why to exercise today


What Makes Olga Run: The Full Scoop On The 94-Year-Old Track Star

Olga Kotelko embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. Photo: Ken Stone of masterstrack.com, used with permission. One shows her

Olga Kotelko (right) embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: Ken Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

“Most inspiring thing I’ve read in a long time,” I said happily to myself as I turned the last page of “What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.”

At the  World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com) won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

At the World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

You may have caught author Bruce Grierson’s 2010 profile of Olga Kotelko in the New York Times Magazine, and her appearance on On Point. (And she was just on “The Today Show,” too.)

But Grierson’s new book offers a much fuller look at the broader context — the science of aging, and exercise — and her own particulars, from her eating habits to her genes. I spoke with Bruce about the Olga Phenom and what it can teach us. Our conversation, edited:

How old is Olga, as we speak?

She’s 94; she’ll be 95 on March the 2nd, so that’s a new category.

That’s right, an even emptier age category in the Masters Track and Field events where she competes.

You’ve never seen anyone as excited about a birthday as she is about turning 95. What’s cool about Master’s Track is that they’ve framed it so you really do get excited about getting older, because it means you’re closer to this next category, where competition is yet thinner and the chances of you winning a gold medal are yet better. So instead of dreading birthdays, everybody in this whole milieu is excited to grow older. It’s pure genius.

The question of the title, “What Makes Olga Run,” is certainly interesting — her motivation — but my biggest question is “How can Olga run? At an age when most people hobble?”

You mean, how is it possible that somebody seems to be staving off or forestalling the normal effects of aging? What everyone wonders is, can we be like that? How sui generis is this woman? And how unusual? And that leads to the question, is it all genetics? Because if it’s all genetics, that’s still cool, she’s still interesting, but it doesn’t mean as much to the rest of us if there’s nothing we can do to be a little bit more like her.

The inspiring idea is to ask, ‘Where are my opportunities to grow?’ She asks that still, even in her mid-90s.

So we tried to investigate that, by doing genetic testing, to the extent you can do it, and just looking at her family history, that’s a big one: If she comes from a long line of long-lived people and all her siblings are long-lived and her parents were, then you can start being quite confident that genes are driving the longevity part of this — but she doesn’t. The rule of thumb is that longevity is two-thirds nurture and one-third nature – only a third of it is our genes and the rest is how we lived, and what we’ve been through, and our habits and our thoughts, and what we’ve done with the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Not to deny, though, she’s got some lovely genetics at some level: Her hand-eye coordination is off the charts, as I discovered when we went golfing. And also the resilience that she’s shown, being able to do all these different events and virtually never get injured, there’s some sort of genetic protection there in addition to her good habits of stretching and being very alive to when she’s taxing herself too much and backing off.

That was so interesting, this concept of “interoception,” and how some people can just read the signals from their own bodies better than others. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Ladies: So You Don’t Die Too Soon

Many research studies are subtle, indirect, couched in caveats.

But this one, from Cornell, really cuts to the chase: the more you sit (and I’m talking to our female readers here), the earlier you may die. So, stop checking your email girls; get off your tuckus.

Here’s how the Cornell news release puts it:

Too much sitting around is bad for women's health, researchers find (Photo: JoeInSouthernCA/flickr)

Too much sitting around is bad for women’s health, researchers find (Photo: JoeInSouthernCA/flickr)

…a new study of 93,000 postmenopausal American women found those with the highest amounts of sedentary time – defined as sitting and resting, excluding sleeping – died earlier than their most active peers. The association remained even when controlling for physical mobility and function, chronic disease status, demographic factors and overall fitness – meaning that even habitual exercisers are at risk if they have high amounts of idle time.

Need we say more? (We will: there are, of course, some caveats, for instance, “sedentary time” in the study was self-reported — always potentially unreliable.) Still the researchers conclude: “Postmenopausal women who reported greater amounts of sedentary time had an increased risk of all-cause mortality after controlling for physical activity, physical function, and other relevant covariates.”

And more from Cornell PR:

[Nutritional scientist Rebecca Seguin] and co-authors found that women with more than 11 hours of daily sedentary time faced a 12 percent increase in all-cause premature mortality compared with the most energetic group – those with four hours or less of inactivity. The former group also upped their odds for death due to cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and cancer by 13, 27 and 21 percent, respectively.

“The assumption has been that if you’re fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day,” said Seguin, assistant professor of nutritional sciences in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “In fact, in doing so you are far less protected from negative health effects of being sedentary than you realize.”

Worse still, Seguin said, excess sedentary time tends to make it harder to regain physical strength and function. Women begin to lose muscle mass at age 35, a change that accelerates with menopause. Regular exercise, especially lifting weights and other muscular strength-building exercises, helps to counteract these declines, but her research finds that more everyday movement on top of working out is also important for maintaining health.

“In general, a use it or lose it philosophy applies,” Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Preserve Your Ears (You Heard That Right)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

They just don’t stop coming — the far-flung body parts and systems that you can help by exercising. The latest: Your ears.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers report in the American Journal of Medicine that in women, exercise is linked to a lower risk of hearing loss. (And on the flip side, obesity is linked to a higher rate.) From the Brigham press release:

Using data from 68,421 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II who were followed from 1989 to 2009, researchers analyzed information on BMI, waist circumference, physical activity, and self-reported hearing loss…Compared with women who were the least physically active, women who were the most physically active had a 17 percent lower risk of hearing loss. Walking, which was the most common form of physical activity reported among these women, was associated with lower risk; walking 2 hours per week or more was associated with a 15 percent lower risk of hearing loss, compared with walking less than one hour per week.

But wait just a minute, you may say; for me to exercise, I have to pipe loud music into my ears. Surely that negates any positive effect? I asked the study’s lead author, Dr. Sharon Curhan. She emailed:

Regarding your question about listening to music and using earbuds/headphones while working out–absolutely! What is important is that people learn how to listen to music safely. In order to avoid noise-induced hearing damage, both the “level” (volume) and “duration” of the noise exposure need to be considered. This means that the louder the music, the shorter the time of safe exposure. For example, if you want to listen to your music with earbuds for a long time (say 90 minutes/day or more), then set the volume at 60% volume or less. The longer you want to listen, the lower the volume should be. The headphone types may make a difference, too. Noise-canceling headphones or insert earphones may help reduce background noise so that the volume will not need to be turned as high. However, there are some situations when it is essential to be aware of background noise for safety reasons, such as running or biking on a busy road.

And in case you’re wondering how exercise might preserve hearing, I’d sum up the theories as “exercise makes your body healthier, including your ears.” The paper offers some possible mechanisms: Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: ‘Fit Is The New Rich’

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s not get into the dark motivations of those who hate and harass runners that Kevin Helliker writes about in the Wall Street Journal. That’s depressing. Let’s focus instead on the fact that if you’re fit, you may become the object of envy, as rich people do (only, I’d like to note, it will be envy you’ve earned rather than inherited.) Helliker writes:

The enormous popularity of Stafko’s essay confirms a long-standing sense I’ve had that many Americans are annoyed by public displays of fitness. I’ve never owned an expensive car or million-dollar home. But fitness-induced annoyance strikes me as similar to the resentment that symbols of wealth can provoke. In a nation grown fat, fit is the new rich. Among fitness have-nots, there’s a simmering distaste for runner smugness, perhaps even a desire to see runners trip and fall.

Such pettiness isn’t beneath me. When a woman ahead of me in an airline queue recently contorted herself into a yoga pretzel, I found myself hoping she’d lose her balance, especially since I’m barely flexible enough to touch my toes.

(Hat-tip: Tom Anthony)

Why To Exercise Today (If Pregnant): Boost Your Baby’s Brain

Babies' brain activity was measured while they slept. (Photo courtesy universite de Montreal)

Babies’ brain activity was measured while they slept. (Photo courtesy of Universite de Montreal)

In the old days, pregnant women were often told to avoid exercise (except for those who worked the fields until they went into labor in a furrow, that is.) More recent advice encourages pregnant women to keep working out, though without overdoing it.

Now, new research just released at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference suggests that a mother-to-be’s workout could be good not just for her health but for her baby’s brain: Her exercise may translate into faster brain development for her child.

From the press release:

As little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times per week during pregnancy enhances the newborn child’s brain development, according to researchers at the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Saint-Justine children’s hospital. This head-start could have an impact on the child’s entire life.

“While animal studies have shown similar results, this is the first randomized controlled trial in humans to objectively measure the impact of exercise during pregnancy directly on the newborn’s brain,” University of Montreal’s Prof. Dave Ellemberg explains in the press release. “Most of all we are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child’s future.” Continue reading

Why to Exercise Today: Grow Your Brain

A newly discovered protein released during physical activity, FNDC5, can elevate levels of growth protein in the brain.

A newly discovered protein released during physical activity, FNDC5, can elevate levels of growth protein in the brain.

Here’s yet another benefit of regular exercise: a healthy, growing brain. Previous studies have demonstrated that exercise increases the activity of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a substance vital to brain health, learning, and memory function. But scientists have been baffled as to how exactly exercise leads to that increase.

Now, one piece of this molecular puzzle has finally been put into place. A new study in the journal Cellular Metabolism, conducted by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, identifies a new protein, called FNDC5, that is released into the bloodstream during exercise and boosts the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

From the press release:

In the new research, endurance exercise – mice voluntarily running on a wheel for 30 days – increased the activity of a metabolic regulatory molecule, PGC-1α, in muscles, which spurred a rise in FNDC5 protein. The increase of FNDC5 in turn boosted the expression of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Don’t Fall, Or If You Do, Get Less Hurt

(Stougard/Wikimedia Commons)

(Stougard/Wikimedia Commons)

Falls are no fun for anyone, as I can attest after limping for the last three months, legacy of a slippery grass hill on the fourth of July. But when you’re elderly, falls can kill you. Usually not right away, but the death rate in the aftermath of a broken hip is terrifying: you become two to five times more likely to die in the months afterward.

So even if you’re not old, it’s never too early to start preparing, and an overview of studies just out in the medical journal BMJ offers persuasive evidence that exercise can help you avoid falls or get less hurt if you do go down. From the press release:

Well-designed exercise programmes can prevent falls in older adults living at home. However, evidence to date that these programmes can prevent injuries caused by falls is poor.

Researchers from France therefore looked to see whether fall-prevention exercise programmes are associated with a significantly lower risk of fractures and other injuries due to falls. The main aim of the paper was to review the current evidence about the effect of exercise interventions on different outcomes of injurious falls. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: To The Woman Who Was So Nasty At The Gym

Some nice U.S. Navy weight room camaraderie (Wikimedia Commons)

Some nice U.S. Navy weight room camaraderie (Wikimedia Commons)

Dear fellow gym member:

I’m trying hard not to let you ruin my morning. I’m telling myself you were surely stressed, irritable, hurried.

Still, it was simply shocking to get your blast of negativity during my workout — and over what? That I somehow wasn’t using the weight machines in the right order — as if there is an order? Finally, hurt and nonplussed, I said, “You know, we’re all just here fighting the good fight…”

What I should have added was, “…and when you’re nasty at the gym, you’re violating a social contract that the rest of us understand. It’s worse than just being nasty on the street or in a line. The people here really are engaged in a fight to do the right thing, to work out despite fatigue or depression or indolence. When you spew your ugliness onto your fellow soldiers instead of offering support, you’re helping the wrong side.”

“You’re upsetting a delicate balance; if you turn the gym into a more negative experience for me, beyond the healthy discomfort of stressing my body, you make me that much less likely to come tomorrow. You’re striking a blow for the sedentary lifestyle and chronic disease. Is that the side you want to be on?”

The thought of reporting you to the gym managers crossed my mind — but what would I say? “Just FYI, this woman could be bad for morale.”

But I’ve decided instead to focus on the positive: the fact that your behavior was so shocking because the vast, vast majority of my time at the gym is so positive and uplifting: powerful music, honest sweat, friends who praise each other, creative inspirations that tend to hit only during or after strenuous work. The list goes on and on.

If I were a bigger person, I’d wish you all of those things. But at the moment, I’m just wishing you a newfound passion for marathon running — or any other sport that requires you to train outside.

Readers, has something like this happened to you? How did you respond? 

Why To Exercise Today: Someone Will Give You A Whole $5

(Wikimeedia Commons)

(Wikimeedia Commons)

The paradox never fails to amaze me: Even though we know that exercise is one of the very best things we can do for ourselves, our more primitive brains often put up a stunningly stubborn wall of resistance. So here’s a new study suggesting that even a surprisingly small sum of money could help tip the balance in the right direction. (How to use it? There are Websites that can help — stickk.com comes to mind — or maybe just get a friend to be your tight-fisted banker, willing to release your money to you only if you earn it with sweat.)

From the press release:

A review study published today finds that financial incentives –- as modest as $5 per week –- can increase the amount of exercise people do.

Lead author Marc Mitchell, University of Toronto PhD candidate and Cardiac Rehabilitation Supervisor at Toronto Rehab, worked under the leadership of University of Toronto exercise psychologist Guy Faulkner and exercise physiologist Jack Goodman to publish these findings in the September online publication of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The review study looked at 1,500 patients.

“The time commitment and discomfort of exercise prevents many adults from starting regular exercise,” said Mitchell. “For those who do start, most drop out within six months.”

Financial incentive-based public health strategies have gained popularity in North America in recent years, with smoking and weight loss being the more popular targets.

“People’s actions tend to serve their immediate self-interest at the expense of long-term wellbeing,” said Mitchell. “This is often the case for exercise, where the costs are experienced in the present and the benefits are delayed. Because of this, many adults postpone exercise.” Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Study Says You Can Trust Yourself On Intervals


Men tend to go faster but women tend to try harder. That’s one takeaway from a new study on high-intensity interval training, the efficient practice — backed by ever more research — of shifting back and forth during a workout between pushing hard and easing up.

Does it matter how gender tends to break down on interval training? Well,  being aware of these findings might suggest ways to adjust your workout. But the study also offers some valuable general reassurance for interval trainers: Chances are, you’re reading your own signals well as you ramp your effort up and down.

The press release on the upcoming paper, which is titled “Sex-specific Responses to Interval Training” and slated to be published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning:

New research shows that when it comes to running, women may get more out of high intensity interval training (HIIT) than their male counterparts.

Researchers put eight men and eight women between the ages of 19 and 30 through self-paced, high intensity interval training using different recovery periods. All of them reported at least a moderate fitness level and participation in at least one session of interval training a week.

Participants hit the treadmill for six, four-minute intervals performed at the highest intensity they felt they could maintain. Recovery between intervals consisted of one minute, two minutes or four minutes.

Throughout the intervals, their maximum oxygen consumption and heart rates were measured. Results revealed a significant effect of gender on both percentages. Across the trials, men self-selected a faster relative pace, but the women worked at a higher percentage of their maximum heart rate than the men and a higher percentage of their maximum oxygen consumption. Continue reading