24 December 2015

Is it healthy? Exercise

Here's a witty quip from The Guardian back in 2010, “since the days of the Green Goddess, we've known that the healthiest way to lose weight is through exercise. It's science, isn't it?

Well, science has some bad news for you. More and more research in both the UK and the US is emerging to show that exercise has a negligible impact on weight loss. That tri-weekly commitment to aerobics class? Almost worthless, as far as fitting into your bikini is concerned.”

While it may be outrageous to those spending hundreds of dollars and close to as many hours a month on classes, early wake ups, equipment, workouts and memberships, but at the end of the day, this is excellent news. For those that don't love strenuous, boring, painful or expensive exercise, science is on your side - you don't need to put yourself through torture just to be healthy.

The key to steady, long term health is food by a large margin. As the Guardian points out, there is an astounding amount of research pointing out to the relative insignificance and ineffectiveness exercise has compared to diet when seek health gains. Even further (and better), exercise that is typically more time consuming, boring and taxing on the modern  routine is even less worthwhile and especially if the main goal is weight loss.

Interestingly enough, this is not commonly believed. The unfortunate truth is high strongly the food industry tries to downplay the important of healthy eating as it promotes sugar drinks, carbohydrate-rich cereals, and whatever other chemicals or preservatives behind modern industrial food production. It’s been highly publicised that US First Lady Michelle Obama’s once admirable national healthy campaign was lobbied and negotiated down to emphasising physical activity and undercutting any message toward reducing sugar, processed foods and healthy eating all together. Out of curiosity, I posted a survey on Google+ asking people how important they believe exercise is in relation to food. While the science points to food being the definite key factor, the public believe otherwise. In other words, only about 20% have it right. Exercise is not as important as food when it comes to maintaining long-term health.

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Nutrition (i.e., food) is way more important than exercise
There are many surveys and studies out there that create a clear cross-section of the research around the “diet vs exercise” relationship. “Which is more important - food or exercise?” is a fairly common Google search and the results seem to be definite. Of course both are necessary for good health, but food is way more important. A general rule of thumb seems to be evident where food intake dictates at least 75% of body composition with everything else (not just exercise) making up the rest. When thought about more deeply, the ratio is even less in favour of exercise. Many push this more towards an 80:20 rule. Food is 80%, and the remainder is exercise, plus things like sleep, stress, chemical and environmental exposures,

This 80% is largely influenced by insulin, the master hormone which is the engine behind metabolic and hormone function by transporting nutrients such as cabs, proteins and fats through the bloodstream to cells and organs throughout the body. Insulin response is almost entirely controlled by food intake and especially carbohydrate intake when it comes to weight management. The logic behind this makes sense when examining the numerous studies evaluating the effects of various levels of exercise when nutrition levels are equal across controls. If nutrition is the same, exercise doesn’t change much, but when exercise is the same, different food plans have immense effects.

Casual everyday activity is most of what’s necessary
Life is becoming increasingly sedentary these days. Few would argue against the growing difficulties in finding regular daily time for large chunks of traditional exercise like recreational sports, an hour to jog, or early morning or gym classes every other day. As a response, many take on the “weekend warrior” lifestyle of making up for 5 or 6 days of being seated in front of a computer with 1 or 2 hours of punishment via running or cycling. As much as people would like to think you can make up for a work-week of inactivity with a weekend of torture, most research suggests not just that this is ineffective, but also more harmful than good.

At first glance, walking may not seem to all too important as a form of exercise, but the body benefits most from activity - any activity, if done comfortably as much as possible - much more than prolonged painful exertion interrupted by days of inactivity. Walking intermittently totally up to an hour or two each day is far better than not, but running an hour 3 times a week.

More strenuous workouts can be quick and sparse
When it comes to exercise, frequent, slow and comfortable physical activity, such as walking is absolutely the most important ingredient. However the body also thrives when pushed to extremes. Strength training (Law #4 Lift heavy things) and high intensity workouts (Law #5 Sprint once in awhile) have their place as well and should be done regularly, but not nearly to the frequency most expect. Hitting the weights 5 times a week, each for a different isolated muscle group has it’s benefits to body builders and sculptors, but for those who would rather spend time on other things, a 30 minute set of pushups, pullups, planks and squats (modified for personal ability), once or twice a week is all that’s needed to be healthy and look great.

The effect of sprints or high intensity interval training (HIIT) is also incredibly useful. These extreme instances of distress jolt all of the body’s metabolic processes into high gear. The key is not to prolong them. Hill sprints, cross-ft, spin class and any other type of extreme heart-pumping session should be capped at 15-30 minutes with plenty of rest throughout to keep the body from going into survival mode. Sprint sessions that are too long lose their benefits and tend to risk injury, induce hunger, and deplete energy stores for more than is optimal.  Crafting a balance of these forms of physical activity that fits with personal circumstance is key, but the point still stands regarding which one is first.

For the majority of people that believe strenuous, painful, time consuming, boring and expensive exercise is a necessary evil in the pursuit of long term health, it’s not. For those that believe they have to eat tiny, unsatisfying meals that are pre-planned every 2 hours or risk headaches, starvation and irritability at the severe risk to your own and your co-workers’ well-being, is a necessary evil in the pursuit of long term health it's not. Despite conventional wisdom, while exercise is an important part of healthy living, it’s nowhere near as important as food and is actually insignificant and ineffective when it comes to managing weight.

It may be anecdotal, but many fall into the trap of eating a certain way so that they can workout as hard as they believe they need to in order to be healthy. A sugary bowl of carbs in the morning on the way to a torturous gym session is usually followed by a protein shake and meticulously planned fuel packets to make sure the next workout goes well. If this sounds harder than it should be it’s because it is. Optimal health is not about being able to run the fastest or the furthest. Nor is the person who wakes up an hour before sunrise 5 days a week for a 30km bike ride the epitome of physically fit. If you’re a competitor, or you love it, or a bit of both - then by all means do what makes you happy.