Back in March, when it became obvious that we wouldn’t be going back to the gym any time soon, I knew that my health and fitness would likely suffer from decreased activity unless I took some kind of action against the disruption. At that point, I looked for access to data that could help track my level of activity, which included how long, how frequent and how difficult each activity was. Being an owner of a smartphone, a smartwatch and a heart-rate monitoring chest strap, there were plenty of options, but how does one use this data?

What 17,000 women in their 70s can teach us about health and longevity

While the scientists continue the debate on exactly how many steps one needs each day, we can all agree that, as humans, our bodies need movement for health and that each of us needs an achievable plan that we can execute each week on a consistent basis. Whether that achievable plan be a couch to 5-kilomenter program, a daily walking routine or a high-intensity interval training plan, the plan needs to work for you and, most importantly, needs to be repeatable because when it comes to health and activity, doing anything is far superior to doing nothing at all. For example, see this study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that investigated how 17,000 women averaging 72 years of age survived relative to their peers based on the number of steps they took each day. Surprisingly, the study found the women who averaged 4,400 steps per day, roughly 1.5 to 2 miles, were 40 percent less likely to die in the four-year follow up period.

What the world’s most successful cross-country skier can teach us about health and fitness

Guro S. Solli, perhaps the most successful female Norwegian cross-country skier in the world, was researched to investigate what kind of training was contributing to her success, and the answer was counterintuitive to what one might imagine from such a successful elite athlete. As Americans, we often think of sport training with a “no pain, no gain” mentality, in which only the strong survive, and if you aren’t pushing yourself, you aren’t getting ahead of your competition. This kind of mentality is not only wrong, it can be seriously harmful to your health if you pursue it regularly. When Solli’s data was analyzed over five years of training, researchers were surprised to find that more than 90 percent of her training was done in a “low-intensity training zone,” meaning that, on a rating of perceived exertion from 6 to 20, Solli actually performed more than 90 percent of her training at an RPE of 11/20. This level of exertion would allow someone to carry on a conversation and is considered to be “fairly light,” which is just two points above “very light” and two points below “somewhat hard.” While she did engage in many hours of training per week, as would any endurance athlete, her effort levels were in the low intensity zone for almost all of her training.

What these two examples mean for average people, like you and me, and what to do next

There are three main guiding principles one can derive from these two examples, which tell two similar stories but from opposite ends of the performance spectrum. These guiding principles can help determine what next steps we can all take for our longevity, health and fitness.

The first guiding principle is that if you want to use exercise to improve your health and improve your longevity, first quantify and measure your activity level now. One cannot manage what they cannot measure, and exercise is no exception.

So, start by quantifying your exercise, both in time spent and rating of perceived exertion. One of the easiest ways to do this is to invest in a wearable-activity tracker, preferably one that can check your heart rate. While these devices aren’t highly accurate, when used frequently and over long periods of time, trends are easily spotted even with occasional poor data points.

Secondly, being active doesn’t have to be unpleasant, and, especially where our bodies are challenged most, taking a relaxed approach might be a more sustainable approach in the beginning. Even at a low level, exercise can be tremendously beneficial for your health and longevity, especially as you age. Therefore, go for a long walk or run (if your doctor says it’s OK), and see if you can maintain a rate of perceived exertion at 11/20, which you would say is a “fairly light” level of strain, three to four days per week for a few weeks. You can chart your distance and time, and then evaluate at the end of the three weeks to see if you made any gains.

Thirdly, even high-performing athletes can achieve their fitness goals at reasonable levels of intensity, and experiencing pain in training isn’t always a signal of a gain in performance. While Solli does have elements of medium- and high-intensity exercise in her training program, it doesn’t exceed 10 percent of the time spent on average. That would mean, for someone who exercises one hour per day, five days per week, at a total of 300 hours, all medium- and high-intensity work is limited to about 30 minutes per week.

So then, if you have access to a heart rate chest strap or, even better, exercise physiology lab testing equipment, calculate your VO2 Max (most higher-end fitness watches will perform this function). Then dial your training intensity back, similar to what Solli would do, but exercise for slightly longer than usual, say 10 to 15 percent longer. Once you’ve done this for several weeks, retest and see if you’ve lost any of your fitness. If you want to take it one step further, log how your body and mind feel each day after training before the test, and then compare it with how you feel during your new lower-intensity training regime.

— Dr. Dan Michael is a chiropractic physician at NW Sports Rehab in Madison Park.