Snow is still falling in many parts of the country, but  take a look at the calendar: spring is three weeks away. Hibernation is no longer an option. Time to start moving.

Last month, one of our guidelines for heart health was: Get physically active! That may have been impossible to imagine on Ground Hog Day, but as spring inches closer, it’s a more attractive proposition.

In fact, it’s more important than ever.

While we all know that excess weight and lack of exercise can be hazardous to our health,  recent news has pumped up the volume on that warning. Recently Business Week noted that, according to a study at the Toronto Western Research Institute, U.S. women had significantly higher rates of arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitations (AAL) than Canadian women. Americans’ poor showing “may be a consequence of greater obesity and physical inactivity in that country,” wrote the report’s author Elizabeth Badley, “particularly in women.” University of California researchers blame the same factors (extra belly fat in particular) for a growing gender gap in strokes among our age group.

Luckily, other research makes a strong case for the benefits of moving your body, even a little.

In “Underused Therapy for the Heart: The Gym,”  the New York Times reported on a study showing that the longer and more often over-65 cardiac patients attended exercise rehab sessions, the greater their survival rates after a heart attack. According to the researchers:

… 12 sessions improved survival and reduced future heart attacks, 24 sessions had still greater impact and 36 sessions — the number that Medicare covers — showed the greatest effect of all.

Patients who came to 36 sessions, usually three times a week, lowered their risk of death by nearly half and their risk of a heart attack by nearly one-third, compared with those who attended just one session. They also had a 14 percent lower risk of death and a 12 percent lower risk of a heart attack than those who attended 24 sessions, and substantially lower risk than those who came to just 12.

Even if you currently have health problems, exercise helps — at least with anxiety. So says  a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine . “We found that exercise seems to work with just about everybody under most situations,” one of the report’s authors told the Los Angeles Times. “Exercise even helps people who are not very anxious to begin with become more calm.”

And just as this post was about to go up on our site, the New York Times’ Jane Brody came through with a comprehensive survey of about 20 studies on the subject, adding bone health, improved cognition, and better survival rates for breast and colon cancer to our list of exercise’s benefits. But first, she starts with a letter from a reader: “I’m 83 going on 84 years! I find that daily aerobics and walking are fine,” giving us all something to aspire to.

Don’t know where to start? Just stand up!  According to evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson, I should be standing up as I’m typing this — it’s a terrific way to avoid the “slow creep” of midlife weight gain. “Sitting is one of the most passive things you can do,” she writes. “You burn more energy by chewing gum or fidgeting than you do sitting still in a chair. Compared to sitting, standing in one place is hard work. To stand, you have to tense your leg muscles, and engage the muscles of your back and shoulders; while standing, you often shift from leg to leg. All of this burns energy.”

And just sitting all day, Judson warns, can put us on the road to a multiplicity  of health problems. The answer might be to take lots of breaks when you do sit. “A  study of people who sit for many hours found that those who took frequent small breaks — standing up to stretch or walk down the corridor — had smaller waists and better profiles for sugar and fat metabolism than those who did their sitting in long, uninterrupted chunks.” Even fidgeting counts:  trudging down the hall to feed that annoying cat for the 17th time, standing up to check the shelf for a long-lost phone number — it can help.

All of us have our favorite ways of being active, and we’d love to hear about yours. Meanwhile, the message is: Whatever it is, do more of it. And enjoy!

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  • Lombardi Chris March 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    And it seems we won’t feel weird at the gym with all the young things: check out this NYT slideshow on The Graying of the Gym!