Wed, Jan 02, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Exercise: what’s the bare minimum I can do?

Modern high-intensity workouts are seductively short — but do they offer the same life-extending benefits as established exercise regimes?

By David Cox  /  The Guardian

Yoga strengthens our muscles — and we lose 3-5 percent of muscle in each decade after 30.

Photo: EPA

Is it boom time for the fitness business? One in seven people in the UK is believed to be a member of a gym, and last year saw the number of gyms exceed 7,000 for the first time, and by 2022 the private health and fitness club market alone is predicted to be worth a whopping £3.9 billion (US$4.96 billion). Such is the demand for workout spaces that the Financial Times wondered: “Is gym the new pub?”

But other stats suggest that we’ve never been so idle. A 2017 survey from Kantar Public found that more than a third of the UK population never exercise, with the Department of Health estimating that such inactivity costs the economy around £8.2 billion (US$10.4 billion) each year through treatment costs for lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, and the indirect costs of sickness absence at work. And a recent study by the WHO found that little progress had been made in improving physical activity levels in the UK between 2001 and 2016.

While many of us start with good intentions, various surveys suggest that a substantial number of those gym memberships go largely unused, with many of us citing lack of time, or tiredness after work, as the major hurdles. It is perhaps telling that some of the most popular fitness trends on the market are regimes like CrossFit and Tabata, intense workout programs that promise high gains in the shortest possible time, often a matter of minutes.

Rather than emphasizing targets, governing bodies are increasingly adopting an “anything is better than nothing” mantra; so much so that in the past decade, increased amounts of funding and research have been devoted to understanding the minimum amount of exercise we can get away with in order to maintain optimum health. So what does science tell us?


For many years, the official recommendations from Public Health England and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US have stated that we need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week — which roughly equates to about five park runs — and at least two sets of strengthening activities, on all of the major muscle groups.

These numbers are based on intensive statistical analysis of more than 40 years of research. Scientists define the “150 minute” mark as the average amount of time where the majority of people will see benefits in everything from cholesterol levels to body fat percentage, sleep quality, mental health, bone density and even holding back the aging process.

“We did a study where we took skin biopsies, and in people who exercised regularly we found that the skin looked 20 years younger,” says Mark Tarnopolsky, professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “And when we took sedentary older adults, and trained them for three months with this amount of exercise, there was a youthening of the skin by about 20 years.”

Scientists agree that 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity cardio has consistently been shown to extend lifespan by an average of three to four years, as well as a reduction in incidence of everything from cardiovascular disease to depression, and most cancers.

“All the recent data we have on exercise suggests a lot of powerful things with respect to diseases being minimized,” says Jinger Gottschall, associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State University, Pennsylvania. “It’s really motivating to see what can be achieved, but the sad thing is, so many people don’t do it.”

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