Daily Exercise Routine Myths
Modern health myths surrounding what you should do for your daily exercise routine are many. But is it possible that the wrong message has become so incredibly ingrained in society that no one even realizes that our current recommendations are a myth?
What does it take for a concept, true or not, to become the accepted norm? The examples over time are quite common. Remember in the 80’s when daytime driving lights (DRLs) became mandated for automobile manufacturers? Only to later be found to not reduce the risk of accidents. Hormonal replacement therapy use in women? It took decades and decades to discover that it actually increased everything it was promoted to prevent.
The current recommendations for your daily exercise routine from pretty much every single source say that we need to exercise aerobically for at least 30 minutes 3 times per week. And most of these recommendations suggest that walking is sufficient exercise. There are no accepted recommendations for strength training for the general population.
Despite these easy-enough-to-understand recommendations, very few Americans are achieving these simple goals.
Here’s the kicker: These recommendations suck.
I’m not saying that no exercise is better than these minimal recommendations. I will stand strongly on the concept that exercise, no matter how little or misguided, can do wonders when it comes to preventing chronic disease.
Why Is Exercise Important?
When it comes to smoking, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the planet today, smoker or non-smoker, who does not understand just how bad smoking is for health. The same situation exists for exercise. Everyone knows that exercise is good for their health. And this truth applies to exercise fanatics and non-exercisers.
But just how strong are the benefits of exercise on our health?
I think that, if many of us TRULY understood just how remarkable exercise is on health, we would all find the time to do at least something.
Exercise to lose weight
In the vast majority of people who began an exercise routine, exercising for weight loss is probably the number one goal. I’ll also hear patients say they need to exercise to bring their cholesterol down, help control their blood pressure or keep sugar levels down.
But no one ever says that he or she needs to exercise because it’s the right thing to do.
We have been programmed to look for the external signs or markers that we can observe and change: the weight on the scale, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar / HbA1c.
The problem with this focus is that many of the changes that occur are internal. The positive changes do not show on the scale. The benefits show up in things like lower inflammation and more protective HDL “good” cholesterol. These changes will absolutely have a long-term benefit to your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, dementia and cancer.
Here are some examples of just how powerful exercise is for preventing chronic disease:
- Increases your odds of surviving prostate cancer
- Makes positive changes to the bacteria in your gut (the “microbiome”)
- More powerful than medications for preventing heart attacks and strokes
There are, of course, many more than just what is listed here. The bottom line is that you were built for exercise. And not the got-to-the-gym-and-hit-the-treadmill type of exercise. You were built for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and a hunter-gatherer’s lifestyle IS movement. Society’s lifestyle has moved incredibly far away from this concept and we are paying the price.
Aerobic Versus Strength Training
If you’re pressed for time in today’s time-crunched society, which one should you do, aerobic exercise or strength training?
Here’s a little surprise. Strength training IS aerobic training.
Look at it this way—the last time you did a set of strength-building exercises, whether it was a bench press or leg press set or pull-ups, what kept you from hopping onto the next piece of equipment right away?
Yep. You needed to catch your breath and re-oxygenate your body. It means you depleted your body of oxygen. By all accounts, this IS aerobic exercise. We just normally don’t think of it that way. This is why many bodybuilders do not feel the need to do “cardio.”
There are times when I don’t have time for my aerobic component of my daily workout routine so I just do my strength training. And I’m OK with that.
Strength Training – Mr. America or Average Joe?
There are definite myths when it comes to strength training. We have all been taught that we need to do 3 sets of each type of exercise. 3 sets of bench presses. 3 sets of leg presses. 3 sets of butterflies. You get the idea.
Many people who buy into this daily exercise routine don’t pay much attention to how MUCH weight they should be lifting with. My mom was complaining the other day about poor lower body strength. When I asked her how much weight she was using and how many repetitions on her exercises (in this case leg presses) she noted that she was doing something like 30 reps.
Our senior population seems to be trapped in this routine as well. Less concern with the amount of actual number of reps to be performed than actually doing “a bunch” of reps.
Here’s the reality.
Unless you are going for the Mr. or Mrs. America title, you are wasting your time with multiple reps. There is diminishing return with multiple sets. This means that you get less and less benefit from doing reps beyond the first one.
Do one set of reps and do it WELL. If you can do more than 8-10 reps of an exercise, you’re not using enough weight. Period. Doing 40 reps while talking on your cell? You’re not even in the ballpark.
Worried about injury? Not likely. While there is a miniscule more risk with higher weights, it’s far overbalanced by the benefits. Just make sure you pay attention to your mechanics and perform the exercise slow while following through with a complete range of motion.
For now, if you are in the 40-rep club, slowly increase the weight over the next few exercise sessions until you get to weights that are going to challenge you.
As we get older, your ability to ADD muscle mass remains unchanged. At 70 you can add muscle at the pace of a 20-year-old. But with age comes a faster breakdown of muscle. To maintain as much muscle mass as possible as you age, you’ve GOT to work at it. Which means challenging yourself with weights that will build muscle.
Aerobic Exercise – Marathon Runners Die Early
I have always believed very strongly that man was not designed for long distance aerobic capacity. This is one of the reasons that I bought and read the book “Born to Run” by Michael McDougle. I was told that, in the book, McDougle put forth a really good argument that ran contrary to my beliefs.
And he certainly does make me question my long-held beliefs. Or at least put them into perspective. Maybe our hunter-gatherer ancestors were designed for long-distance aerobic activity and this is what actually gave them an evolutionary advantage.
Clearly, though, survival was a different game back then. Causes of death were more likely to be communicable diseases, wound infection or other things like getting eaten (which, arguably, we are now at a much lower risk of…).
The diets of hunter-gatherers were also FAR more diverse than our current diets, providing a very broad spectrum of protective dietary compounds that we just don’t experience today.
Maybe this is why, in today’s purchaser-sedentary-consumer lifestyle those who regularly undergo high levels of physical activity, quite frankly, die earlier. Some examples:
Jim Fixx, who wrote the book on marathon runner, died early of a heart attack.
Micah True, the subject of the aforementioned Born to Run book, passed away on the trail running in 2013, presumably from a heart attack, at the age of 58.
Marathon runners have elevated cardiac enzymes following races, a clear indicator of the amount of damage done to the heart during this level of physical activity. There is actually a condition termed Phidippides cardiomyopathy, where the enlargement of the left ventricle of the heart from chronic overload leads to electrical disturbances in the heart.
A recent review on the benefits of exercise found a dose-response; moderate exercise led to longevity, but too much exercise actually accelerated death.
So, if you choose to run more miles than the average person drives in a day you CANNOT have a low-quality diet. So many high-activity level athletes believe that they can eat whatever they’d like and that they will just burn off the calories.
That’s just not how it works. Without all those protective compounds found in a good quality, wide-variety-of-foods diet your heart sustains too much damage to protect itself in the long run. All that exercise will not lead to a longer life.
So How SHOULD You Exercise?
As mentioned, strength training is important, especially as you age. It helps you to maintain balance and prevent falls. It allows you to play with your kids and grandkids and not have to get pushed around in a wheelchair or have them wait so you can catch up with them while walking.
Muscles also use a lot of sugar. As a matter of fact, as you are moving around your daily life, muscle is the greatest utilizer of sugar in your body. Sucking glucose out of the bloodstream keeps blood sugar levels low and your risk for prediabetes and diabetes under control WITHOUT MEDS. No medication on the planet can mimic this benefit of muscle building. Yet another reason why exercise is important.
For these reasons, muscle building has to be a component of your exercise routine. Personally, I use a Power Stand (you can check these out on Amazon). This simplistic piece of exercise equipment allows me to do pull ups, chin ups, dips and full range-of-motion push-ups. I’ll follow that up with my favorite still-hanging-around-since-the-seventies piece of exercise equipment; the ab-roller. We’ve recently added in a Bowflex to our home exercise area and I’ve added in some simple bench presses, butterflies, bicep curls and triceps extensions.
I’ll do a single set of each of these a few times per week. It usually takes me about 20-30 minutes depending on how much of a break I take between exercises. I feel that this keeps me toned and to the level that I’m happy with for the time that I have to devote to exercise.
But what about traditional aerobic exercise?
By now, you’ve probably gathered that I fall pretty solidly into the short-burst camp. Not only does this just make more sense based on what we’re designed for (bursting out of the brush to chase down prey or running up a tree when you were the prey…) but there have been more and more research supporting short-burst aerobic activity
My current workout routine involves elliptical short-burst and strength training. Here’s my general workout routine:
- 10 30-second bursts on either the elliptical or treadmill. My rest time is however long it takes for my heart rate to calm down. This can vary from 30 seconds to a minute depending upon how I’m feeling. Keep in mind that these 30-seoncd bursts are pretty intense—I’m usually looking at my timer counting down the last few seconds. On the elliptical I crank the tension up to the highest notch. On the treadmill I’m at full incline and running at about 6-10 MPH.
- I have a power stand that allows me to do a single set of pull-ups, chin-ups, dips and push-ups. I then move over to the Bowflex and focus on the bench press, flys, arm curls and triceps extensions. I round this out with my old favorite, the ab-roller and handstand push-ups (a throwback from my gymnastics days).
- All of my strength training sets are single-set routines. The weight I use on the Bowflex is the maximum I can handle for 8-12 reps. It’s a little different on the Power Stand; I am basically doing the most reps I can do, but the motions are full range-of-motions and done slowly.
- In a perfect world, I’m exercising in this manner 3 days per week. Sometimes it’s 3, sometimes it’s only 1 day on the weekend.
I am also active in the martial arts and have been for decades; currently training in a sports-oriented jiu-jitsu program. When the weather cools down in the Phoenix area hiking gets added to my weekly exercise routine. These two activities round out my exercise routine.
Exercise is clearly a part of my lifestyle. I would also never miss an opportunity to run up a flight of stairs or jog to get the car at the end of a parking lot.
All of this translates into an active lifestyle and I feel confident that this is enough to maintain the level of health that I so diligently promote with my patients and my blog.