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Do I Need to Exercise?

If you received last month’s newsletter, you might have noticed a tiny sentence, tucked at the top, suggesting that exercise is not particularly useful for weight loss, a statement that had many folks scratching their heads and wondering about the role of exercise in a healthy lifestyle.

“I want to lose weight, do I have to exercise?” The first controversy is whether you must exercise to lose weight. For people on a serious weight loss program, such as the Weight Loss Plan described here, exercise can be helpful if it makes them feel better, and improves health in other ways, but it is not necessary for successful weight loss.

“But why not just burn the extra calories?” One of the principles of healthy weight loss is that you must avoid hunger or “under-feeding” in the hopes that your body will burn more calories than it consumes. Our bodies are very smart and simply turn down the thermostat (our metabolism) when presented with calories burned that are not replaced. About 60% of all the fuel we use during the day just goes for keeping out bodies alive (breathing, digesting, repairing, etc.), and our body can “learn to do with less”, turning down our resting temperature, slowing our digestion, and other unwelcome changes if it senses a serious fuel shortage. So while you are losing weight, exercise in any way you enjoy but know that you don’t need to exercise.

Now that I’ve said all that, I will add that there is one form of exercise that can be helpful for body composition and fat loss, though not necessary. Interval exercise, performed at a high intensity of exertion, can inhibit the body’s production of insulin. Insulin’s action in the body is to store fat and prevent it being burned for fuel, allowing the body to burn primarily sugars instead.

High Intensity Interval Exercise, or HIIE, is simple to do at home and requires no special equipment. Find a space that will allow you to move freely and set up a large and visible clock. A pad for the floor might be useful, and perhaps a low chair for squats and a mirror for watching your form.

  1. Walk for 5 minutes, including some high knee stepping and vigorous arm swings. Perform gently the same maneuver you will do with enthusiasm in the Sprint!
  2. Sprint! For 20 seconds: do something hard and fast! That might include sit-ups, push-ups (from your toes, your knees, or even standing with your arms positioned on a table or sink – however you do them, try to keep your shoulders to hips in a straight line), or squats. (The cautious way to do squats is to lead with your backside as if you were going to sit on a low chair. You actually can sit on a low chair, and pop back up. Swinging your arms up as you go down and lowering them as you rise incorporates more muscle groups and makes the exercise more effective.)
  3. Relax. For 10-50 seconds: do nothing or move gently or change positions.
  4. Repeat  the high intensity exertion and the rest for a total of 8 Sprints and 8 Relaxes.
  5. Cool down the same way you warmed up.


“I just walk for exercise, is that good enough?” Well, it all depends what you want. Walking is great, and I should do more of it! There are many benefits to walking if you walk with a healthy intention.Walk outside – get some vitamin D when the sun is high enough – look around and give your eyes and your brain a chance to focus on the natural world, small details and broad vistas. Walk with friends and animals – cultivate and maintain relationships that strengthen your sense of community. Walk on uneven terrain to reduce your risk of arthritis and maintain your range of motion and sense of balance. Find a setting in which you can walk barefoot outdoors – whether a natural lawn or the beach, many believe there to be some benefit from just making that barefoot connection with the earth. 

However, as human beings we are meant to do a bit more than that. Some form of vigorous exertion, or sprinting as described in the HIIE section above, is probably very important to maintaining physiological health. Particularly if you face any of the health challenges associated with metabolic syndrome (overweight, diabetes, hypertension, or cholesterol problems), finding a form of interval exercise that suits you can provide great benefits to your health.

"So, is there any benefit to strength training?" Yes, and they are many. Strength or resistance training involves working muscles against weighted resistance with the goal of increasing the strength and mass of the muscles tested. While you're working those muscles - lifting free weights, or working against resistance machines - you are also pulling on those muscles' attachments to your bones and in so doing, you are asking your bones to get stronger as well. So weight work has been shown repeatedly to increase bone density, and prevent or reverse osteoporosis. It is often repeated that building muscle mass will help you lose weight, as muscle requires more caloric maintenance than fat tissue: true, but it's insignificant compared to a sensible eating plan, so don't count on it! Working with free weights in particular recruits the participation of many small muscles: watch in the mirror as you lift a weight and track a steady course. You are recruiting lots of small muscle fibers to maintain stability against resistance and those small muscles are essential to maintaining balance and preventing injury. Strength training has also been shown to reduce pain: women with chronic neck pain, a not insignificant population, showed great improvement with an upper body strengthening program.

If you are over 50, check with your doctor before starting a strength or weight training program, and seek the advice of a personal trainer if you are going to work with weights or machines. A good place to start on your own at home is with push-ups and sit-ups, but a personal trainer can introduce you safely to a greater variety of good activities.

My final comment about exercise today is to stress that because consistency is the foundation of a beneficial exercise program, so I'll repeat what you've heard before: keep looking until you find a form that you enjoy, keep it up on a regular basis - without overdoing it, and incorporate it into a lifestyle with other healthy choices. At that point you might find what other regular exercisers claim: whatever physical benefits may be achieved, the mental and emotional benefits of exercise - the smile that lingers all day after a good walk, cycle or row in the morning - are the ones that keep you coming back for more.

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