exercise less for a healthier heart?


In the last post I mentioned how SANE amounts to eating more and exercising less—smarter—and hinted that we eat more—smarter—by increasing the quality of our calories. Before we get into what determines the quality of calories, let’s touch on the exercise less—smarter—bit.

We exercise less–smarter–much like we eat more–smarter…focusing on quality instead of quantity. We do less, but more intense, exercise.

Oh no! But what about our hearts?! Don’t we have to exercise a lot to boots our heart health? According to folks who make more money the more we exercise: Yes. According to studies: No.

The “more exercise = more heart health” myth comes from studies showing long bouts of cardio boosting our VO2 max. Our VO2 max is, “…an expression of the functional health of the combined cardiovascular, pulmonary, and skeletal muscle systems.” A higher VO2 max generally indicates a healthier heart. So the more exercise the healthier our heart, right? Not so much.

While lots of low quality (aka low intensity) exercise does increase our VO2 max, researchers have repeatedly revealed a little high quality (aka high intensity) exercise, “…is significantly more effective…in improving VO2 max.” Do we need to exercise to help our hearts? Yes. Do we need to exercise a lot to help our hearts? No. Does more exercise help our hearts more? Not if it comes at the expense of exercise quality.

For example, researcher Helgerud found that less, but higher quality, exercise improved VO2 max more than the same amount of work (i.e. same number of calories burnt) via moderate or low quality exercise. In Helgerud’s words:

“…[high quality exercise] is significantly more effective than performing the same total work at either lactate threshold or at 70% heart rate max, in improving VO2 max.”

Researcher Tyldum went a step further. Tyldum divided folks into three groups and fed them all artery stressing meals. The differences between the groups was that one didn’t exercise, another did moderate quality exercise, and the last one did high quality exercise. While the two groups who exercised burnt the exact same number of calories, the high quality group got double the heart health benefits in half the time. Twice the heart health benefits for half the cost. Not too shabby. The researcher concluded:

“These findings reveal a clinically relevant protective effect of acute exercise on the vasculature that is clearly exercise intensity [aka quality] dependent.”

One more for today. Harvard researcher Tanasescu published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which followed 44,452 folks over ten years. Across the 44,452 folks the quality of exercise correlated with a reduced risk of dying from coronary heart disease independent of the quantity of exercise performed. Tanasescu put it like this:

“Average exercise intensity [aka quality] was associated with reduced risk independent of the…hours spent in physical activity.”

Excess fat and related health problems aren’t quantity problems. They are quality problems. It’s not about eating less, and this is just the tip of the iceberg showing it’s not about exercising more. It’s about using our brains instead of brute force. It’s about eating more and exercising less, smarter.

Sampling of sources

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  2. Helgerud J, Høydal K, Wang E, Karlsen T, Berg P, Bjerkaas M, Simonsen T, Helgesen C, Hjorth N, Bach R, Hoff J. Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):665-71. PubMed PMID: 17414804.
  3. Tyldum GA, Schjerve IE, Tjønna AE, Kirkeby-Garstad I, Stølen TO, Richardson RS, Wisløff U. Endothelial dysfunction induced by post-prandial lipemia: complete protection afforded by high-intensity aerobic interval exercise. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2009 Jan 13;53(2):200-6. PubMed PMID: 19130989; PubMed Central PMCID:PMC2650775.
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