The beginning of the New Year is an ideal time to start developing healthier habits in 2019 and beyond.

And if you’re like most Iowans, you probably want (and need) to start exercising more. Only 20 percent of Americans meet or exceed the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, there’s good news for those of us who dread going to the gym or running on a treadmill. New U.S. physical activity guidelines released last month stress that you don’t need to “work out” to get the recommended amount of physical activity each week.

Instead, physical activity is now defined as anything that gets you out of your chair, away from screens and moving around.

Or more simply, we all need to move more and sit less, says Greg Welk, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

“All forms of physical activity count, and it doesn’t have to be a structured form of exercise. And it doesn’t have to make you sweat or breathe hard,” Welk says.

Emerging research has confirmed countless benefits of physical activity that go beyond weight control, Welk says. These benefits include improved brain and emotional health, stress reduction and better sleep, Welk says.

“(Physical activity) is one of the most important things you can do for your health, if not the most,” he says.

The revised U.S. physical activity guidelines still recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity each week, as well as two days of resistance training per week.

However, the new guidelines also encourage Americans to minimize sedentary time and move more throughout the day, Welk notes. New research shows that sitting for long periods of time can raise your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

"(Physical activity) is one of the most important things you can do for your health, if not the most."
 Greg Welk, professor of kinesiology, Iowa State University

“You can be physically active, but if you sit all day, you have risks associated with your sedentary time,” Welk says. “You want to be more physically active, and you also want to be less sedentary.”

Even if you only have a few minutes to take a walk or stand up from your desk, that’s better than doing nothing, Welk says. Physical activity provides immediate benefits to your health, according to the latest research.

And if you do sign up for high-impact fitness classes but your weight doesn’t change, don’t get discouraged and give up, Welk says. A combination of factors, including our diet, stress level, genetics and adequate sleep, also impacts our weight.

“Physical activity has such strong health benefits that it’s independent of weight loss. You get the health benefits even if your weight isn’t coming off,” Welk says. “The key is to focus on positive outcomes from physical activity — sleeping better, feeling better, having more energy, relieving stress — and not on weight.”

If you’re ready to increase your physical activity, Welk recommends starting out “small and slow.” You don’t have to take grueling fitness classes or train for a half marathon.

Instead, start by taking a walk around your neighborhood once a day. Find a fun, active hobby, such as golf, biking or gardening. Or try a low-impact, stress-reducing fitness class like tai chi or yoga. All these activities count as physical activity, Welk says.

“Exercise shouldn’t be a penalty or punishment. It should be the joy in your day, the outlet in your day, or the time in your day when you can do whatever you want. It’s for you. It’s a time of day to commit to yourself, not for somebody else,” Welk says. “Find what you enjoy and make a commitment to do something every day.”

Indeed, Welk says it’s OK to be selfish with your time considering the many life-long benefits of regular physical activity.

He suggests that spouses or partners encourage each other and work around dinner times and office hours to find time for physical activity in their day.

“It’s about taking personal responsibility for your health. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do, and it isn’t that hard,” Welk says.