Exercise in Moderation is a New Discovery! Really?

By May 1, 2015 December 9th, 2016 Exercise

I don’t keep track of which “health” lifestyle craze we’re in the midst of right now, but the odds are there’s at least one that’s grabbing a lot of headlines. I don’t read newspapers or magazines, watch TV or listen to the radio. That includes almost all the same junk found on the Internet. So I often miss the fads as they rush by, only to be later forgotten or ignored.

But I do read all the emails I receive, including the ones sent to my website, PhilMaffetone.com

In fact, the last two books I’ve written—“The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” and “The Big Book of Health and Fitness”—are big in terms of page count because I addressed hundreds of your questions over the past few years.

Sometimes I take a quick look at other published articles on certain topics, as was the case a few days ago. A recent New York Times article (June 6, 2012, “Moderation as the Sweet Spot for Exercise”) by health and exercise science reporter Gretchen Reynolds states that there’s new science that shows we don’t have to exercise all that much to obtain benefits such as increased longevity.

I don’t like quoting from these types of articles, but will make an exception here, because of the claim that exercise in moderation is a new discovery. Really?

All the media hub-bub came as a result of a paper presented at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Francisco.

“For it, researchers at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health and other institutions combed through the health records of 52,656 American adults who’d undergone physicals between 1971 and 2002 as part of the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. Each participant completed physical testing and activity questionnaires and returned for at least one follow-up visit. The researchers found that about 27 percent of the participants reported regularly running, although in wildly varying amounts and paces.

The scientists then checked death reports. Over the course of the study, 2,984 of the participants died. But the incidence was much lower among the group that ran. Those participants had, on average, a 19 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners.”

This notion is that too much exercise can be bad. But who says more is better when it comes to exercise? Which studies have triggered such believe in this myth? Instead of studies, it has become tradition—a more powerful weapon in today’s exercise-obsessed (as well as weight-loss-obsessed) society—to believe that more miles on the road or hours in the gym means more benefits. In fact, there have not been studies to demonstrate this, but rather, plenty of studies that show a relatively small amount of exercise works wonders.

This may not be true if you’re a competitive marathoner, triathlete or other serious endurance athlete. But even in these individuals—I began training many of them in the late 1970s—I can’t ever recall the need to increase one’s training. Instead, I would recommend they reduce the miles, meters, or hours they trained significantly, with the result of improved performance and better health. This was not only rooted in science, where studies would show less is best, but based upon the particular needs of the individual athlete.

For everyone else, research has shown—for decades—that a small to moderate amount of physical activity reaps tangible rewards. For example, significant brain benefits are obtained in just a few minutes of easy aerobic exercise. Or, a 30 minute walk could improve fat burning for the next twenty-four hours.

Perhaps the biggest mistake The New York Times article makes, along with other sensationalized pieces on health-related topics, is how they leave out the most important point of all: that healthy people who exercise don’t die prematurely, or get any other injuries whether they are ultramarathoners, Ironman triathletes of long distance swimmers. In addition, the health of test subjects who are studied is almost always not considered, but only their levels of fitness. Since health and fitness are different, this is a very important factor. Optimal health is a state where all systems of the body are in balance. Fitness is the ability to be athletic, with those more fit being faster or stronger. A marathoner or triathlete who develops a physical injury, fatigue, or suffers a heart attack, is obviously fit but unhealthy. However, they are often in denial and ignore signs and symptoms, thinking that just being an athlete makes them invincible.

Sadly, this is not the situation. The unfortunate case of ultrarunner Micah True, who had heart disease, is the most recent example.

Another important point needs mention. I believe it’s not only a disservice to readers, but an insult to the human species to make a specific recommendation for all people to follow. From The Times article: “Twenty miles a week or less of jogging at a 10- or 11-minute-mile pace can add years to your life span” was the advice. Moreover, as all researchers know, statistics—which is what was reported in The Times and typically in other articles as well—don’t apply across the board to any individual. We are all different. This type of data is an average that’s not applicable to you or me.

Balancing health and fitness is something we should all be striving to do. It takes logic, common sense, critical thinking, and most importantly, avoiding the hype of the latest craze. Run, walk, ride and swim intelligently. Listen to your body instead of following the latest exercise study.

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