Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Very interesting report on exercise: what it can do and what it can’t

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It’s a long read but it’s worthwhile. Vybarr Cregan-Reid reports on “Why exercise alone won’t save us” in the Guardian. A few selections from the report.

. . . Fitness crazes are like diets: if any of them worked, there wouldn’t be so many. CrossFit, the intensely physical, communal workout incorporating free weights, squats, pull-ups and so forth, is still less than 20 years old. Spin classes – vigorous group workouts on stationary bikes – have only been around for about 30. Aerobics was a craze about a decade before that, although many of its high-energy routines had already been around for a while. (The pastel horror of 1970s Jazzercise is probably best forgotten.) Before that, there was the jogging revolution, which began in the US in the early 1960s. The Joggers Manual, published in 1963 by the Oregon Heart Foundation, was a leaflet of about 200 words that sought to address the postwar panic about sedentary lifestyles by encouraging an accessible form of physical activity, explaining that “jogging is a bit more than a walk”. The jogging boom took a few years to get traction, hitting its stride in the mid- to late-80s, but it remains one of the most popular forms of exercise, now also in groups. . .

. . . Technological innovations have led to countless minor reductions of movement. To clean a rug in the 1940s, most people took it into their yard and whacked the bejeezus out of it for 20 minutes. Fast-forward a few decades and we can set robot vacuum cleaners to wander about our living rooms as we order up some shopping to be delivered, put on the dishwasher, cram a load into the washer-dryer, admire the self-cleaning oven, stack some machine-cut logs in the grate, pour a glass of milk from the frost-free fridge or thumb a capsule into the coffee maker. Each of these devices and behaviours is making it a bit more difficult for us to keep moving regularly throughout our day.

As we step through various innovations, we tend to think of the work that is no longer required as “saved”. Cleaning a rug once burned about 200 calories, while activating a robo-vac uses about 0.2 – an activity drop of a thousandfold, with nothing to replace it. Nobody, when they buy a labour-saving device, thinks: “How am I going to replace that movement I have saved?” . . .

. . . A 2015 report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges called Exercise – theMiracle Cure said that regular exercise can assist in the prevention of strokes, some cancers, depression, heart disease and dementia, reducing risk by at least 30%. With regular exercise, the risk of bowel cancer drops by 45%, and of osteoarthritis, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes by a whopping 50%.

Exercise, in these terms, is not a fad, or an option, or an add-on to our busy lifestyles: it is keeping us alive. But before it can work for us, our whole approach needs to change. . .

. . . The health effects of being sedentary are as common and recognisable as they are serious. Anxiety, depression, heart disease, breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and the leading cause of global disability, back pain, are all driven by sedentary behaviours.

For our bodies to function properly, they operate on the assumption that we will be burning calories throughout the day, and not in short bursts. It is clear that periods of sedentariness are bad for the human body, and some exercise is always going to be better than none; the issue is not really to do with the types of exercise, but with our approach to them and what we expect them to achieve. We know from the data that the human relationship with exercise is predominantly characterised as both optional and additional to an otherwise sedentary life, which itself causes a ton of problems. As long as physical activity is divorced from the real work of our lives, we will find reasons for not doing it.

No matter how low the institutional expectations for physical activity drop, more of us fail to meet them each year. A Public Health England survey last year found that people in England are becoming so inactive that 40% of those aged between 40 and 60 walk briskly for less than 10 minutes a month. The reasons are numerous, but they seem to be connected to our notion of exercise, and the difference between short bursts of running or cycling and low-level, sustained physical activity. If we go back to the beginnings of exercise, we can see why it is still so problematic for us today. . .

. . . If being fit promotes long life, you might expect being an elite athlete to help you reach a ripe old age. It doesn’t. Olympians buy themselves an extra 2.8 years on average, according to a 2012 study. Devoting your life to sport and exercise will buy you more time, but once you factor in the Olympians’ lifelong sustained attention to diet and healthy living, as well as tens of thousands of hours spent training, 2.8 years might not really seem sufficient recompense.

Instead, the fittest and healthiest people on the planet have never been to a gym. These people, who report high levels of wellbeing and live extraordinarily long lives, inhabit what have been called “blue zones” – areas where lifestyles lead to peculiar longevity. The term was coined by two demographers, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who, while collecting data on clusters of centenarians on the island of Sardinia, identified places of especially high longevity on their map with a blue felt-tip pen. Because clusters of long-lived people are often found in geographically remote places (also including parts of Okinawa, Costa Rica and Greece), jackpot genes seem like a strong candidate to explain their longevity. But a famous study of Danish twins has concluded that a long life seems to be only “moderately heritable”. Over the years, many studies have looked at the lifestyles ofpeople in “blue zones” and found that a number of their customs and habits contribute to a long life (everything from a sense of belonging and purpose to not smoking, or eating a predominantly plant-based diet). In the list of contributory factors, there is a noticeable absence of exercise.

I travelled to Sardinia to meet Pes and find out more about his work. He has a vested interest in longevity. His great uncle was a supercentenarian (living beyond 110). The years that Pes is interested in finding out more about are the good ones, not those spent with 24-hour care in a nursing home (there are also none of these in Sardinia’s blue zones). A trial by a group of gerontologists based at Boston University reported that 10% of supercentenarians made it to the final three months of their lives without being troubled by major age-related diseases.

In my conversation with Pes, he repeatedly stressed that while diet and environment are important components of longevity, being sedentary is the enemy, and sustained, low-level activity is the key that research by him and others has uncovered: not the intense kinds of activity we tend to associate with exercise, but energy expended throughout the day. The supercentenarians he has worked with all walked several miles each day throughout their working lives. They never spent much time, if any, seated at desks. . .

. . . For those of us who can’t move to Sardinia and become a shepherd, a review published in the Lancet in 2016 found that “high levels of moderate-intensity physical activity (ie, about 60-75 min per day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time”.

So even if we go to the gym on a Saturday morning, our absolute inactivity at other times can still be damaging to the body. Low and moderate activity for longer or sustained periods seems to produce the best results. It looks like excessive high-intensity activity (the kind we see in elite athletes) drives metabolism and cell turnover, and may even, when all factors are taken into account, accelerate the ageing process. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

11 January 2019 at 4:21 pm

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