Fitness without the Long, Grueling Workout
April 13, 2019
Pondering what Nature selected as advantageous in our long existence as hunter-gatherers helps us understand why walking and occasional short bursts of intensive exercise together yield the vast majority of the benefits of exercise/fitness.
What if there was a way to get rich by merely investing a modest amount of money weekly? Who wouldn't want to join the program? Our health is our only real wealth, and fitness is like the modest investment that yields multiples of the investment made.
Since our culture is based on commerce and marketing, extreme sports are front and center: professional athletes, daredevils performing insanely dangerous stunts, oldsters running marathons, and so on.
The subtext of this media coverage implies that athletics and fitness are unattainable by us average people who have neither the time nor inclination to pursue extreme training.
This media glorification leaves a lot of decidedly unglorious reality out of the picture. Extreme training often leads to extreme injuries--but you won't see any injuries except in carefully edited stories in which an extreme athlete recovers from a horrendous accident by sheer willpower and arduous training.
Left out are those who don't recover despite their willpower and arduous training.
Scientific research is giving us a much more realistic, practical and attainable understanding of increasing and maintaining a level of fitness that yields tremendous health benefits with relatively modest effort.
As discussed in a previous blog post (The "Miracle Cure": Walking), we're selected/engineered to walk, and so the simple inclusion of walking in our lives yields enormous benefits in everything from mental health, lowering our risk of dementia, strenghening our immune response and so on.
This week I want to discuss the second source of fitness health benefits-- short bursts of intensive exercise, as opposed to long, difficult workouts. This is referred to as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but it really boils down to interspersing low-intensity exercise with brief bursts of higher intensity exercise.
There have been many media reports on this research; here are a few selections:
How short bursts of high-intensity exercise could keep you (relatively) fit
But being 'too busy' is starting to sound more like an excuse with the recent rise in popularity of a time-efficient exercise strategy called high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In terms of physiological benefits, HIIT compresses of an hour or more of traditional exercise into a few minutes of high-intensity training per session. Studies have shown improvements in markers of cardiovascular health, metabolic capacity and aerobic fitness that often exceed those seen in continuous moderate-intensity exercise — and all using workout routines that are relatively short.
You Asked: Is Intense Exercise Better For Your Health?
But fitness and health, while closely related, are not always aligned. Research is now finding that you don’t have to put yourself through punishing workouts in order to optimize your health.
In a study last year, scientists from the U.S. and Europe found something surprising: the more moderate exercise people do, the more their cardiovascular health improves and their mortality risk drops. When it comes to vigorous exercise, smaller amounts seem to be linked with maximal health benefits.
Findings like these are important because many people still believe that exercise has to be excruciating in order to provide big benefits. Not only is that untrue, but it’s also harmful, says Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center.
She blames public misconceptions on a 'barrage of marketing' from fitness companies, gyms and TV shows and adds that medical researchers and journalists, though well intentioned, also play a role. Though exercise can act like powerful medicine in the body, there is not necessarily a calibrated dosage. “There are ideal targets, but even if you can’t hit them, a little is much better than nothing,” Segar says. “The old success-or-failure, hit-or-miss model of exercise is unhelpful.”
"The true value of exercise is in just getting off the couch," says Catrine Tudor-Locke, chair of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a researcher of the impressive health benefits of walking. She explains that almost all of the health perks research has linked to exercise—from a stronger heart and lungs to more energy and clearer thinking—increase the most when people move from a sedentary lifestyle to a modestly active one.
Short bursts of exercise as beneficial as longer workouts, study finds
Research conducted by William E. Kraus, M.D., of the Duke University School of Medicine and investigators from the National Cancer Institute debunks the notion that workouts have to be long in duration in order to be effective.
"For about 30 years, guidelines have suggested that moderate-to-vigorous activity could provide health benefits, but only if you sustained the activity for 10 minutes or more," Kraus said.
The study concluded that a person’s risk of developing disease or dying prematurely can be greatly reduced with an increased amount of daily exercise.
However, this daily exertion can be split into smaller durations of moderate exercise and still have the same beneficial effect as a longer, more intense workout.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a physical activity can be described as moderate if your breathing has quickened, if you start to sweat slightly after approximately ten minutes and if you can just about carry a conversation.
All the guides start with the same advice: consult your physician before starting or increasing a fitness program.
That short bursts of high-intensity exercise are as good or better than long, intensive workouts makes perfect evolutionary sense. For 99.99% of our existence, food/calories were scarce. The species that could maintain its core fitness with brief periods of exercise that didn't squander valuable calories would have great advantages over a species that had to burn huge quanitites of scarce calories on arduous, long workouts to remain healthy.
In other words, the advantages of long workouts are extremely modest for the major investment of calories and time because the human species was selected to remain very fit with the least expenditure of calories and the least wear and tear on the body.
This is one reason why exercise doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss; the body adjusts metabolically to conserve calories even as exercise increases.
Pondering what Nature selected as advantageous in our long existence as hunter-gatherers helps us understand why walking and occasional short bursts of intensive exercise together yield the vast majority of the benefits of exercise/fitness. Extreme athletes seeking that last 5% of benefits are taking on the risks of injury that only increase with age. They're basically gambling their wealth (health) for very little benefit/yield.
It doesn't take much time to increase our fitness, if we choose to "invest" our time wisely.
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