It is far healthier to move more than to move less. Simple advice, but extremely useful.

However, there is an industry of medical advice, which is definitely a double-edged sword. The average person now has more access to useful medical information than at any time in our history, and it is expanding every day. At the same time, there is more medical misinformation which may be causing more harm that the useful information is resulting in good.

Misinformation takes many forms. Sometimes the information is ideological, sometimes it is specifically for marketing purposes. Often the information itself is the product, in which case there is an incentive to make the information seem special, privileged, and particularly valuable.

The problem for the purveyors of information is that everyone potentially has access to the same data, the same published studies, and the same consensus of expert opinion. There is genuine value in expertise, rigorous scholarship, and talented science communication. That, however, is hard work. It’s far easier to just take a marketable narrative and package it up as if it is a special insight into secret information, what “they” don’t want you to know. Then brand it cleverly, and even better tie it to the personal brand of a guru.

When information is the product, you want more product to sell, so there is an incentive to make the information needlessly complicated. There are always tons of details to focus on. If you are a researcher or an expert, knowing these details is important. However, for the average person what they really need is a distilled version they can apply to their daily life.

Perhaps the most obvious context that demonstrates this principle is diet. The diet and weight loss section of Amazon, for example, has over 70,000 books. Meanwhile, what the average person needs to know about diet can fit into a single sentence – eat a variety of food and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you have specific dietary needs, you may need a paragraph or two.

Meanwhile, weight loss is math. With less than a page of information, you can roughly determine your daily calorie needs. You can also estimate the caloric content of the common foods you eat. Then do the math. That is 99% of weight management – portion control, estimating caloric intake, maintaining caloric output. There are thousands of books obsessing about the 1%, with dubious benefit. All it really does is distract people from the 99%.

The real trick of weight loss is the psychological aspect of it – developing patterns of behavior that will help you control caloric intake, and identifying and mitigating any counterproductive behaviors. Maybe now you are up to a medium-length article.

There is not enough useful information (again, for everyday application) to fill a single book, let alone 70,000. Information overload is harmful. In medicine we refer to the “intention to treat” model. I can give a patient a rigorous highly tweaked treatment regimen that will optimize every variable, but if it is too complicated and onerous for most people to comply with, so what. They are likely to abandon it. However, I might be able to give them a simple regimen that is 95% optimal and easy to comply with – that will result in better outcomes.

And again, for emphasis, I am not saying that there isn’t a genuine expertise in nutrition or that nutritionists developing specific programs for patients is not necessary or useful. They are experts and that is their job. They are also potentially dealing with complex medical situations. What I am saying is that the average person does not need a degree in nutrition to eat healthy.

Getting to the single word title of this post, for most people all they really need to know about exercise can be summarized in one word – move. What the scientific literature shows is that it is better to move more than to move less. For most people, with the common goal of just being healthy, that is really all you need to know. Exercise is really good for your health.

But since there is so much complex information out there, with elaborate recommendations, let’s expand a bit. As with diet, we can summarize what most people need to know very briefly. Try to move every day. Stand rather than sit, walk rather than ride, take the stairs occasionally. If you have a sedentary job, get out of the chair as much as possible to move around.

For most people, moderate exercise will fit their goals. Get your heart rate up for at least 20-25 minutes at least 3 times a week. More is better. Do some exercise against resistance to maintain bone and muscle mass. And don’t overdo it. Don’t try to be athletic, or do anything extreme. Moderate exercise is generally safe and effective. Further, know your limits. If you have a bad joint or bad back, don’t overuse it. If you have any concerns, consult your doctor.

Of course, many people have goals other than basic health. They do want to be athletic, or to body build, or to engage in extreme sports or exercise. The thing to know here is that the more intense your exercise regimen, the greater the risks. Then you do need to know what you are doing, and at some point prior to engaging in such exercise (extreme endurance, heavy lifting, high impact, etc.) you should work with a coach, trainer, physical therapist, or other expert who can show you proper technique.

But for basic health, there is no magic exercise, you don’t have to obsess about the details, and there is no piece of equipment that is a game-changer. Just move.

What is important is that you build activities into your day that are convenient and enjoyable. Again – this is an intention to treat analysis. The higher the barrier to engaging in the activity, or the less you enjoy it, the less compliant you are likely to be. For both dieting and physical activity, doing it with others also seems to help. We enjoy social activity, it keeps us focused, and you can encourage each other.

Information overload is a real problem in our complex society. One way to deal with it is to recognize the general principle that for many things (using representative numbers) 5% of the information will get you 95% of the result, while 95% of the information will get you the last 5% of the result. In other words, there is diminishing return from more and more detailed information.

So you are better off mastering the 5% of the information, making sure you have that straight, and getting 95% of the benefit with simple lifestyle choices that are as easy as possible to comply with. Stop wasting your time, money, and effort chasing the last few percentage points of benefit, because you are likely to actually lose ground by being distracted from the more basic concepts which are the ones that really matter. The cognitive overload will also take a toll in general on other efforts in your life.

Take an “intention to treat analysis” approach to life. If you want to be healthy don’t listen to the gurus, don’t buy special “superfoods” or exercise equipment, don’t buy endless self-help books. Eat a variety of food, plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t overeat, get plenty of sleep, don’t smoke, avoid excess – and move.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.