable. An easy way for many of us to do that is to jog upstairs. If you're trying to improve your fitness, jog up and down four or five flights of stairs several times. It's a quick and potent workout. Then maybe finish with some squats.

I've had a number of physiologists tell me that when they have time to do only one exercise, it's often the squat, ungainly as it is. Squats require you to use all of the big muscles in your lower body. They demand—and build—balance and strength. They also may be one of best things you can do for yourself as you grow older; the ability to rise from a chair, which is the motion you're mimicking during a squat, is a key to remaining independent at any age.

Q: Exercise seems so much harder to work in during winter, with shorter days and nasty weather. What are your best tips for not sinking into sloth mode?

GR: I have a bit of an unfair advantage in wintertime, since I work from home and I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, meaning that I can go for a jog whenever the mood strikes me and the weather is rarely completely intolerable.

For people who don't enjoy those advantages (and I feel for you; I really do; I love living here), I think bike trainers are nice as, of course, are gym memberships and training partners who guilt-trip you into showing up. Dogs, again, work well for those who might otherwise not get outside. They look so sad if you don't walk them, whatever the weather. Dressing appropriately is key to comfort. Wear more than you expect to need and shed layers as you go.

Finally, I've found that the best motivator is the new science about exercise and the brain. Walking or otherwise being in motion for at least 20 to 30 minutes has been shown to about double the number of new brain cells that you'll make in the portions of your brain devoted to memory and learning. I need my mind to work well. So I rely on exercise, year-round, to keep my brain functioning as well as is possible. I shudder to think what my memory would be like if I didn't work out. That keeps me going on the lousiest days.

Q: What about sports nutrition? It’s a growing retail category that we cover. What works best?

GR: Science is really validating common sense when it comes to sports nutrition. The best nutrition for activity seems to be good nutrition, period. You don't need complicated diets. There have been vogues among athletes for high carb, low carb, high protein, high fat, and all kinds of other diets. None has been proven to improve performance (and some probably hurt it).

Even carbo-loading—in which you swallow as much pasta or other carbs as you can in the days before a day—a practice that is still embraced by many marathon runners and other endurance athletes, is of questionable value for most people, especially women. If you've used carbo-loading in the past and liked it, then go ahead and continue. Otherwise, most of us will benefit, athletically and in terms of our health, from eating a well-balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates, some fat and sufficient protein.

If you're exercising for an hour or more, you probably need to eat or drink something containing carbohydrates during your workout. That "something" can be a sports drink, if you like them. But it can also be lemonade or a banana or whatever you enjoy and that doesn't upset your stomach.

Immediately after a long-ish workout, the science shows that you should eat or drink something containing both carbohydrates—which replenish any lost muscle fuel—and protein, which helps you to rebuild your muscles. One of the best choices for an exercise recovery beverage? Chocolate milk, which contains an ideal ratio of carbohydrates and protein. If you don't like or can't tolerate milk, there's always yogurt or soy milk or whatever food or beverage you enjoy.

The best sports nutrition involves foods you recognize and ingredients you can pronounce. Listen to what you body tells you it wants. It's an excellent nutritionist and a fine coach.

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