Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dig Deeper

I typically peruse the Wall Street Journal only for its super-awesome hedcut stipple portraits and drawings, but I ran across an interesting piece in the Journal earlier this week about the benefits of exercising more -- way more -- than advised under current federally recommended exercise guidelines. According to a study of 100,000+ runners over two decades, more vigorous and intense workouts can deliver significant health rewards.
Dr. [Paul] Williams' studies have shown that exceeding the federally recommended exercise guidelines can reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, glaucoma, diabetes and other diseases by as much as 70% above the benefits of merely meeting the guidelines. "There is no gene or drug discovery that comes close" to the effects of more and more-vigorous exercise, says Dr. Williams, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley Calif.

Official exercise guidelines—emanating from groups like the American Heart Association as well as the federal government—typically call for half an hour a day of exercise, including a portion at moderate to high levels of intensity. At 3.5 hours per week, most walkers and even runners would cover fewer than 20 miles.

By contrast, Dr. Williams's research has found progressively greater health benefits for runners topping 30, 40, even 49 miles a week. Dr. Williams assumes—as do his critics—that similar effects would be gained from increased workloads among swimmers, cyclists and other aerobic athletes.
Nonetheless, Williams' research hasn't been well received. Although he's "well respected by other exercise scientists, he is shunned by those in the public-health field. Dr. Williams is routinely excluded from committees charged with formulating exercise guidelines, and his grant proposals are often rejected as irrelevant."

Why? Why not issue revised guidelines (or two-tiered guidelines, as Williams has suggested) informing people of the importance of continuing to add intensity and challenges to their exercise routines? According to the Journal article, it's "because few exercisers want to hear the word 'more.' Public-health officials also worry that touting Dr. Williams's research could discourage the sedentary from doing any exercise at all, or lure them off the couch with goals too lofty to engender success."

As Paul Thompson, the chief of cardiology at Connecticut's Hartford Hospital puts it, "vigorous exercise regimens can lead to injury."
[Thompson] also observes in many patients a fragile motivation to exercise. Among those currently meeting or slightly exceeding the guidelines, a daunting new challenge might prove discouraging, he says. "And if you make them run more and they get injured, then they wind up running less."
Maybe it's the aggro P90X grad in me talking, but I call bullshit. Just because people don't like to be told to exercise more doesn't mean we should all pretend that it's enough to futz around with a Wii Fit for a half-hour a day. Yes, intense exercise -- especially if done incorrectly -- can lead to injury, but so can moderate exercise. (For that matter, so can crossing the street, driving a car, or slipping on a mashed-up Twinkie on the kitchen floor.) And Williams isn't suggesting that the utterly sedentary should suddenly go run an ultramarathon; rather, he's encouraging inactive people to get active, and for already active people to continue pushing themselves with new fitness challenges. Couch potatoes aren't any less likely to get up and exercise because fitness guidelines are re-set higher. Either they're going to find the motivation do something about their health or they're not.

Encouraging people to walk a minimum of 30 minutes a day is a good start, but why should we pretend it's okay to stop there?