The Truth About Exercise?

Tennis ShoesRecently I watched a program on PBS called The Truth About Exercise with Michael Mosley that addressed some surprising new research and challenged many of the things I had ever heard about working out.  Y’all, I hate exercising.  I will do whatever I can to avoid it, especially when life gets busy… or I’m tired, or stressed, or lazy, or just having too much fun to not have fun.  If you’re anything like me, I think you’ll find some hope in what this program had to say.

There is obviously a relationship between weight loss and exercise – we’ve all seen the inspiring stories about people who started crossfit or trained for a race and shed the pounds.  Then, we also hear that exercise is not really sustainable for losing weight, that it’s about what we eat and maintaining a healthy diet.  And, truly, eating right does work for everyone. But, there are other benefits of exercise to consider as well:

  • “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy…” – Elle Woods.
  • Lowers blood pressure and risks of stoke & heart attack
  • Lowers your risk of diabetes. This program showed how 90 minutes of walking the night before a terrible-for-you breakfast reduced fat deposits from that meal by a third. The enzymes (lipo protien lipase) released during exercise stay in the system and make fat go to be burned by muscles rather than into our fat stores. This prevents damage to our blood vessels and also the deep fat in our organs (fat around our waist) that’s really dangerous.

Let’s be honest, though, for all that hard work, most of us are really looking to lose weight.  Unfortunately, it does not give many the fat burn they really want.  In fact, it has now been scientifically proven that people respond very differently to the same amount and type of exercise.  15% of the population see huge physical benefits from exercise, while 20% of the population see absolutely no change.  Those 20% are called non-responders and, unfortunately, it’s genetic.  Then there are the other 65% who are somewhere in the middle of that range.  Exercise is not one size fits all… exercising more may not help you, and that, combined with our busy lives, is certainly not motivating us to get to the gym.

Professor Jamie Timmons, University of Birmingham (UK), performed clinical studies of non-responders and set out to find a form of exercise that helps everyone and is sustainable enough to fit into our busy lives.  They used two main tests to measure the health benefits – 1. Insulin Sensitivity (Insulin removes sugar from the blood and controls fat – I discussed this in detail a few weeks back; sensitivity is a measure of how quickly it works) and 2. VO2 Max (how much oxygen your body is able to use, which is a huge indicator of the future health of your cardiovascular system).  Studies suggest that short spurts of highly intense exercise is what can improve these two: 20 seconds of the most intense exercise you can handle, followed by period of rest, repeated twice.  Do that three days a week.  This can be cycling as fast as you can on a stationary bike or sprinting down the street.

How can this possibly work?  That crazy intense form of exercise breaks down the glycogen stores in the muscle and that’s the key signal from the muscles to say “I need more glucose to burn, NOW!” to the blood.  Unlike walking or jogging, where you are only activating 20-30% of your muscles, this intense exercise is activating 70-80% of your muscles, which creates a much larger sink in glucose, causing your body to get more sugar out of the blood to burn.  In fact, they saw results in these two crucial areas in just 2 weeks.

After the show’s host, Michael Mosley, participated in 4 weeks of this protocol, they tested his insulin sensitivity and VO2 Max. He had an overall improvement of insulin sensitivity of 23%, which is remarkable, but in line with what the clinical studies are proving.  Michael also learned that his aerobic activity did not increase at all which proved (along with a genetic test) that he is a non-responder to exercise.

A couple other interesting things I learned from the program:

  • Most of us spend 12 hours a day sitting and not moving.  Being active increases your metabolic rate. Moving throughout the day is how we were designed, so that’s obviously best for our bodies.  Dr James Levine, Mayo Clinic, an obesity expert, says that the best way to burn fat is to increase your NEAT – Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.  No need to sweat, but make a more conscious effort to constantly move.  Our bodies idle when we sit for an hour, gunk builds up: blood sugar and fat elevate. In order to keep the fuels moving through your system, you need to be moving every hour, not just exercise a couple times per week.
  • We may feel like our muscles are what get tired and that’s why exercise exhausts us, but, actually, it may be our brain.  Michael Mosley did a test in a low oxygen chamber and he got tired very fast as soon as his brain realized that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen.  This measured how hard he thinks he can push his muscles. But when probes were applied to his head, putting pressure on the part of the brain controlling his legs, it allowed him to push himself to keep exercising. Our subconscious brain is protecting itself – it triggers a shutdown before you are actually in “danger.” But, your brain can learn that this activity is not threatening which is why it begins to feel easier after training.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend watching it for yourself here.

Do you think these experts discovered the truth about exercise?  Could you commit to this 3-minute-a-week exercise routine?  Who wants to try it with me to see if it works?