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Are Runners Really Healthier Than Couch Potatoes?

Robert had a great career as a Regional Vice President of Sales in a huge organization. If I mentioned the name of the company, you would know it. He made great money, traveled the world, and had some nice perks at work. But he also had a great deal of stress in his life. There was pressure to not just keep a high sales volume each quarter, but to out-perform the previous quarter. He was 40 pounds overweight. He ate like a wolf and drank like a sailor. When I met him, he was on his third marriage and his kids wouldn’t talk to him. It was no shock when, three days short of his 54th birthday, he had a heart attack and died on the treadmill in a hotel fitness center.

Kerry was a track star in high school and college. As an adult, he ran marathons and taught courses on nutrition at a local community center. He was the epitome of glowing health. So, when he had a heart attack in his early 50’s, it violated everything we thought we knew about health and fitness.

Tim, age 55, is an accountant for a large insurance company. He commutes an hour each way, works at his desk all day, then comes home and eats dinner on the couch in front of the TV with his wife and two kids every evening. He needs to lose about 25 pounds, but he won’t – not the way he’s going. What do you think will happen to him?

These are extreme cases, but they come to mind when I see how most Americans perceive exercise. On this week’s “Move Right Monday,” I want to break down a couple of misconceptions about health and fitness.

Exercise – That Dirty Word

Think about the word “exercise” for a moment. What comes to your mind?

A muscle-bound Adonis in black spandex? A smiling couple in sweats jogging down the street? An embarrassing moment in the seventh-grade gym class?

It’s amazing to me how many different ways people think about exercise – most of them not positive. But just as amazing is how many people have positive feelings about exercise, but are engaging in activities that will hurt their bodies, because they think it’s exercise.

Long-distance Running

Take long-distance running, for example. Millions of people run hundreds of miles a month in the name of good health, but increasing research is showing that extended periods of exercise may be just as harmful as doing no exercise at all. Consider what Dr. Josh Axe recently wrote about it (but be advised: his findings may upset everything you think you know about exercise):

“…the fact that marathon running (and over-exertion in general) is quite dangerous for the human body has now become indisputable. According to Dr. James O’Keefe, head of Preventive Cardiology at the Mid America Heart Institute at Saint Luke’s Health System, ‘The heart pumps about 5 quarts per minute when we’re sitting. When we’re running it goes up to 25 to 30 quarts. The heart wasn’t meant to do that for hours, day in and day out. You end up overstretching the heart and tearing muscle fibers. Up to 30 percent of those who finish marathons have elevated troponin levels, which is a marker for heart damage. That’s the marker we look for to see if someone’s having a heart attack – it’s irrefutable evidence of heart damage.’ This is one of the reasons why too much running has been linked to shortened life expectancy. In fact, a recent study has shown that long-distance runners have the same lifespan as couch potatoes!”

Suddenly, Kerry’s experience isn’t so shocking. While his lifestyle is laudable and his motives are honorable, his methods may have had the opposite effect to what he intended.

So, What Do We Do Now?

What I recommend to my patients is not hours on the treadmill everyday, or gym memberships, but a simple exercise routine that they can do in a few minutes every day (kills the time excuse) in the comfort of their own home (kills the expensive gym excuse), and has more powerful and lasting health benefits than jogging.

High-Intensity Interval Training

High-intensity interval training alternates high-intensity bursts of exercise (20-30 seconds) with slow, recovery phases (10 seconds). You’d be amazed at what you can do in five minutes. Set a timer and do this:

  • Jumping jacks (20 seconds)
  • Rest (10 seconds)
  • Push-ups (20 seconds)
  • Rest (10 seconds)
  • Run in place, lifting your knees up to waist level (20 seconds)
  • Rest (10 seconds)
  • Windmills (20 seconds)
  • Rest (10 seconds)
  • Cool down (30 seconds)

Repeat the whole cycle, and then take 30 seconds to cool down and stretch.

If you know other exercises that get your heart pumping, like burpees or jumping rope, substitute them in. The sky’s the limit, and I will have videos to share with you here on “Move Right Monday” in the coming months. If you like to bike as a part of your exercise, try pedaling at full intensity for 20 seconds, then coasting for 10. Do you have bleachers or a hill nearby, run up at full speed in 20-second bursts.

If you get nothing else from this article, I hope you will consider adding this simple, five-minute process to your morning. You can find five minutes in your morning to improve your health and extend your life. After a few weeks, you will probably want to add a minute, then another, then another (I wouldn’t advise going past 15 or 20 minutes or you” reach a point of diminishing returns).

Shocking Returns for a Five-Minute Investment

Now, you’ve invested five minutes in your health, but just look at the benefits:

  • Increased energy
  • Boosted metabolism
  • Improved libido
  • Better mood and attitude
  • Improved muscle tone
  • Reduced body fat
  • Increased longevity
  • Suppressed hunger mechanisms
  • Decreased stress hormones

According to Dr. Axe, “High-intensity workouts promote a very unique environment where leptin is relatively impervious to the negative effects of testosterone elevation, as no relationship between the two could be in a clinical trial. By doing burst training exercises, you’ll receive the benefit of both weight-loss promoting hormones!”

The benefits of exercise are not hidden or surprising – we as a culture have known about these benefits for generations. The key is getting the right kind of exercise the right way to maximize those benefits in our lives.

Get More Information

There’s so much more that can be said about this than we have room for in this blog space. If you’d like to learn more about High-Intensity Interval Training, I’d recommend these articles (here, here, and here), which go deeper and include videos. I think you’ll find them to be rich with information.

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas

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