June 4, 2015

From Heart-Break to Health; a new framework for healthy exercise

Everything, in life, that I found challenging
was all about letting go of beliefs, truths,
and identities that I was sure was real.
I remember my transition from science to psychology well.  It was my first or second year in my masters program and I was driving home from school, late at night, crying out of sheer frustration.  I had just come from a class discussion about truth.  Is there absolute truth? If there is, can we trust science to provide us with the absolute truth? Is the scientific method idiot-proof? Without saying too much, I soon came to the understanding that truth is relative.  So what does that mean when we talk about exercise science? Can't I rely on the facts I learned in school or is there room for challenge?

I recently read a book reviewing the historical research in exercise science.  Interestingly, just like nutritional science, there was one or two landmark studies in the late 60's that would change the direction (and beliefs) about exercise. Needless to say, I read this book with my mouth wide open while holding my breath and yelling out the odd profanity.  I wished I had read it sooner and I really wished I had taken the time to review some of these studies that influenced the way I did things (and talked about things) as a fitness professional.

The history of exercise usually begins with the story of Phillidipides running from Athens to Sparta to announce the landing of the Persian Army in Marathon.  The Athenians were looking for help from the Spartans, but apparently the Spartans had other plans.  So poor Phidippides ran all the way back to tell the Athenians the Spartans were busy. He then began his run to Marathon to help fight (and win) the battle (and hopefully had time for a quick nap and nosh).  He then ran from Marathon to tell the Athenians the good news before he dropped dead out of exhaustion. In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to this....even Hippocrates declared walking the best form of exercise for health.

Fast forward to 1968 when Ken Cooper published the first book on aerobic fitness cleverly entitled "Aerobics". In fact, it was Cooper that coined the term "aerobics" we still use today.  His position on fitness was that more was better (and more intense better still).  This marked the birth of the fitness trend and industry to follow. The 80s and 90s welcomed Jane Fonda, Susan Powter, and Richard Simmons (God love his fuzzy little head). We saw the debut of The Step, The Slide, weight machines and free weights for women, running became common practice, the StairMaster, stationary bikes, and spinning were among the products of this new and exciting exercise movement.

Today we have marathons, ultra-marathons, triathlons, runs for all sortsa causes, and spin classes that have dropped the rest principle to offer hard core, long distance riding for the weekend warriors. It's all about maximum heart rate, fat crying, and pain (seen as weakness) leaving the body. The industry of fitness has taken on a life of its' own without much critical thought to whether it is good for health or bad (and this is why we should have paid more attention and respect to Phil and Hip in the beginning).
You have to hand it to Richard, he spoke for the obese population and, I believe, was one of the first fitness celebrities to focus on fun and inclusiveness.  To this day, he speaks for the obese poulation (although he believes weight loss is all about exercise and diet still....).  My bucket list still includes meeting him and shaking his hand.

Interestingly (and something very very exciting in my opinion) the latest research on health and vigorous exercise has now suggested it may be hazardous to one's health.  Before Cooper, there was an understanding that too much activity could damage the heart....and they are starting to say the same things again.  I have written about this in the past, but having reviewed the literature over the years, I am now more convinced than ever.  If I were a distance athlete I would think twice about continuing. 

In other words, we have gotten the benefits of fitness (as we practice it today) all wrong. According to many studies, lean muscle tissue from strength training only provides a modest positive change in resting metabolism.  In addition, there is a fine line between enough exercise and too much. Fitness enthusiasts are exhausting themselves as they reach for the holy grail of fitness (i.e. low body fat) while the jokes on them....more body fat leads to enhanced health and longevity.  OMG...my brain just exploded. From those charts demonstrating your healthy % of heart rate max and the runner high to theories on muscle hypertrophy, it is all a matter of opinion. These fitness truths have originated by a few studies without much challenge thereby solidifying this knowledge as fact.  In fact, it is the mythology of the fitness industry that keeps this multi-billion dollar money grab fit and healthy.
The book I have been refering to is Gina Kolata's above. She is a science writer and journalist and, although this book was published in 2003, it still is an important read for anyone working in the fitness and health industry.
So what is the prescription for healthy exercise? From what I have learned so far it includes 3-4 times per week at bouts of 30-60 minutes per session (the greatest return on exercise investment is up to 30 minutes...after that the return is smaller and smaller). The intensity is somewhere around mild to moderate instead of "I-can't-breath-and-feel-like-I'm-going-to-barf" levels.  For runners, this would look like running 3-4 days a week for 5k at a mild/moderate intensity....so not what we have believed.  This is great news for those who don't appreciate the hard-core approach.

Seriously...dude! When is it going to be enough?
But what if you are crazy about endurance training? It certainly doesn't mean you have to stop if you have a passion for it but it does mean a shift in understanding.  Those that participate in the hard-core fitness culture have to understand it isn't for health...in fact, it could harm their health overtime. It is for other reasons like looking good, eating whatever they want, addiction, or sheer enjoyment and social connection....and that's not bad (except for the addiction stuff).  Where I see exercise moving is into the mental health field (at least that is where I plan to take it). 

So the next time you attempt to add a little physical activity to your life remember that it only takes 30 minutes a day at moderate to mild levels to see the greatest results. 

It's not rocket surgery.



1 comment:

  1. Another awesome post Kathi! You raise such important realities of the fitness industry. I often wonder how the hard-core intense exercisers fare later in life. In a culture of crossfitters and marathoners, I am relieved to see many people still value mind-body exercises such as yoga, and the ultimate exercise, walking. I also agree with your comment about exercise and the mental health field. Not surprisingly, Many people/patients over the years have said their intense exercise allows them to hide from difficult emotions as opposed to facing them with a mindful exercise such as walking.

    Thank you for stopping by my site. We are in the final stages of transitioning to a new (and hopefully improved) website so I can't tinker with the admin right now to reply.

    All the best, Sara