Ever felt confused about the plethora of conflicting advice peddled by fitness “professionals”. I have and I am one. The reason for so many conflicting opinions is quite simple; for many years the advice has been driven by the commercial requirements of the industry and not by pure scientific research. Consider Aerobics for example. How many top sports performers have used an aerobics classes to reach high performance targets. I should suspect that the answer is almost none. The sudden popularity of Aerobics classes was down to simple industry driven economics rather than any profound scientific pronouncement that this was the optimum way to enhance health and fitness. Consider the cost of filling a moderate size gym room with expensive specialist equipment that could probably only be used by ten people at a time versus buying 40 cheap exercise mats and filling it with a class. Economically it’s a no-brainer and this has been the driving force ever since. Look at all the derivatives of aerobics which are essentially the same thing; body combat, body pump, LBT etc.
The science behind the recommendation of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise a couple of times per week is so tenuous that national governments cannot even agree on a universal set of guidelines.
Let’s be clear here, I am not saying these classes have no value. An hour of body pump is far better than watching EastEnders on the sofa whilst gorging on pizza. Regular elevation of the heart rate and muscular activity is always beneficial. Also after a hard day at work many people prefer someone to take charge of their training and do the thinking for them. Group exercise can be motivating and enjoyable social experiences too. However these classes are often focused on group-orientated goals rather than individualised and after about four weeks the body adapts to the repetitive exercises and the benefits begin to diminish. The other problem is that, by definition, a class lasting for an hour is a medium intensity experience.
This last point is the most crucial. For many years a few leading Sports Scientists have been positing that short burst, high-intensity training (HIT) is more beneficial for fat-loss and general health than longer medium intensity sessions. Recently this hypothesis has received a considerable upsurge in attention. The most notable contemporary analysis was by BBC 2 with their Horizon episode entitled “The Truth about Exercise”. Dr Michael Mosley, using himself as the guinea pig, toured some of the UK’s leading Sports Science Institutes and discovered that his fat percentage and insulin sensitivity drop considerable by just participating in three twenty second bursts of high-intensity three times per week. A total of three minutes per week! This had a profoundly positive effect on his health. In his case the health benefits of years of hour-long medium intensity sessions had been negligible.
Sound good to you? Well, here’s the rub. When they say high-intensity, they really mean high intensity. You should treat those twenty seconds of rowing, running or cycling as if someone has a gun to your head. If it helps, imagine being chased by the giant T-Rex from that great Jurassic Park scene. That is the sort of mental approach that you need. If it sounds painful, then you are right. It is! However, the up side is that you have probably finished your session before a lot of people have even finished getting changed for their hour of plodding.
It does not matter how you do your HIT session. Dr Mosely uses a portable bike, but running or rowing would be equally effective. If fact variation would be advantageous as it prevents your body from adapting too quickly.
I must clarify here that these conclusions relate to general health and wellbeing. If you are training for an Olympic Triathlon then you need to listen to your coach.
Also relevant is that your genetics will determine how you respond to exercise. Some people are non-responders, that is their body shape and general health are largely unaffected by exercise. It’s rather life having a life-long sick note for PE lessons at school. The practical implications are that if your exercise regime is not working then you need to try a different approach.
Somewhat unsurprisingly the programme also concluded that the biggest impediment to health was the chair. Sedentary people are far more at risk than people who are on their feet all day.
It goes without saying that you should ensure that you are sufficiently healthy before throwing yourself into a HIT programme of exercise. Check with your doctor first if you have any concerns.
To conclude, state-of-the-art scientific research regarding optimum levels of exercise has found that one size does not fit all and it’s far better to be a sprinter than a plodder.