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My Truths About Exercise

March 1, 2012

Hello! Sorry that I was absent for another What I Ate Wednesday. I had a busy day at work yesterday, and then after work I drove straight to my parents’ house in Chester for yet another weekend of revising. I’ve got another exam on Monday, but I’ll try not to moan about it too much because I’m sure that it gets boring.

On Tuesday evening I made a point of staying up past my bedtime (which has been about 9:30pm lately!) to watch an interesting Horizon documentary called “The Truth About Exercise”. If you’re in the UK you can watch it again on BBC iPlayer, or there’s an article on the BBC News website that explains some of the key ideas.

The headline “truth”, which seems to have grabbed a lot of media attention is that to get health benefits from exercise you only need to do 12 minutes of very intense exercise every month. This took the form of 20 seconds of cycling as fast as possible, followed by a short break, and then repeated three times. The recommendation was to do this three times a week every week. I’m sure that the concept of high intensity interval training (HIIT) isn’t anything new to most people in the healthy blog community, but 12 minutes a month seems extreme. The main benefits of this kind of training were shown to be decreased insulin resistance and an improvement in aerobic fitness (measured as VO2 max). One of the surprising things for me was that research has suggested that about 20% of the population don’t have the genes for improving aerobic fitness, so although they get other benefits of exercise, they would find it very difficult to improve their VO2 max.

I wholeheartedly agreed with some of the other “truths”, including the fact that it’s easy to hurt yourself and that exercising doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose weight. Personally, I think it’s really important to include exercise in order to lose and maintain weight, and of course to be as healthy as possible, but it’s become increasingly clear to me that weight management is essentially about what you eat and your relationship with food and eating.

The documentary also explored the concept of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is all the movement and activity you do on a daily basis that isn’t focused exercise, but still increases your metabolic rate. The catchphrase of the expert on the programme was “the chair kills” and that it’s better to move regularly than to be sedentary and just hit the gym once a day. This idea really struck a chord with me, because I tend to be quite sedentary during the day. I have a desk job and I often forget to get up and walk around when I get engrossed in something. I’m fanatical about going for a walk every lunchtime, but I need to think about moving more during the day, which is something my chiropractor has recommended as well. I usually do some sort of exercise in the evening, but then I sit with my laptop on my knee or watching TV for the rest of the time.

The main point of the programme was that 80% of the UK population don’t do any exercise, but to achieve the main health benefits they only need to do the 12 minutes of HIITs a month, plus get moving more in general. I get that, but for me, I have my own personal truths about exercise. Firstly, I love exercising and the idea of only doing a small amount each week just doesn’t appeal to me. My yoga teacher talks a lot about “meditation through movement”, which really works for me because I use the time that I’m getting up a sweat to clear my head and sort through all the stuff that’s been going on through the day. I enjoy the challenge of improving, whether it’s running further and faster, mastering a yoga pose, or getting through the 30 Day Shred a bit more easily each time I do it. I also like the social contact that exercise can provide. I’m naturally quite shy and I have never been into team sports, but I meet people through my running club and various exercise classes that I’ve done.

I guess that exercise is about more than being fit and healthy for me, it’s more of a hobby or pastime, in the same way as train-spotting or stamp-collecting is for some other people.

For what reasons do you exercise. Would you consider just doing a small amount each week to get the health benefits?

Do you move a lot during the day or are you sedentary?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2012 7:36 am

    thanks for posting about this, I never knew about the programme, will check out the recap later. I exercise for many reasons, mainly its something I enjoy doing I just get such an amazing buzz after a run, cycle, gym session. Also it is part of who I am, almost like my identity and it helps my depression and also means I can eat more:p I do move quite a lot during the day, I either work in a bar or am working as health care assistant at the hospital

    • March 1, 2012 8:58 am

      I think exercise is so beneficial to boost mental health just as much as physical health. You must get loads of exercise doing those jobs!

  2. March 1, 2012 8:19 am

    I watched that too, but the whole style really annoys me- I think they are after the sensationalist headlines. After the month, the guy had improved the control of his blood sugar levels etc, but was this down to the HIIT or the general day to day activity that he added in? Would he have improved more had he completed longer intervals/ more, or tried different types of exercise. I think most people (the people who do not exercise) just use this as “evidence” that they do not need to exercise. Plus when he did some running, and then was eating a muffin and a banana (which he said something like ” a banana is something that MOST people consider healthy”- what did he mean- that he didn’t think it was???) and was told how many calories per minute he used, he still could not calculate / estimate how long he would need to run for to burn off the calories. That is why a lot of people do not lose weight when they exercise because they drastically over estimate the cals used, and underestimate the cals eaten.
    Anyway, I think exercise is important for the mind- it helps clear my head after a busy day, it helps me sleep better, I love getting fresh air, I love having challenges like races to work towards or lifting more weights….
    During the day I am pretty active usually- I do sit for the main teaching part of each lesson, but then I would be moving around the classroom/ rushing around the school before/ after/ at lunch time/ break time etc, and I don’t really sit still at home generally- maybe for 45 mins when watching a TV show but then I will be up tidying/ making a cup of tea etc.

    • March 1, 2012 8:56 am

      That’s a really good point. My Mum read about it in the paper without seeing the programme and twisted it slightly to make excuses for not exercising. I thought that the points about moving more during the day were more useful because I think essentially being inactive is the cause of a lot of problems for people. I don’t believe you have to “workout” to be fit, but people should really be encouraged to walk a lot more and generally just move.

      • March 1, 2012 3:57 pm

        And also what about being flexible? That is my weakest point, but introducing yoga was helping me with that.
        I agree about moving in the day and I think that is something that everyone can do, easily, with no excuses.

      • March 1, 2012 6:00 pm

        Absolutely! That’s my weak point too.

  3. March 1, 2012 8:58 am

    Sounds like a very interesting programme. I’ve always believed the 80% diet, 10% exercise and 10% genetics thing when it comes to weight and health so I know that exercise is kind of the icing on the cake in a way. Like you I exercise for lots of different reasons than just to burn calories or even just for physical health. My exercise time is often my ‘me time’ as well. I also have to admit I love the endorphins and the sense of achievement I get from exercise. Did they mention anything in the programme about strength training? It seems like a big thing to miss out considering all the benefits of strength training for bone density and muscle building. I have to say I think I probably am way too sedentary during the day too, I need to remember to go for those lunch time walks – or as I sometimes call them my vitamin D breaks 😉

    • March 1, 2012 9:59 am

      No, the programme made absolutely no mention of strength training – I agree it’s a huge thing to miss out! Today is a great day for a Vitamin D break (at least in Chester it’s gorgeous at the moment).

  4. March 1, 2012 11:14 am

    I knew that programme was on, but I could not bring myself to watch it. It really irked me: that particular ‘scientist’ has made a similar statement before, and ‘investigated’ the role of exercise in relation to metabolism but to me he has an agenda of some sort, and presents a very one-sided argument. I appreciate he’s preaching to the 80% that anything is better than nothing (I find that figure shocking – my gym is always packed, there are runners/cylists/walkers absolutely everywhere…surely that can’t only be 1/5 of people. Or perhaps I live in a very ‘sporty’ area?) but isn’t that just an excuse to be lazy? God forbid that some people might *want* to exercise. It’s like when I see all of these posts about distance running being evil and making you retain fat because your body is efficient and cortisol levels are elevated, so everyone and their friend suddenly stops running and does HIITs and weights. I guarantee by next year some other fad will come along or running will be back ‘in fashion.’

    And what’s wrong with wanting to run marathons for the achievement? I appreciate I’m the poster girl for the bad effects of excessive exercise on appearance, weight and health, but I think the message of the Horizon show could deter people from exercising properly, and make them committed to doing only the bare minimum. It just seems ludicrous to me.

    I can’t stand not being able to move during the day – I need to find an active job or I swear I’m going to go nuts by the end of the year.


    • March 1, 2012 11:21 am

      I think that the section about HIIT was very one sided and it did seem to take it for granted that no-one likes to exercise, when that’s just not true! The danger is that it discourages people from trying different sports and active hobbies that they might find that they like – I never liked sport or exercise as a youngster. Other aspects of the programme were more reasonable I think.
      I think the 80% figure could be accurate – if I think about the people that I work with, the majority of them don’t do any exercise and it’s the same in my family … but you know what they say about statistics.
      I totally agree with you about the fad thing – there’s always some new science in the field of diet and fitness – it’s so hard to know what the “truth” is, because it’s so complex and actually there isn’t a definitive answer.

    • March 1, 2012 4:00 pm

      Jessica I get annoyed too by things like this on Panorama, which I think do not explain things properly or do the proper science (like the truth about food prog) but I wanted to watch it, and it helps me counter argue more effectively! I also agree that people will see the headline and think of not exercising at all because the show “proved” there was no point.
      If I think about my workplace, probably about half the people my age do exercise in the form of gym classes a few times per week/ jogging once a week/ playing hockey once a week, but the rest of them don’t, and I don’t think any of the ones aged over 40 do anything, except a walk at the weekends. So I think that figure sadly may be closer than we would like.

      • March 1, 2012 6:00 pm

        I think the problem is that way in which they explain the research, presenting it as “truth” and taking a very particular perspective. I’m sure there’s plenty of research showing the benefits of more traditional approaches to exercise as well.

  5. March 1, 2012 11:25 am

    I have to say, over Christmas I was only doing about 30 minutes of exercise a week (not a month, that sounds mad) with HIIT in the form of 3x4minute tabata sprints a week, and though I gained a little Christmas weight, my resting heart rate dropped over 10 beats in 6 weeks, which (considering I wasn’t unfit to begin with) is mad. Admittedly, I did do other exercise once the Christmas period was over, but I’m now improving my fitness on about 4-5 hours of exercise a week – considering I used to maintain fitness on far more than that, I’m pretty impressed by HIIT.

    • March 1, 2012 6:04 pm

      That’s impressive! I would definitely give shorter workouts (although not as short as 12 mins a month!) a try when I’m not training for anything.

  6. March 1, 2012 12:33 pm

    Thank you for writing this Sarah, it was really interesting, I’ll definitely be checking out the program sometime!

    My main issue with these ‘truths’ is that as usual, people are being told an exact number of minutes to go, an exact amount of times. We’re very familiar with the concept of 5 a day, of drinking 8 glasses of water a day, not exceeding 2-3 or 3-4 units of alcohol a day… The problem is, as you’ve discussed a little, that it varies from person to person! Some people need or enjoy doing more, for some high impact could be damaging etc. The media gets so preoccupied with exact numbers and that bothers me!

    I genuinely enjoy working out, I like the buzz it gives, I love varying my workouts, trying new things. I love calm exercise like pilates which works at my core to high intensity exercise like the 30 Day Shred which leaves me sweaty!

    The thing with me is obviously that my level of activity is forcefully limited but I do wish I could be more active throughout the day. I do walk and cycle to and from lectures at least twice a day but I’d love to be able to walk more.

    • March 1, 2012 6:03 pm

      The more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed with the title of the programme – I don’t think there’s such a thing as “truth” in this area of research because there’s so much conflicting information. Presenting it as truth is quite irresponsible.
      It must be awful to be constrained by your body – I think you do so well to move as much as you can every day.

  7. March 1, 2012 1:13 pm

    At my age, I think it’s important to keep moving to keep myself flexible. I exercise in spurts, but the thing I’ve been pretty loyal to over the past 20 or so years is my exercise bike. I do it almost every day. It’s actually cheating in a way because I read while I do it, but heck, whatever gets me moving is a good thing right? That info is very interesting, though. I wouldn’t have thought that.

  8. March 1, 2012 8:15 pm

    For me the health benefits of exercise are just a bonus. I exercise for many different reasons, using it as a stress reliever as a hobby. I genuinely love to work out and couldn’t go without it, even it’s just a short walk or some gentle stretching the feeling after is amazing and sets me up for the day. The program sounds very thought provoking.

  9. March 1, 2012 9:15 pm

    My friends were talking about this programme yesterday but I missed it myself. As you yourself and all the commenters on your post have pointed out, exercise provides so much more than physical health benefits. It would be a shame if this is all that the programme focused on. Exercise has such a huge impact on our mental welfare. When I’ve been cooped up inside for hours, I love to take a break and go for a run. I get fresh air, enjoy the beautiful scenery, smile & say ‘hi’ to lots of people along the way, and get to feel my heart beating and the blood pumping round my body. I especially love sunny days like today when we get a healthy dose of vitamin D while we run! BTW I loved the Twitpic from your run today. We’re so lucky to have such beautiful countryside on the doorstep!

    • March 2, 2012 7:58 am

      I love getting my heart rate up – I would go as far as to say that I’m addicted!
      My run yesterday was so wonderful – I’m so lucky that my parents live somewhere so beautiful.

  10. March 2, 2012 12:05 am

    Such an interesting topic! I’ve read up a lot on this lately since studying for my personal training exam, and although there may be some truth to it– I personally feel great exercising often and in different ways. With that said, this kind of info. was just what I needed to hear to keep myself from OVER-working out, which is SO common among active people today!

    Thanks for discussing this!

    • March 2, 2012 7:57 am

      I think variety is the spice of life. Doing the same workout three times a week every week would drive me crazy – that’s why I’ve never been able to get all the way through the 30 Day Shred.

  11. March 2, 2012 8:54 pm

    I didn’t see the programme but I did read the article and thought it was really interesting… I’m sure the general movement thing is really important; I wore a really accurate calorie counting armband last year for a work fitness feature and it was the days I hadn’t done any “official” exercise but been on my feet all day that I burned much more than a mainly sedentary day with say 40 minutes’ cycling. Having said that, I don’t think putting it out there that 12 minutes a month is enough is a good idea…
    I like exercise both because I just like it and because it makes me feel better – and healthier – than I would otherwise 😉

  12. March 3, 2012 9:47 am

    Interesting post Sarah. I haven’t seen the documentary but read an article on its findings in the week. I think that some exercise is obviously better than none at all, and the majority of Brits would discover benefits from doing small amounts compared to doing nothing. However, personally I love exercise and there is no way I could get by on 12 minutes a month! I love how I feel during and after exercise, I enjoy it, and I think actually the mental benefits of exercising far outweigh the physical ones. I also agree about factoring in everyday effort, so many people now lead completely sedentary lives compared to the past where people were a lot more active in their daily activities. If I am working at a desk I try to stand up and move around rather than sit down, I also try and get outside at some point during the day whether for a walk or a run.

  13. March 4, 2012 10:43 pm

    Very interesting post Sarah, and I appreciate you sharing your own thoughts with it!

    i have not seen that documentary, but honestly, it would be one I would see when I have the time to.. .later this week perhaps! Anyway, I do think that although 12 minutes a month is better than nothing, that just seems like a very odd recommendation to me. Like you said, we are supposed to move around throughout the day and staying sedentary is actually very unnatural for us. We are not meant to sit on our butts all of the time, but is often unavoidable with work demands, like with your desk job.

    There is of course nothing you can do about that, other than walking and moving around throughout the day. that is great you take a lunch walk, and now that you are more conscious of moving more during the day, I know you are going to start to. Plus, I find that when I sit too much for too long, well I feel “fat” of course (nothing new) but also my brain and thinking just starts to feel blah… I need a mental break and then I come back and can focus so much better.
    Thank you again for your insight and thoughts on this!

  14. March 14, 2012 4:34 am

    I started doing yoga 30 years ago for back pain when I was a racing cyclist. My main goal then was to ease pain that was it. Now, after years of cycling and swimming, yoga is all I have been doing for about 7 years. I am much more fulfilled as a woman and an athlete doing this practice everyday. I find I learn something new everyday! It gives one an overall feeling of health because you become so concious of how you treat your body. Greetings, Jane

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