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Running Doc: Cutting through the noise of how much to exercise

Dear Running Doc:

Fitness advice is confusing enough without experts disagreeing. I recently read about research at Harvard and Stanford that says we need intense exercise to be healthy. But not long ago, the American College of Sports Medicine said much less physical activity was necessary. What did they mean by that?

Henry W., Scotch Plains, N.J.

Thanks for the question, Henry. It happens to be the question I get asked every time I go speak! Just what they said is correct. The big health benefits come when people who do little or nothing start doing something. More exercise seems to be better yet, but the returns diminish.

Seems even the relatively tame guidelines we grew up with — 20 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three times a week — weren’t tame enough for most people. The country basically wasn’t exercising. That’s why the American College of Sports Medicine, this country’s Indianapolis-based central think tank for fitness research and recommendations, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, finally announced a new set of recommendations several years ago.

On the surface, athletes are already well beyond the panel of experts’ suggestion that “Every American adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity over the course of most days of the week.”

But listen to the implications. Multiple research studies show that those 30 minutes, which can be taken in bits as small as climbing a couple of flights of stairs, raking leaves, or walking at least partway to work, help ward off some frightening, chronic illnesses, like: coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, even depression.

Sounds like the same list of ailments a lot of us have been working out hard to avoid, knowing as we have that our sweat could be building longevity as well as better race times. But most athletes have also believed they needed their intense and highly structured programs to get those benefits. All or nothing, they figured.

Not true. Epidemiologist Steven Blair, P.E.D., FACSM, says studies seem to prove that a major part of the health benefits of exercise are reached rather early.

“The greatest health benefit is going from nothing to something,” he says.

Highly fit people probably reap some additional rewards, but the extra health returns diminish.

And it’s time to end the harmful confusion says Russell Pate, Ph.D., FACSM.

“It may be that the current low rate of (exercise) participation is due, in part, to the public’s perception that they must engage in vigorous, continuous exercise to reap health benefits. But, the scientific evidence shows that even moderate physical activity can also provide substantial health benefits,” Pate says.

So, you may be furious at the moment with your cranky Achilles tendon, but that’s no excuse for penalizing the rest of your body by just sitting the injury out.

So, the recommendations are not just for non-athletes, they’re for all of us. And they don’t disagree with anybody.

Enjoy the Ride!

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Lewis G. Maharam, MD, FACSM is one of the world’s most extensively credentialed and well-known sports health experts. Better known as Running Doc™, Maharam is author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running and past medical director of the NYC Marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. He is Medical Director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. He is also past president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Learn more at runningdoc.com.

Want your question answered in this column? Write to running doc at runningdoc@nydailynews.com.

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