why to exercise today


Why To Exercise Today: Get Better At Bearing Pain

(U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

(U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

The other day, I got going a little harder than I meant to on the stairclimber, huffing and puffing hugely at a setting a bit too high. Amid other vague thoughts (“I wonder at what point this becomes dangerous?”) was this one: “Funny, once I would have perceived being out of breath like this as unpleasant, but lately it’s neutral or even kind of fun.”

I thought of that moment when I saw the latest Phys Ed column in The New York Times: How Exercise Helps Us Tolerate Pain. Gretchen Reynolds writes:

“Regular exercise may alter how a person experiences pain, according to a new study. The longer we continue to work out, the new findings suggest, the greater our tolerance for discomfort can grow.”

It has long been known that endorphins released during exercise diminish pain in the short-term, but what about the longer-term pain effects of exercise? She describes a small study of 24 adults, and the striking — though of course preliminary — results. A control group that did not exercise saw no change in pain tolerance.

But the volunteers in the exercise group displayed substantially greater ability to withstand pain. Their pain thresholds had not changed; they began to feel pain at the same point they had before. But their tolerance had risen. They continued with the unpleasant gripping activity much longer than before. Those volunteers whose fitness had increased the most also showed the greatest increase in pain tolerance. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: ‘Survival Of The Moderately Fit’

crowded marathon runners


I know, it’s downright un-Bostonian of me to suggest that regularly running marathons is anything less than glorious. But a persuasive New Yorker article looks at the mounting evidence that extreme exercise really can be too much of a good thing — specifically, it may cause heart damage.

So if feeling anything less than super-fit has ever blocked you from working out, banish the sheepishness. From the New Yorker article, Extreme Exercise And The Heart:

[Cardiologist James] O’Keefe suggests that extreme exercise is “not conducive to great long-term cardiovascular health,” and cautions against the assumption that, if moderate exercise is good, more must be better. “Darwin was wrong about one thing,” O’Keefe says. “It’s not survival of the fittest but survival of the moderately fit.”

For those of us who believe that the “everything in moderation” rule applies to, well, everything, this argument makes sense. Exercise remains one of the best things you can do to improve your cardiovascular health, but you certainly do not need to run marathons to achieve the benefits. Moderate amounts of exercise throughout life are perfectly adequate. Athletes who exercise in extremes generally do so for reasons other than their health—competitiveness, professional requirement, compulsion. But recognizing that exercising more than a certain amount reaps no greater cardiovascular benefits is quite different than suggesting that this level of exercise causes cardiovascular harm.

For The Hard Core: The Gonzo Grown-Up Playground Workout In 10 Moves

Hanging leg raises (November Project)

Hanging leg raises (November Project)

Last month we posted The Grown-up, Full-Body Playground Workout In 10 Moves, aimed at middling-fit folks who might like to inject some fun, efficient fitness into their playground time. But what about the ends of the fitness spectrum, the beginner and the Herculean athlete?

We’ll do the beginner workout next month, but today, a playground workout for the hard core. Please don’t go beyond your abilities, get injured and sue. For many of us, this is just a spectator workout. Most of these moves make me laugh out loud and say, “Uh uh, no way I can do even one of those.” But I’m already imagining how some might be modified for the less superhuman among us, and I’m eternally impressed by this workout’s creators, The November Project.

What is the November Project? If you’re asking that, you’re probably not a young, fit Bostonian, because the NP is already legend in Beantown. Here’s the full backstory: Two Guys Walk Into A Bar And A Free Fitness Movement Is Born, and the movement has now spread to multiple cities across four time zones and counting. November Project co-founders Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham, always game for a challenge, designed this workout for the playground atop the huge hill — Summit Ave. in Brookline, MA — that NP participants run (and run and run) every Friday morning at 6:30. 

For the best results do three to four sets of all 10 exercises, with no rest in between exercises, no rest between sets, as fast as possible while maintaining a good form:

1. Alternating Single Leg Wall Jump: This is an advanced version of the step-up as it requires a jump at every leg switch. The leg switch is completed in the air. Ten reps each leg.

Alternating  single leg wall jump (November Project)

Alternating single leg wall jump (November Project)

2. Burpee Box Jump: From a pushup to a squat, jump on the bench, from the bench back down into the pushups. 10 reps.

Burpee Box jump (Courtesy November Project)

Burpee Box jump (November Project)

3. Corncob pull-up on monkey bars: Grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Do a pull-up, move your chin to one hand, move your chin to the other hand, come back to the center and down. As many repeats as you can, but no more than 10. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Just 20 Minutes May Yield Optimal Smarts


Truly some news you can use: A study out of National Taiwan Sport University suggests that if you’re facing a mental challenge — a tough exam, a job interview — and want to amp up your brain using exercise beforehand, 20 minutes (or 30 including warm-up and cool-down) may be the optimal dose. Runner’s World reports on the study here: How much exercise makes you smartest?

The study includes the gratifying finding that longer does not seem to be better, at least if you’re trying to score your best on the infamous Stroop Test:

In this case, the 45-minute session (55 including warm-up and cool-down) actually produced worse accuracy than the control condition, where participants just sat and read instead of exercising. So the message seems to be pretty clear: about half an hour of moderate exercise optimizes cognitive performance, and more than that may hurt it.

Now I’d just like to see a study on exercise dosing for optimal performance in public-speaking (or live-radio) situations. Anybody?

(Hat tip to Tom Anthony)

The Grown-Up, Full-Body Playground Workout In 10 Moves



Perfect timing. Yet another study, just out, finds that fun is good for you. Or rather, as The New York Times puts it:

“If you are aiming to lose weight by revving up your exercise routine, it may be wise to think of your workouts not as exercise, but as playtime. An unconventional new study suggests that people’s attitudes toward physical activity can influence what they eat afterward and, ultimately, whether they drop pounds.”

Responds one commenter: “Finding fun in fitness has to be an essential part of any effort.”

About once a week, I run — or rather, plod — up a giant hill. There’s no way I can call that fun. But at the top there’s a newly renovated playground, and I asked personal trainer Kat Setzer, who writes the How To Be An Athlete roller derby blog, to design a fun but efficient playground workout for real, middling-fit people like me. (As opposed to superhumans like the video hulk in the photo above. What good is a workout when you can’t even do an exercise once?)

Important note: No children were excluded from playground equipment in the making of this workout (none were out in the early morning when we ran through it. And honest, if they’d been around, we’d have given them dibs.) Also, remember to warm up and cool down. And aim for two or three circuits.

1. Swing split squat: Stand one long stride ahead of the swing and put one foot on the swing. Bend both knees until your front leg is bent to 90 degrees. Get your back knee as low as you can. Keep your weight on your front heel if possible. (Think of it as a lunge with your back foot up.) Fifteen times on each side.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the Swing Split Squat.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the swing split squat.

2. Swing knee tucks: Facing the ground, put your hands down in push-up position and your feet on the swing in plank position. Tuck your knees into your chest, then straighten your legs. Repeat. You can make this easier by putting your knees in the swing’s seat and holding a plank. Fifteen times.

Kat Setzer demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

Kat demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

3. Box jump onto platform Start in a squat next to a platform that’s 6-12 inches from the ground, feet shoulder width apart, legs parallel. Continue reading

Fifty Shades Of Sweat: 10 Enticing Reasons To Exercise Naked

(rachel a.k./Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

(rachel a.k./Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

You slip upstairs to the attic, before anyone else in the household is awake. You drop your pajama pants. You slough your top. Goosebumps prickle. You mount the stair machine and start to climb.

It began innocently. You were in a morning time crunch with just 15 minutes to spare, and thought: “Why put on workout clothes just to sweat them up? Every minute I spend dressing or undressing is one less minute of exercise. Simpler just to wear nothing.”

But then, you learned the surprising sweetness of exercise unclad. Several minutes into your climb, just as your breathing is starting to deepen, you break your first sweat, on your scalp and forehead, just as you would in a public gym. But then, the difference: as the beads of fluid form all over your body — droplets on your wrists, your back, your chest, under any fold of skin — the air touching you cools them, making you feel them more.

You’re exquisitely conscious of the first full-fledged drop that slithers down your midriff, tickling you as it goes. Then another, down your side, below your armpit: a sensitive swath, rarely touched.

You’re breathing hard and deep now. You’re past your warm-up, well into the thick of it. You’ve always failed at meditation, unable to keep your mind clear for even a minute. But you find that when you’re pushing hard like this, it’s easy to concentrate on nothing but your breath. The music is pounding loudly, and you’re breathing along with its rhythm. You’re sucking in air and puffing it out: breath on the beat. Breath on the beat. Thinking of nothing. Just breathing.

And now you’re post-peak. You’re easing up, catching your breath. You feel a droplet jiggle and then run down your lower back, into the dip of your coccyx. Multiple drops from beneath your armpits. Now is when the sweat flood comes, as you slow up.

You savor the ratcheting down, the return of your normal breathing. In the dimness, in the mirror across the room, you see your back sparkling, diamonds of liquid catching and reflecting the light. And you think, “That’s beautiful.”

Still not convinced? Let us enumerate points of persuasion. (And let us stipulate that not all of us have private enough places to indulge. Also, let us note that high-impact exercise may require bodily straps and supports to fight the physics of dangling and jiggling; but stairclimbing, recumbent biking, and many strength workout moves do not.)

1. Join the classical aesthetic tradition

"Greek victorious youth athlete' in the Getty collection (Wikimedia Commons)

“Greek victorious youth athlete” in the Getty collection (Wikimedia Commons)

Remember all those full-frontal muscular men on classical vases? Don’t they reflect a custom of nude workouts and competitions? I asked Harvard’s Emma Dench, professor of the Classics and of History. (Actually, I had a false memory that it was the Romans who did all that posing and prancing.) Her response:

The Romans got terribly worried about the idea of exercising in the nude (moral laxity/homosexuality), which they thought of as a very Greek custom. But the ancient Greeks indeed exercised and competed in the nude, enjoying a cult of the beautiful body that often has upper class connotations and that is also associated with male-male admiration and sensual or even outright sexual pleasures that were sometimes problematized. I don’t think they came up with any utilitarian explanation: I think it was rather an aesthetic ideal.

2. Laundry

Obvious. According to family lore, a cousin of mine even moved to a nudist camp to avoid laundry.

3. Back to essentials Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Fitness In Youth May Mean Smarter Middle Age

(Sangudo/Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

(Sangudo/Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

In a frou-frou paper store this weekend, I saw a precious stack of little aerograms that were meant to be “letters to my future self.” My first reaction was, “Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to write a letter to your past self, telling yourself everything will be okay?” My second reaction was to start composing: “Dear future self, if you’re reading this I’m still alive. Good.”

Today, a study featured in the New York Times — Early Fitness May Improve The Middle-Aged Brain — serves as a reminder that our current selves are affecting our future selves all the time. In particular, you’ll be thanking yourself later for the exercise you do now. From the Times:

The more physically active you are at age 25, the better your thinking tends to be when you reach middle age, according to a large-scale new study. Encouragingly, the findings also suggest that if you negligently neglected to exercise when young, you can start now and still improve the health of your brain.

More detail: Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: A Longer Life, Even If You’ve Got Health Issues

Exercise is my religion: in my family we use it for mental health, good sleep, clearer minds, calmer moods and bursts of joy. It inevitably gives us a boost, even when we’re not feeling so hot.

And, according to a new study, exercise offers the ultimate health benefit, even to people who aren’t particularly healthy and suffer from elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels or oversized waist lines. What’s the benefit? A longer life.



From the study, published in PLoS One:

The promotion of increased physical activity is clearly a powerful vehicle for prevention of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. Every adult without major disease should benefit from increased physical activity, with the greatest health benefits associated with high levels of exertion. Our study confirms the independent role of recreational physical activity in predicting and reducing cardiovascular deaths, even after the common association with conventional risk factors and obesity has been accounted for. These findings support public health endeavor to promote exercise over and above the treatment of conventional risk factors.

From Gretchen Reynolds’ Times report:

More surprising, when the researchers controlled for each volunteer’s Framingham risk score and waist size, they found that exercising still significantly reduced people’s risk of dying from heart disease. The benefits were fainter, amounting to about half as much risk reduction as before adjustment for these health factors. But they accrued even among volunteers who had less-than-ideal blood pressure, cholesterol levels or waistlines. Someone with a high Framingham score who exercised had less risk of dying than someone with a similar score who did not.

The study’s results do not suggest, of course, that any of us should now willfully ignore cholesterol or other standard risk factors when considering heart health, said Satvinder Dhaliwal, a professor at Curtin University, who with Timothy Welborn and Peter Howat, conducted the study. But the data does suggest that “identifying and increasing physical activity” may be “at least as important as the measurement and treatment of lipids and hypertension,” he said.

Why To Exercise Today: Bargain Workout Videos In Going-Out-Of-Business Sale

(From Collage Video email to catalog subscribers)

(From Collage Video email to catalog subscribers)

This is the first time CommonHealth has ever announced a sale. We do stories, not commerce. But the sale in question marks the demise of a unique exercise institution: Collage Video, a 27-year-old, Minneapolis-based retailer of nothing but exercise videos and DVDs (and a bit of workout-related miscellany.)

I’ve received their catalog for years, and sometimes read it cover to cover. Its in-house reviewers tested every exercise video and wrote up its strengths and weaknesses. But mostly, month after month would feature inspiring photos and stories of women — virtually always women — who lost dozens of pounds and got into great shape, all by working out to videos in their own living rooms. It was a window into millions of private fitness efforts happening behind closed doors. It was also a window into what’s hot in fitness, from core work to Tabata to High Intensity Interval Training.

It’s a tough media world, and tech never stops morphing. “Video” is a retro term now; masses of fitness content comes free online and on cable these days; and behemoths like Amazon are surely hard for a Minneapolis boutique to beat. I’ll miss you, Collage. And I do believe you helped a great many people in your 27 years.

Why To Exercise Today: In Mice, Running Offsets Fat Effects On Brain

Lab mouse (Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

Lab mouse (Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

The latest Phys Ed column in The New York Times offers some intriguing findings in mice suggesting that exercise may be particularly good for your brain if you’re overweight.

Columnist Gretchen Reynolds describes a Journal of Neuroscience report that the chemical effects of obesity appear to seep past the blood-brain barrier, causing inflammation and apparently making fat mice perform worse on memory tests. Those effects could be reversed by surgically removing great quantities of fat from the mice, but those operations went far beyond any human form of liposuction. So the researchers tried exercise. Reynolds reports:

After 12 weeks, the running mice still weighed about the same as the unexercised animals. But they had lost significant amounts of fat from around their middles, while adding lean muscle. More telling, they did much better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice and, when the researchers examined tissue from their hippocampi, showed little evidence of inflammation and robust levels of the chemical marker of synaptic health. The results suggested that, as the scientists write in the study, “treadmill training normalized hippocampal function,” even in animals born to be fat and that remained heavy.

Of course, these studies were conducted in mice, not people, whose brains may respond very differently. But the possibility that humans, too, may respond in similar ways is tantalizing, Dr. Stranahan said, and the takeaway from her study worth repeating. “Get out and move,” she said, even — and especially — if you carry extra weight.