Here's some great news for everyone who wants to get fit and healthy for the New Year but doesn't want to sweat it out in the gym: it isn't as hard as you think. Taking a brisk walk four or five times a week may be all it takes to ensure you live a long and healthy life.
There are so many myths about fitness and exercise that it's all a bit of a turn-off. But when it comes to losing weight and getting healthy, slow and steady works better than hard and fast.
MYTH 1: Strenuous exercise helps you lose weight.
Wrong-as anyone who has suffered on the gym rowing or running machine knows.
After an hour's intensive workout, you may have burned around 200 calories, the equivalent of a biscuit or two. Although you're usually told that aerobic exercise like running burns an enormous amount of calories, that idea is based on the highly simplistic intake/output model of calorie-based dieting. And it doesn't stack up. Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) accounts for between 60 to 75 per cent of your total daily energy expenditure. In other words, just being alive-including thinking, breathing and simple movements-uses up most of the energy that we get from the food we eat. Talking of which, another 10 per cent is burned up by digesting and absorbing the food.
So the average person uses around 85 per cent of energy just by eating and carrying out basic functions. That leaves around 15 per cent that we have some control over and even that amount can vary, depending on our age, gender, hormones, genetic disposition, body temperature and, for women, the phase of the menstrual cycle.
To work out the true calories burned during vigorous exercise, you have to work out how much more you burned than normal, and that's usually far less than the charts tell us.
MYTH 2: The more intense the exercise the better.
Wrong again. Remember, we're trying to burn the 15 per cent of 'spare' calories. It seems to make sense that if we really go for 'the burn' in the gym, we'll use it up. But intense exercise burns sugar when you want to be burning fat. For that, an energetic walk or slow jog for 45 to 60 minutes most days will do the job far better than one or two intense sessions a week.
This was proven in an experiment with 173 overweight women who had avoided exercise. Half the women did some moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, a cycle ride or aerobics, for an average of three days and 176 minutes a week. After a year, they had lost more weight and had lower body fat levels than the rest, who had carried out more vigorous exercise.1
Another trial drives the point home: in this one, about a hundred overweight people were divided into four exercise groups. They either did no exercise, low-intensity exercise involving 12 miles of brisk walking a week, moderate exercise involving jogging 12 miles a week, and intense exercise, where people jogged 20 miles a week. At the end of the experiment, all of the exercise groups were showing similar levels of fitness, weight loss and improvements in their cholesterol levels.2
MYTH 3: You can't get enough.
Yes, you can, as anyone who has suffered strains, pains or pulled muscles can testify. Sports-related injuries are usually associated with those who like their exercise to be intense and furious.
One study of squash players discovered that every one of them was suffering a back injury if they played every day.
And if you want intense exercise, try working out with the US marines. One survey of 1,296 young men who had just completed their 12-week initiation training discovered that 40 per cent had some injury, mostly in the ankle or foot.3
WHAT'S THE BEST EXERCISE?
If intense 'feel-the-burn' workouts aren't the best exercise, what is? As we've seen, the key is little and often, and any activity that has you a little out of breath and gets the heart pounding a little more than usual. You know you're overdoing it if you're gasping for breath and unable to talk to someone.
- Walking. This is the one most of us can do without interfering too much with our usual daily routine. But it's an exercise and not a casual stroll to the shops, so you need to set a pace that's faster than you'd usually walk. To give you an idea, you should be achieving around 100 steps a minute, or 3,000 steps in 30 minutes. This can vary according to your age, fitness and gender, so an older woman could start out with a tempo closer to 91 steps a minute, while a man of similar age and fitness should aim for 92 steps. If you're just starting out, don't walk at that tempo for more than 10 minutes; you can always build up to longer periods. Try to walk on level ground and wear good supportive footwear.
- Swimming. This is a good option if you have a health problem or your joints don't allow you to walk very fast. One group who really benefits from swimming is asthmatics. It helps increase lung volume while encouraging good breathing techniques and overall fitness. When a group of asthmatic children swam regularly for six weeks, they reported suffering fewer attacks and what attacks they had were less severe.4
- Aerobic exercise. This is any exercise where you get a little puffed and can include walking, gentle jogging, a fairly vigorous bike ride, an aerobics class or running. The problem with the latter two is that, because the key is little and often, you would have to be prepared to go to classes or run five days a week to achieve any real health benefits.
HOW MUCH DO WE NEED?
It depends what you want to achieve. Most of the advice in this article is about achieving health and a reasonable level of fitness rather than losing weight or burning fat. As we've already seen, it's hard work to lose weight by exercise alone, and you'd have to spend many hours at it if you want to shed the pounds while continuing to eat the foods that put the weight on in the first place. On average, it's reckoned you would need to exercise for 90 minutes every day before you even begin to see your weight start to fall. As 1 lb of body fat is equivalent to around 3,500 calories and the typical strenuous aerobics class burns around 150 calories per hour more than you burn doing anything else, you can see the problem.
To enjoy good health, it's surprising just how little you need to exercise. Guidance on how much this should be is very muddled and confusing; the current view is that 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week is sufficient, while others have argued that this is not enough, and yet others again reckon that reasonable health can be achieved with between just 30 and 60 minutes a week.
While this may seem too little to do any good, there is some evidence supporting it. In one study, people who exercised for just 10 minutes a day, or 72 minutes a week, improved their overall fitness by 4.2 per cent. Double that time to closer to the 20-minute recommended time period and you don't double the benefit: your fitness level increases by 6 per cent. Raise that again to 27 minutes a day, and your fitness levels will improve by 8 per cent. Interestingly, though, everyone who exercised reduced their waist measurement by an average of 2 cm irrespective of the amount they did. So the good news is that any exercise, even just 10 minutes a day, is going to do you some good.5
SO WHAT'S EXERCISE EVER DONE FOR US?
You get the general drift that exercise is good for you, but what does that really mean and how will it help you?
While there are no guarantees and even fit people can have heart problems or develop cancer, exercise will certainly reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Here are just a few of the ways it can help.
- Fractures. Osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures become a worry for the elderly and especially women after the menopause, but the risk can be reduced dramatically if you're fit and have engaged in regular low-impact exercise. In fact, older men who have led sedentary lives are twice as likely to suffer a life-threatening fracture and three times more likely to have a hip fracture compared with men who are reasonably fit.6
- Diabetes.You halve your risk of developing type 2 diabetes-the 'lifestyle' disease-if you do some moderate exercise.
- Cancer. Sit around all day and you're more likely to develop colon, breast, uterus, prostate and testicular cancers-so get moving.
- Heart disease.The armchair brigade doubles its risk of dying from chronic heart disease than its more active neighbours.
- Stroke. Exercise and you reduce your risk of a stroke by 27 per cent.
- Muscle strength. We need muscle strength especially as we get older. Just opening a can or a bottle may be difficult otherwise. And a few simple exercises like resistance training can build muscles even if it's done just once a week for 16 weeks.7
- Mental functioning. Exercise is good for the mind as well as the body. People who exercise regularly have better cognitive functioning-they are better at remembering things and their minds are a little sharper.
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE
The great news is that it's never too late to start exercising, even if you're in your 60s, 70s or 80s. In fact, scientists have made it a point to measure the impact that exercise has on the elderly probably because they are likely to benefit the most.
One study got women as old as 78 years into the gym for the first time while another recruited people who were 85 years old. But even at that age, exercise helped improve their bone health, posture and general stability, so they were less likely to fall.8
The benefits can be just as great as they are for much younger people provided you don't have heart disease. Aerobic exercise is the key, but resistance exercise is also important for the elderly, as it can help them improve both muscle strength and bone health.9
GOT A HEALTH PROBLEM? IT CAN HELP YOU
Exercise can help everyone, even if you have a health problem. Here are some problems that can benefit.
- Cognitive decline. Memory loss can be slowed if you exercise. It can improve vascular health by maintaining the health of arteries and so keep blood flowing freely around the body and especially to the brain-which is thought to be a major cause of cognitive decline.
- Diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes can help keep the disease under control by exercising. Regular exercise improves glucose control, one of the major challenges of diabetes.
- Breast cancer. Exercise may help prevent breast cancer and could even play a big part in helping you survive it. Regular exercise and a modified diet can help you live longer after breast cancer has been diagnosed, especially if you are overweight.10
- Osteoporosis. Exercise improves the quality of life in people with osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease. It helps prevent falls and fractures while improving overall flexibility and stability.
- Parkinson's disease. Special stretching and resistance exercises can improve the quality of life for people suffering from Parkinson's, the neurological disorder that affects movement.
WEIRD FITNESS FACT
Some people like to exercise in the morning and others in the evening, while some prefer the weekend to weekdays. But did you know that the phases of the moon play an even bigger part in determining the effectiveness of exercise?
The moon's phases-the new moon, first quarter, full moon and last quarter-affect the body's fluids, including blood pressure, and the heart rate and the way it recovers after exertion. So when's the best time to work out according to the moon? Researchers at the Vidyasagar University in India say it's when there's either a new moon or a full moon.11
Vol 23 no 10 January 2013
1. JAMA, 2003; 289: 323-30
2. NEngl J Med, 2002; 347: 1522-4
3. M ed Sci Sports Exerc, 1999; 31: 1176-82
4. Respirology, 2009; 14: 838-42
5. JAMA, 2007; 297: 2081-91
6. J Bone Miner Res, 2012 Nov 26; doi: 10.1002/jbmr.1829
7. JStrength Cond Res, 2012 Sept 19; epub ahead of print
8. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1998; 30: 992-1008
9. Harefuah, 2002; 141: 9. H646-50, 665, 664
10. Cancer Causes Control, 2012 Nov 27; epub ahead of print
11. Int J Biometeorol, 2012 Nov 16; epub ahead of print