1. Arts & Entertainment

Beyond machines: Men's health improves with moderate exercise

Published Jun. 15, 2012

After Glenn Gehan graduated from college, he knew he didn't want to keep up the intense workouts that had allowed him to attend the University of Southern California on a swimming scholarship.

"I was burned out," says Gehan, 47, of Dallas.

He didn't exercise for 10 years.

That kind of all-or-nothing attitude is both common and unhealthy for men, experts say.

"There's an aura of competitiveness in many men about what they have to do to be fit and healthy," says Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times columnist and author of The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter and Live Longer (Hudson Street Press, $25.95). "I hang out with a lot of middle-aged men, many of them former athletes, and it's really common for them to feel if they can't do a sustained amount of vigorous exercise, then they're not going to do anything."

More than 60 percent of American adults are not regularly active, and 25 percent of adults are not active at all, which heightens the risk of a multitude of health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"You have to understand that the human body is built to move,'' Reynolds said. "It is not built to run, but we are built to walk. You don't have to have a sport, and you don't have to compete, but the science is unequivocal that going for a walk makes a big difference physiologically. It will make you healthier, and it may help you be around for your kids for another 10 years."

Those who scoff that a walk won't make you fit or lose a significant amount of weight are right, too, but fitness and weight loss are different goals from health, she said.

"If you want to move from being healthy to being fit, then you walk five times a week 30 minutes at a time or swim or bike. But you do not have to get your heart rate up to be healthy. If you can't do 20 minutes a day, move 10 minutes multiple times a day. If you stand up every 20 minutes, it will help. Just do something."

Gehan, the former swimmer, started seeking a less competitive approach 15 years ago.

"I got into it for mental health," he says. "When I took those 10 years off, I didn't feel as good mentally as when I was working out. There was also a little bit of vanity involved when my clothes didn't fit. I thought instead of going to the tailor, I'll go to the gym."