Less Is More

Are extreme workouts bad for you?

TIME recently reported online about a Danish study finding that moderate exercise leads to greater weight loss than intense exercise. It seemed to suggest that when it comes to exercise, less is more.
The scientists took sixty-one moderately overweight but otherwise healthy young men and divided them into three groups. The first group was the control group and no changes where introduced. The second group exercised moderately, about thirty minutes a day. The third group exercised more vigorously, about sixty minutes a day. Researchers tracked all the men for thirteen weeks and determined who lost the most weight.

If you guessed it was the group that exercised the most, you’d be wrong. It was actually the middle group of moderate exercisers—but just barely. The researchers actually concluded that the difference was not statistically significant, so they determined the weight loss, for purposes of the study, was the same for both groups.

Even so, it does boggle the lay mind that thirty minutes of daily exercise yields the same weight loss as sixty minutes. And does this mean that we’re not losing more weight because we’re exercising too hard?

Not exactly, says Randy Clark, an exercise physiologist and manager of the UW Health Exercise Science Laboratory and Pediatric Fitness Clinic. While Clark compliments the researchers’ measurements and equipment, he cautions that their study sample size was small and the duration rather short. “It’s hard to make really sweeping, global conclusions from that time period,” he says.

The scientists speculated that com-pensatory behaviors might have been behind the results. The idea is that the guys who worked out vigorously were so exhausted that they hardly moved throughout the rest of the day while the moderate exercisers felt invigorated and encouraged to walk instead of drive or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

That’s all speculation, though, says Clark, and to him it’s less important than another message the study sends: That exercise and fitness aren’t all-or-nothing endeavors, and that incorporating movement into your life is good even if you fall short of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations of 150 minutes per week.

“I think part of our call to action on this is to encourage people that something is better than nothing,” he says.

Dr. Brian Reeder agrees. The Dean Clinic sports medicine physician recognizes the challenges individuals and families face in incorporating fitness into their lives, but he likes this study because it supports his belief that exercise doesn’t have to be rigorous or formal to bestow benefit. It doesn’t even have to be hard. Walking the dog can be a good first step. A family bike ride can work, too.

“You don’t have to go to a gym and get a personal trainer,” Reeder says, adding that he would like to see the focus shift from incorporating exercise sessions into busy schedules to developing increasingly active lifestyles.

That could mean stepping away from the TV and into the yard to throw the football, or it could mean investigating the possibility of adding crossing guards to make routes safer for kids to walk to school.

“The point is to just be active,” Reeder says. “It’s movement, not workouts, that matter.”

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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