This is the second in our series devoted to the topic of exercise and how it is an important complement (but never a substitute!) to your whole food plant-based lifestyle.
In my last article, I mentioned the concept of ‘Blue Zones’.
‘Blue Zones’ are areas in the world where populations of people live to be 100 years or older. In other words, these are people who have exceeded the average life expectancy in the US (77.74) by almost 25 years.
But it’s not just that they live long.
When describing the lifestyle observed in the Blue Zones, Dr. Dean Ornish says that these populations “often live better lives, with health, meaning, and love— dying young as old as possible.”
Think about that —dying YOUNG as OLD as possible.
Isn’t that really what we all want?
To live long, grow old, but feel young, vital, and healthy while we do it?
So how do we get there?
I’ll tell you a secret…it IS about being physically active.
But it’s not necessarily about pumping iron.
National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner reports in his book that “the world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. Every trip to work, to a friend’s house, or to church occasions a walk.”
It’s all about moving.
All the time.
In today’s article, we will explore exactly how much moving you really need to do to get the optimal health benefits.
We will also explain why physical activity alone is not enough and why your diet plays such an important role in the exercise equation.
A Focus on Fitness
But before we begin, let’s be crystal clear what being ‘fit’ really means.
Essentially fitness is a state of body that lets you meet the demands of daily life (health-related) or provides a basis for athletics (performance-related), or both.
Most people will get the health-related benefits of physical activity without the need to become an athlete (i.e. attain performance-related physical fitness). In other words, most of us will live longer, better and healthier lives without having to run marathons or do Iron Man competitions.
Health-related physical fitness is a blend of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness.
Cardiovascular fitness measures your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen during prolonged or strenuous activity and includes the fitness of your lungs, heart, vascular system and muscles when exercising. On the other hand, musculoskeletal fitness is the measure of muscle power, strength, and endurance as well as flexibility, back fitness, and bone health.
Musculoskeletal fitness may be more important for older age groups since most daily activities do not require a huge aerobic output. However, that does not mean you should ignore your cardiovascular health because it too is important in reducing risks of both chronic disease and disability.
Certain types of physical activity (running, swimming) will help cardiovascular fitness more; while other types (strength training, yoga) will benefit primarily musculoskeletal fitness.
The key is to balance the two so that we get BOTH sets of benefits.
How Much Physical Activity Do You Really Need?
A variety of sources concur that we should be minimally expending energy of at least 1000 kcal per week–the equivalent of brisk walking for 1 hour 5 days a week.
Most health professionals choose 1000 kcal per week as the absolute minimum when prescribing exercise as “preventive therapy”. (They also acknowledge added benefits of higher energy expenditure.)
The American College of Sports Medicine argues that most people can get similar benefits with as little as 700 kcal of energy expenditure per week.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise (brisk walking) per week. For additional health benefits, moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity should be increased to 300 minutes per week (or 5 hours of walking).
Move Naturally. Eat Whole.
Physical activity is not an island–acting 100% independently.
The amount and type of physical activity you need is affected by many variables, including what you eat.
It is important to point out that most of the scientific research on the volume (frequency, duration, and intensity) of physical activity people need is done on people whose diets are higher in animal foods and both vegetable and animal fats.
That means the volume of exercise recommended in those studies may be higher than a plant-based eater would really need in order to reach equivalent disease-prevention benefits.
For example, research shows that an energy expenditure of about 1600-2200 kcal per week may halt the progression of coronary artery disease (CAD) while expenditure of about 1600 kcal per week may reduce the presence of plaque in patients with cardiovascular disease.
However, these levels might be too high for those already eating a whole food-plant-based diet… a diet which independent of exercise has clearly been shown to not only halt but also reverse coronary heart disease.
Thus, when you are following a whole food plant-based diet, you might not need as much exercise to reverse the progression of cardiovascular illnesses simply because the diet is already doing at least part of the work.
(This is not to dismiss the benefits of physical activity–simply to say that a healthful whole food plant-based diet is a huge and important part of the equation).
Let’s examine a bit more closely this ‘dance’ between food and physical activity…
How Eating Greens Can Impact High-Risk Factors
High-risk health practices include activities such as smoking, excess alcohol intake, poor stress management, higher body mass index (BMI) and lack of physical activity (i.e. not walking at least an hour per day).
And when it comes to high-risk factors, a recent study conducted in Japan showed that there seems to be a linear relationship between high-risk behaviors and high mortality.
In other words, the more high-risk practices you participate in, the higher your risk of death.
What is extremely interesting is that the study showed that eating green vegetables disrupts this linear relationship between high-risk factors and mortality. For subjects who consumed green vegetables every day (even if they continued with other high-risk behaviors), the linear association between high-risk and high mortality was broken.
No wonder that greens are included as one of the Fab Four cornerstones to a healthful, plant-based lifestyle! (That does not mean you can keep your bad behaviors if you eat green vegetables every single day. You must take into consideration that intake of green vegetables may only be an indicator of an overall healthier dietary pattern and lifestyle by those men and women.)
But greens do not hold a monopoly on all the magic.
Enter the brilliant bean a nutritional tour de force with ‘super powers’ when it comes to your heart.
However, to fully understand the importance of the bean when it comes to cardiovascular health, I would like to take a few minutes to talk about heart rates.
Let’s Talk Heart Rates…
Your heart rate is a huge indicator of your health (and cardiovascular disease risk).
Ideally, your heart when at rest would beat once per second, or less. Every ten beats per minute rise in this rate increases your risk of premature death by 10-20%.
A study measuring resting heart rate and risk of sudden cardiac death showed that men with no evidence of ischemic heart disease and resting heart rate of over 90 beats/min had FIVE TIMES higher risk of sudden cardiac death compared to men with a resting heart rate lower than 60 beats/min.
Another study showed that elevated resting heart rate is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease in both men and women. Meaning that, all things being equal, just having a high resting heart rate increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. In men, a resting heart rate of 90 beats/min or higher (compared to 60 beats/min) nearly doubled the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men and nearly tripled the risk in women.
Since many doctors consider 65-95 beats per minute ‘normal’ it is important to remember that, as Dr. Michael Greger says, “normal does not always mean optimal“. In fact, a resting heart rate of 80 beats/min should raise a huge alarm bell for you.
(Want to measure your resting heart rate? Put your finger over your pulse and count the number of beats in 60 seconds. For a quicker, but less accurate result, count for 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.)
Enter the Brilliant Bean…
And apparently nothing could help you more to lower your heart rate than eating beans.
Let me explain by describing two interesting and independent studies.
The first study compared the relative merits of 12-weeks of aerobic conditioning to 12-weeks of strength training and its effect on cardiovascular fitness in sedentary young adults. The study clearly showed that “aerobic conditioning, but NOT strength training led to a significant increase in aerobic capacity”. Furthermore, the aerobic conditioning also decreased the subjects’ resting heart rate by 3.49 beats per minute.
The second 12-week study was devoted to an entirely different subject–comparing the intake of one cup of legumes per day versus consuming whole-wheat products with the goal of measuring the effects of diet on type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. The results in terms of heart rate were surprising; the resting heart rates of the group that consumed at least one cup of legumes per day decreased by 3.4 beats per minute.
Therefore, in both studies, subjects decreased their heart rate by roughly 3.4 beats per minute. The difference was that, in the first group, the participants exercised (cycling, stair climbing, treadmill) 45-60 minutes a day, 3-4 days a week for 12 weeks.
In the second group, the participants just ate beans.
In other words, you may be able to get a similar reduction in resting heart rate by spending 3-4 hours on a treadmill a week (for 12 weeks) or simply by adding one cup of beans to your daily diet for the same period of time.
(Researchers do not know why beans would have an effect on heart rate, but speculate that it might be due to its natural macro- and micronutrient composition and/or “the potential displacement value of vegetable protein foods in reducing animal protein foods.”)
It is not surprising that legume intake has been shown to be the most important predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities from around the world.
In a study that looked at food factors across five different groups in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, the only one associated with longer lifespan was legumes. In fact, for every 20 grams of daily legume intake, researchers saw an 8% reduction in risk of death. That’s only 2 tablespoons of beans, chickpeas, or lentils per day!
Tying It All Together
Eating and being active play an incredibly important and inter-related role when it comes to your health and longevity.
Centenarians in the Blue Zones not only move naturally they eat well too (lots of beans!).
If you are following a low-fat, whole food, plant-based diet, you are already affecting your health — with your diet alone. In other words, you are halfway there.
Physical activity is then the perfect complement. Just add to your plant-based lifestyle a menu of ‘moving naturally’ type of physical activities—e.g. walking, vacuuming, and gardening.
The physical activity will give you extra health benefits. Plus if you have already been eating plenty of beans and greens, those benefits can be obtained with a much lower volume of physical activity.
Conversely, no amount of physical activity can completely counteract the negative effects of a poor diet.
So combine the best of both worlds—a whole food, plant-based diet with moving naturally and you can enter the Blue Zone too!