“A few relatively short bursts of intense exercise, amounting to only a few minutes a week, can deliver many of the health and fitness benefits of hours of conventional exercise, according to new research, says Dr Michael Mosley. But how much benefit you get from either may well depend on your genes …“
So says Michael Mosley in the introduction to his article complementing his latest show on Horizon. It’s the show that everyone’s talking about – Horizons: The Truth About Exercise. The show itself can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01cywtq/Horizon_20112012_The_Truth_About_Exercise/, with the BBC’s summary article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17177251.
Essentially, the programme looked at two aspects of exercise:
1. whether high intensity (interval) training is more effective than other exercise; and
2. the effects of a sedentary lifestyle vs a more active lifestyle
I’m only going to focus on item (1) here, since let’s face it, unless one has a distinct overlap between one’s maternal and paternal family trees, it’s probably not that hard to work out that moving more burns more calories, which is basically the idea of item (2).
Anyway, the main thrust of the programme, and the one that everyone’s now talking about, was the idea that high interval intensity training (specifically, three minutes of it a week) was more effective than conventional training. This was measured on two separate scales – first, the body’s insulin sensitivity level, and, secondly, the body’s VO2 max, or the volume of oxygen which the body can process when exercising at maximum capacity.
The conclusion at the end of the programme was that doing three minutes of HIT per week was more effective – or at least as effective – as conventional training in improving insulin sensitivity, and that this applied to everyone. However, people fall into one of three categories in respect of the effect on the VO2 max:
- non-responders (whose fitness levels don’t improve with exercise , making up about 20% of the population);
- responders (who respond as expected to exercise, comprising about 65% of the population); and
- super-responders (who respond extremely well to exercise, and make up the remaining 15% of the population).
If, like Michael Mosley, one is a non-responder, then no matter what kind of exercise that poor wee soul undertakes, his or her VO2 max will not improve.
The show was absolutely fascinating, but I have been slightly disconcerted by the reaction that I’ve seen to it.
First, it seems as though people are looking to the three-minutes-per-week as a replacement for conventional exercise, rather than a complement to it. This was reinforced by the programme itself, during the course of which Dr Mosley commented that one reason he was interested in the new research was because he couldn’t fit conventional exercise into his life. However, the research is focused only on the two measures of fitness set out above – what about other indicators? For example, how about strength, muscle-tone, weight-loss, effect on visceral fat, effects on the psyche etc? How are they affected by the three-minute programme, if at all? There are so many more benefits to exercise than simply improving one’s VO2 max (let’s face it, barely any of us even know what our VO2 max is, I certainly don’t!) and these don’t appear to have even been considered in the three-minute idea (and that’s fair enough, since that wasn’t the point of the research).
Secondly, on a related note, the people I’ve spoken to (who have also seen the programme) seem to have extrapolated the responder categories into weightloss … so that I’ve now had three people tell me that they must be non-responders because the exercise they do hasn’t made them lose any weight. Err … sadly, I think there might be a flaw or two in that logic! To start with, given that only 20% of the population are non-responders, it doesn’t seem that likely that too many people fall into that category. In addition, as I understand it, the research doesn’t even touch on whether or not responders lose more weight through exercise than non-responders. Non-responders react perfectly well on the insulin-sensitivity side, so why shouldn’t they react as well in terms of weightloss?
Thirdly, taking the above to its logical conclusion, it may well be that people who try the programme and don’t have instantaneous weightloss results may categorize themselves as non-responders on that basis, and consider that they’ve got a hospital pass to any kind of exercise at all. That seems to me to be a bit of a dangerous idea, and not something that should be encouraged in these obesity-crisis times.
Finally – how about the fun from sports and exercise? It didn’t look much like Michael Mosley was having that good a time on the turbo trainer. To be perfectly honest, at one point I was a little bit worried that he was about to give birth, though his son seemed to be extracting maximum entertainment from the situation. Training isn’t always a chore – in fact, I’d say that I enjoy it most of the time (once I’ve gotten over the moaning, groaning, procrastinating and excuses that always lead up to me actually starting the workout). It would be a depressing thought if all exercise were to be as unenjoyable as the three-minute programme looked. How sad would that be?!
HURRAH! Good things
Of course, there are some serious benefits to the research as well. First are the benefits set out in the programme itself, namely, that it doesn’t take much time (it might take a lot of effort, but not much time) to have a very positive effect on the body’s insulin sensitivity, and responders and super-responders also get the benefit of an improved VO2 max.
Secondly, of course, humans are, on the whole, pretty lazy. I know I am – it’s only sensible to get as much time in bed as possible! So the idea of being able to exercise for a few minutes a week (which, including the warm up and warm down, is a bit longer than the three minute slogan, but hey, it’s still short) may well motivate people who wouldn’t otherwise contemplate doing any exercise into doing something. That can only be a good thing right?! Ironically, I suspect that more people will be motivated into doing it if they fall into one of the traps above, namely, that they think it’ll have an effect on their weightloss. So it turns out that one of the cons about the three-minute programme may also be used as a pro. Excellent news – nothing like a bit of mental manipulation (bwahahahahahah **evil laugh**)!
Next up is the effect of using the three-minute programme as a complement to more conventional training. It’s a brilliant warm up, and can easily be used before other exercises – after all, it only takes a minute!
Lastly, the concept is very very similar to both Fartlek and Tabata training, both of which have long-proven excellent effects. If the Horizons show inspires people (regular exercises or otherwise) to look into alternative forms of training, it can only lead to people discovering new types of exercise and challenging their bodies in new ways.
Like most things in life, the show had it’s pros and its cons. In my view, the three-minute programme is a brilliant concept as a complement to other training programmes, but it doesn’t seem like a rounded enough programme to allow people to get all the benefits they might want, and would be able to get out of a more varied, conventional training plan. However, it’s an exciting idea and I’m looking forward to incorporating it into my workouts. Goody, something new to play with!!