Simple Ways To Better Fitness

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In a daunting sprint up a steep hill, the body and mind are in constant communication to prepare themselves for the strenuous task at hand. Blood disperses throughout the body, breathing intensifies, and sweat is profuse.

The entire body is firing signals towards the brain to send messages about the scale of the physical exertions—giving you the ability to either slow down or stay resilient. Yet if sharp pain in the chest or uneasy breathing is not paid attention to, otherwise healthy exercise routines can take a hazardous turn.

High-tech gadgets and apps convert this simple consciousness of the body into digits that can be plotted on a graph for meeting fitness goals. The detraction from the natural form creates potential distractions for the manipulation of data for possibly, unhealthy workout ideals. Or better yet, discouraging the enjoyment of exercise all together in a sheer avoidance of those disappointing figures on a scale or milage count.

Gretchen Reynolds, a NY Times Fitness columnist who has been writing about health and fitness for more than a decade, warns against this. In her years of reporting on extensive research in exercise science, she has found no substantial evidence supporting the latest fitness tech out on the market. What she does advise, is simple meditations and quick workout routines backed by science that could add years to your life.

BTR Today (BTR): Your career in health and fitness has been pretty prolific. When did you first realize that this was what you wanted to pursue?

Gretchen Reynolds(GR): It was really in college when I started running. To be honest, I started running to lose weight and then I found that I just loved it. It became a real interest of mine on how the body works. Since then I’ve also done cycling and I do some snow shoeing. I’ve gotten slower, but I’m even more interested as a result in how the body works and this is really how I wound up doing this work.

BTR: During your time writing about fitness, what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in collective attitudes, trends, and opinions?

GR: I would say that the biggest is that we really, really need to be moving. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and train for a marathon, it means that you need to stand up a lot more often. Which is what I am doing by the way as I talk to you, it is a very good time to stand up when you are making a phone call or when you are reading. Don’t sit at your desk all day long unmoving because even at the end of the day when you go to the gym that will not undo all of the physiological damage from sitting all day. Get up and move. We are designed for that. And I think that’s been big theme in exercise science recently —it’s not enough to just go to the gym once a day, you really do need to keep your body moving as much as possible.

It may actually increase your life span. It’s not a minor change in how you live your life, it really can make an enormous difference in health.

BTR: With the arrival of each new year, more and more people try to change their lifestyles to incorporate workout routines. What are some ways that our listeners can take the latest workout science-based research and apply it to an everyday workout, especially if people are busy and only have a limited amount of time?

GR: One of the other big themes in exercise science, and almost certainly the most popular columns I write, are about how you can get enormous fitness benefits from a pretty short workout as long as you will do it hard. The science is showing that intensity can be a good trade off for duration. You can do a lot less and get fit. You can loose weight and feel better if you do even one minute of exercise that is really intense, but then of course you should stand up through the rest of the day.

A few minutes a day of high-intensity, usually they say intervals, of some type of exercise that really get your heart rate up—that feels terrible, but doesn’t feel terrible for very long, can have exactly the same benefits as going for a two hour walk. So if you are really strained for time, make yourself feel really uncomfortable during your workout and you can get a huge exercise bang from a very short amount of time.

BTR: Do you have any personal favorites of these high-intensity workouts?

GR: One of my personal favorite workouts, and this is because I really am lazy, is what’s called the 10-20-30 workout which is a variety of interval training and it’s the one that I actually will do. Either on a bicycle, running, whatever your exercise choice—go really hard for 10 seconds, go somewhat easier for 20 seconds, go really easy for 30 seconds, and do it again. Do that five times and that’s five minutes. If you have a little bit of a warm-up, a little bit of a cool-down, you can actually, and this is very well documented, get extremely robust changes to your body, your fitness, and your brain from that little bit of exercise.

BTR: That’s incredible! Now, obviously exercise is great for the body, but can there be too much of this good thing?

GR: That’s actually another area of huge interest among exercise scientists. Although there are very few people who might be exercising too much, there are some evidence that there does seem to be a cut-off point. There is growing concern that if, for instance, you run hard for two hours a day, that it may actually harm the human heart. No one knows yet if that’s true. There have been some studies finding what amounts to scaring in the heart of really long-term marathon runners. I’m a runner, I’ve been running for years and years so this is of great interest to me, but even if there is scarring in the heart so far that doesn’t mean that all these people who’ve done 10 marathons are dropping dead.

So no one knows if it means anything in the long term, but it might, so don’t feel that you have to go run for two hours. The best science suggests that the sweet spot for exercise, if you really want to do the amount that seems to have the greatest benefit for health and will apparently help you live the longest, is to go out and jog fairly gently for about 20 to 30 minutes three to four times a week. If you can do that, great. If you can’t then go for five minutes harder three times a week.

BTR: There’s been some research lately into how exercise might be able to help even the brain stay young. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

GR: This is probably the reason that I keep running almost every day—it’s because I want to be able to remember where my car keys are. There is really strong and growing evidence that exercise keeps your brain fit. It actually changes the shape and function of your brain. They found in animal studies that if they let the animal run they will start producing three times as many new brain cells as animals that don’t and almost all of those brain cells are in the part of the brain that relates to memory. So if you are exercising it’s very likely that you are making a lot more brain cells than your friends who aren’t. It also changes how the brain is wired, how neurons connect to each other, you get more connections, you get more blood vessels, and the brain becomes more flexible.

People who exercise, they showed this in a study last year, they actually need to use less of their brain to do more sophisticated thinking than people who don’t exercise. It’s as if the muscle of their brain is becoming more fit and more efficient. That’s more than enough to keep me running.

BTR: While we are on the brain, I’d like to talk about stress. Maintaining low stress levels is essential for health, what are some of the way we can use an awareness of our bodies to mediate stress levels?

GR: I wrote about this really interesting study recently that looked at resilience, which is the ability to basically bounce back from stress and stress of course is fundamentally a physiological reaction. When we feel stress, either physical, emotional, or anything, it makes our heart rate increase, our breathing change, we sweat, all sorts of things occur in the body. Scientists at UCSD used MRI machines to scan the brains of people who were really resilient—they knew they were resilient–they are combat soldiers and very elite adventure racers who have to be resilient and they looked at how their brains work and how the brains of people who are not very resilient work. They found that in the really resilient people, a part of the brain that processes all these signals from the body, light up really quickly as soon as they felt stress, but they didn’t have nearly as much activity in a part of the brain that intensifies that stress that makes your body get even more stressed out. The people who were not resilient didn’t process the signals from their body very quickly and then they have a huge amount of activity that intensifies stress that makes things worse.

The lesson of this is that people who are able to handle stress are able to listen to their bodies much better and much sooner, and not freak out by the fact that they were feeling stress. The lesson in that for those of us who frequently feel stress and anxiety, is that if we can learn to listen to signals from our body we will probably not get as fundamentally stressed out.

So if you can take two minutes a day to sit quietly and do what scientists call focused breathing, just listening to yourself breathe— don’t have any feelings about it,  don’t think, ‘oh I’m breathing too fast or too slow,’ just pay attention to how you’re breathing, it seems you can help train that part of your brain that processes messages from the body and makes you much more resilient to anxiety and stress.

BTR: With new advents in wearable tech and health research, where do you see the frontiers of personal fitness headed to in the next couple of decades?

GR: It is really interesting because if you talk to scientists, some of them are not convinced if wearable tech will really change whether and how people will exercise. In some ways, and for some people it actually takes your focus off of the body. Your paying so much attention to your Fitbit or whatever it is instead of the messages from your body, which can be a really good signal about how hard you are going and how you feel. So whether technology will really become good at helping people to increase their performance, it is not clear yet. I have to say, I don’t use any of that because I found it was taking my attention away from whether I enjoyed the run. I found myself worrying more about how fast I was going.

So I think we still have a lot of questions still to understand what makes people want to get out and move and what feels sort of like a threat.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. If you like it, that’s great, but if you don’t have it, don’t want it, you don’t need it —you have everything you need with your body, and probably a pair of shoes.