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

In fact, while pumping iron may be typically associated with young bodybuilders, working on muscle strength and flexibility through sets of weight training or yoga sessions actually becomes more important as we age.

“As you get older, you’re naturally losing connections between the nerves and the muscles, leading to weakness, and eventually lack of independence and increased risk of falling,” Gottschall says. “But studies have shown that strength training such as cycling on an exercise bike with a high resistance can help negate this, and even improve other things, such as bone density.”

In fact, Tarnopolsky believes that the minimum amount of exercise we need to do to stay healthy increases with age, especially past 50, to the extent where we should try to do some kind of muscle-strengthening activity every day, and an hour of stretching a week.

“Keeping all the balls in the air does take a lot more time as you get older,” he says. “Just doing cardio alone doesn’t help with strength, which is continuously declining throughout middle and old age.

Flexibility is more important to work on as you get older, because there’s increased collagen deposition in muscle, which makes you feel stiffer; so stretching keeps your joints healthy.”

While this may sound impractical to some, Tarnopolsky says that time restrictions are often less of an issue when you’re older.

“You have more time to fit these things in, especially once you’re retired,” he says. “And the key thing is, you can always improve what you have. We’ve done many studies with strength training which show that the body does respond, even with people in their 80s who have never done it before in their life.”


There’s also growing evidence that the minimum exercise requirements each of us has to stay healthy is very individual, something that depends as much on our genes as our age.

Currently, public health guidelines prescribe the same exercise requirements across the board. However, people who are suffering from — or have a family history which suggests they are genetically at risk of developing — chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sarcopenia (the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass, quality and strength associated with aging), arthritis and osteoporosis are thought to have a greater minimum exercise requirement than those outside this category.

“As a rough approximation, these people should probably be exercising 50 percent more than the minimum recommendation,” Tarnopolsky says.

Of course, a regime would need to be tailored to the person’s condition and individual requirements. Those at risk of sarcopenia would probably need to devote more minutes to strength training, while type 2 diabetics are thought to require both more cardio and more weights than the rest of us.

“Blood sugar is greatly impacted by daily bouts of physical activity, so a type 2 diabetic really should be doing cardio every day,” says Gary Liguori, professor of health sciences at the University of Rhode Island. “Blood sugar is absorbed by the muscles, so strength training has benefits too, because if you can increase muscle surface area, that allows it to clear so much more sugar from the blood.”

Persuading people to do even more exercise for their particular health condition, when so few even hit the minimum requirements, may seem a stretch, but Tarnopolsky says this simply shows that our perspectives on exercise need to change.

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