For those of you that know me, I think you may find that fact a little surprising (hi mum). This article is designed purely to make sure that you are alive, kicking, and spending your children’s inheritance for as long as possible. For that reason I think it’s worth, right at the start, differentiating between exercise for health and exercise for performance. Obviously you can spend years training for performance whilst improving health and vice versa, and that is the balance that many people find, but it is not always the case.
Many of you will crave the feeling of endorphins and adrenaline coursing through your veins that comes from hitting a personal best or doing a workout that all but breaks you. I am one of you, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone willing to put in the work required to become as good as they can be at their chosen sport. However, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it is healthy to crush ourselves for hours upon hours every week. We do it for the love of the sport or the way it makes us look or feel, and that’s great, but you can easily have too much of a good thing. While elite athletes are clearly exceptionally fit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re healthy. I have no doubt that some of my endurance endeavours have taken a couple of years off my life (and my knees), but I would never change that.
However, if you want to reduce the risk of disease and live longer, healthier and happier, just do as the title tells you. It’s not that arduous, I promise…
Increasing evidence supports the benefit of lifting heavy weights (resistance training) two or three times per week to keep you fitter, healthier and stronger, which is particularly important as you get older.
- Resistance training increases muscle mass and muscle and bone strength, prevents muscle loss in the elderly, and reduces markers of chronic inflammation.
- Resistance training increases resting metabolic rate, reduces body fat, and improves insulin sensitivity and blood lipid profiles (triglycerides and cholesterol).
Coaches will spend the rest of time debating over the essential strength movements or ”resistance exercises” that they think everyone should do. However, if we’re thinking about life “insurance”, there are only two things you need – the squat and the press-up. Why, you ask?
Because if you can do a squat and a press-up, you can do a burpee (click on links to see examples).
If that looks a little strenuous, a burpee can be broken down into multiple stages.
Now while a burpee isn’t technically weight lifting, the whole-body strength is requires is a perfect example of how increasing strength will improve longevity.
Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has done a study proving that burpees will save your life, but they will:
If you can do a burpee, then you have the stability to keep yourself upright as you get older, and if you fall at home when you’re 95, you can get yourself back up.
Every year, thousands of elderly people come into hospital having been found lying on the floor for hours, days even. The ordeal of being stuck on the floor has left them dehydrated, in kidney failure, delirious, and at high risk of heart attacks and strokes. If you fall and break your hip when you’re over 85, you have an almost 50% chance of dying within a year.
Let’s make sure that’s not you.
We can’t really dispute that increasing levels of activity can reduce the risk of developing all the major Western diseases – cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes), cancer, obesity and type II diabetes. In fact, for the cardiovascular diseases, being physically active provides the same protective benefit as not smoking!
Walking is the most extensively studied mode of exercise, and has a number of fantastic benefits. In fact, Walking for just an hour a week at a brisk pace reduces the risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Many large studies look at the benefits in men and women separately, so we’ll do the same.
- Walking for 2.5 hours a week reduces heart disease and stroke risk by 38%, and the risk of diabetes by 26%, regardless of body mass index (BMI). It also reduces blood pressure and body fat, improves your blood lipid profile and reduces the risk of obesity.
I’ve already covered the recent study showing that walking alone can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 14%, and a similar trend is seen in endometrial and colon cancers.
Even if you have been sedentary for most of your life, these benefits are still seen once activity is increased in middle or old age, and the risks continue to be reduced in the oldest women, even over the age of 100!
Walking for 2-4 hours per week reduces the risk of erectile dysfunction by 20%.
NOW I have your attention! I probably don’t need to say anything else, but there’s more…
Just being male increases your risk of having cardiovascular disease. One of the first studies on activity and risk of heart disease was done in 1966, where London bus drivers (sedentary) were compared to bus conductors (walking, collecting tickets). They found that:
- Drivers had higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Conductors had a 45% reduced risk of heart disease.
In the modern age of huge population studies, we now also know that:
- Walking for half an hour a day reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in men by up to 50%, and the risk of stroke by 29%. Walking reduces the risk of diabetes, being overweight or obese, and weight loss through walking can reduce the risk of colon, gastric, prostate and kidney cancer.
In all these studies, an additional benefit is seen when walking is performed with other, more intense activities. For instance, the equivalent of half an hour of walking a day plus 1-2 hours of sprinting and lifting per week reduces the risk of colon cancer in both men and women by 24%.
Your level of "aerobic" fitness directly predicts how likely you are to die of cardiovascular disease. This is often defined as your VO2Max, which is basically a measure of how much oxygen your body can use when you maximally exert yourself. The more oxygen you can use (higher VO2Max), the lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Exercise that increases your VO2Max also conveniently boosts the protective effects of walking, as mentioned above.
Traditionally, people often increased their “fitness” by going for long runs. Even today, the standard physical challenge is a competitive run, be that 5km or a marathon. However, many human beings (especially women) aren’t really designed to jog long distances, unless they’re built like this guy:
Intervals of anything from 10 to 30 seconds of maximum effort running or cycling, with up to four minutes rest in between for a total of 10-20 minutes have been shown to significantly improve VO2Max and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A single four-minute maximum running effort, three times per week is even enough to see a benefit!
Similar protocols have been found to be both safe, and effective, in patients with heart disease, heart failure, after strokes, in obesity and in children.
So, what should I do?
As you can see, there is so much to talk about on these subjects. Later in the week, I will provide some guidance on how to approach easy and sustainable exercise programmes incorporating walking, sprinting and lifting.
You can find part 2 here.
Many will be sceptical about the benefit of lifting heavy things. Many just won’t feel like they’ve performed “enough” exercise unless they’ve been out running for more than 45 minutes... And, I appreciate that some people will immediately think “I haven’t got time for all that walking, I’m training for an ironman”. Again, there is often a difference between training for health and for performance, and priorities will change as we get older.
I do hope you consider sending this to anyone who is in pursuit of optimum health, and to those you wish to keep in your life for as long as possible. Send it to your parents. Send it to your grandparents even. Better yet, send it to your primary care physician, and encourage them to join in the debate!
As there are so many this time, the references can be found in this document: