The Couch Potato’s Guide to Exercise

Couch Potatess

You are pretty sure you are a couch potato. Or, as the government says, you practice “high volume sitting.”

Everybody keeps saying you need more exercise. You see it on TV, in your mail, on the Internet, and maybe even some of your friends tell you. Or possibly your enemies.

But they are all trying to sell you fancy equipment, gym memberships, or some kind of long-term program that sounds exhausting.

You know that walking to the refrigerator more often isn’t a real form of exercise. But what is? And how much do you have to do?

Minimum exercise time

There is a trade-off between total time and how much effort it takes. So if you want to get it over with fast, you have to work a little harder. But it turns out it’s a lot less time and effort than the exercise gurus tell you.

The absolute least time that will do you any good 10 minutes. Less than that, and don’t even bother. Not even if it was nine minutes and 30 seconds.

So you’re going to have to carve out at least 10 minutes a day from your busy schedule to do some form of activity. Even if it’s just to add a 10 minute walk to your day.

Obviously, if you try doing something for 10 minutes just one time in your life it will have a very short-term benefit, which will promptly disappear. You are going to have to repeat this a certain number of times in a day or in a week. But the good news is that even though the total amount you need to have a long term effect might be 30 or more minutes, you can do it in little 10 minute sessions. Add up the total number of 10 minute sessions in a day to get the total amount of exercise time.

So if you can stand to do a 10 minute session, but you hate the idea of doing 30 minutes, break it into 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunchtime (walk into a sandwich shop, for example), and 10 minutes in the evening (get out of your car, walk around the block or two, and then go into your house).

Exercise intensity

I’m guessing that, as a dedicated high-volume sitter, you would choose less vigorous activity over shorter time as the most important factor in your choice of exercise.

The lowest intensity of exercise is just getting up more often so that you are sitting less. Believe it or not, that actually has measurable beneficial effects on your health. So if you set a timer and get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour, you will be a teeny bit healthier. Not enough to make a big difference in muscle strength or aerobic capacity, but it is enough to help a little bit.

The next way to ratchet up the action is to move a little bit when you get up. Include activities like balancing – to decrease falls – and stretching – to increase flexibility.

“Low intensity activities” also include things such as light housework. Which may or may not be good news to you. But you do get a double benefit here: both you and your house start getting back into shape. And most couch potatoes need all the benefits they can get, to keep the modification going. Does that ring a bell with you?

In fact, when you combine less sitting with low intensity exercise, it can work as well as small amounts of moderate exercise alone. Which means less effort. And less total time exercising enough to create better health. Woo hoo!

But moderate or vigorous exercise is what you need to get all the juicy benefits such as heart health, brain health, and less risk of some cancers. Sigh.

Time versus effort

So here are the absolute minimum time factors:
If you are in really terrible shape, and have not even imagined exercising let alone doing it, even 10 minutes per day of low intensity exercise can have some benefit. Most people are not this bad off, so most people have to work harder than this. But it is a good place to start for anyone who’s having major health problems.

An exercise plan if you get winded just walking would be to start with just five minutes of walking. three times a day, 5 times a week. Over a period of weeks to months the length of time for a walk should be gradually increased up to at least 10 minutes, and aim for eventually walking at least 10 minutes every day.

For the average potato, who does not need a lot of help just to get out of the chair, 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week is the shortest weekly length of time you can spend for exercise necessary to see real benefits. It must be high-intensity exercise. (I can’t even imagine anybody doing that, but you never know.) This works best spread throughout the week, not as one single one and one quarter hour marathon all done in one day. (If you’re considering that, you might not be a couch potato. But read the rest of this anyway. You might pick up something that helps.)

If you are not into lots of effort, you need to do it for longer periods of time. That means 150 minutes per week. Remember that each single session also has to last at least 10 minutes. But you can rest between those 10 minute activities and spread them throughout the day, and throughout the week. Again, better to spread through the whole week rather than just in one or two days.

If you are up for daily exercise done for the least amount of time per day, 30 minutes per day of vigorous exercise is what you need. (Ugh!!)

Exercise types

Turns out you should be looking for more than just aerobics and weight lifting. Other factors that you need to include in your exercise routine are bone strengthening, flexibility and balance. These are usually less intense than vigorous aerobics or weightlifting, but they still count as exercise! No more marathon jogging in order to reach your total exercise time goal.

Bone strengthening

Anything that increases the impact on your bones will help strengthen them. However you do not want to overdo this, because that can do harm to your joints. Jumping in place, jumping jacks, stomping while you walk, and carrying weights while you walk are all helpful to strengthen your bones.


Stretching is the basis of increasing flexibility. Do not bounce when you stretch. Just extend your leg or arm as comfortably as you can, and then apply gentle pressure to increase that stretch. Stretching can be done just before walk, or as part of a walk, increasing the length of your stride as you go.


When you are working on your balance, make sure you have a partner, to help prevent falls in case you overbalance. When you go for a walk, walking backward is a way to practice and improve your balance. Make sure your partner is right by you, ready to catch you if needed.

Standing on one leg can improve your balance, and it is something that you can do almost anywhere, and alone. If you do not have a partner and want to practice standing on one leg, be close to a sturdy chair so you can reach out for support. If your balance problem is severe, start with one or both hands on a sturdy chair, and lift one leg for a count of five. Lower that leg and then repeat with your other leg. Once you feel steady doing this, hold one leg up, then remove your hands from the chair, and see how long you can stand before you begin to lose your balance.

You should be able to gradually increase the time that you can stand on one leg. Be sure to catch yourself if you need to. Do not risk a fall.

Muscle strength

Muscle building exercises only need to be done twice a week. If you work at high-intensity muscle building exercise more often than that, you can actually end up hurting your muscles. A true couch potato should not have to worry about tha,t however. You are looking for the least you can do for improvement, not the most, right?

Everyday activities can increase muscle strength, if you start doing more of them. Carrying groceries or carrying items involved with gardening can be helpful. So if you’re using a cart in the garden or when carrying groceries, try carrying at least some of the things that you were hauling around. You can also carry handheld weights on your walks.

You can try some exercises. This can be onerous for the high-volume sitter. But you might find a few that you are willing to do. Examples are planking, push-ups, pull-ups, some yoga postures, and some types of tai chi.

Exercise bands, weight machines, and heavy weights are best used in a gym with proper supervision. These are not usually attractive to the couch potato but I’m including them here just to be complete. Who knows, you might even graduate out of the couch category.


Anything that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe harder is an aerobic activity. The average potato is only going to do this if the activity itself is enjoyable. So if you like walking, hiking, biking, swimming, or dancing, these will work, but will only count if you do them for at least 10 minutes and during that time hard enough that your heart rate and breathing increase. That means if your idea of hiking is to stroll along, stop for pictures, smell the flowers, and take a nap, this is not going to work for you. But you can always try one little 10 minute session in the middle of your gentle hike, and that part will count as exercise.

If you like doing things in groups, water aerobics and aerobic exercise classes can do the job for you. But you have to be willing to get off the couch and actually drive to the place where these things happen. You can also work aerobics into everyday activities, such as raking leaves and pushing the lawnmower. Double benefits, just like the housework.

The Bottom Line

So now you know that even the task of getting up out of your chair more often has a benefit.

You have some idea of the least irritating things you can do to actually start exercising. You should have found at least one or two that you are doing to work into your daily routine.

You are probably pleasantly surprised to find out that you can exercise in little 10 minute spurts and actually get real benefit. You may be looking forward to telling those irritating fitness geeks about this.

You can modify your daily routine, tweaking your daily chores to turn them into exercises. A two-for-one benefit, and another one you can brag about.

You might even find yourself doing more than the minimum. And getting more than the minimum health benefits.

But then you wouldn’t be a couch potato. Which is actually not a bad way to go. Although you might not want to admit it to anyone. They might expect you to do more housework.

Leave a Comment