After a week of Vegan Athletes in the news, exercise has been on my mind. Vegan athletes aside, I think Vegans need to be aware that besides a plant-based diet, they too need to properly exercise for health.
Last month, I rowed about 120,000 meters on my indoor machine. I thought I was fit – after all, I was now world ranked in a sport and I had never exercised so much in my entire life. But then I recently took The Four Minute O’Neill Fitness Test, a test “designed to give a simple and reliable test of aerobic fitness.” Well, I discovered I was below average! I was shocked. My husband (a.k.a. my personal trainer – that is when I want one) recommended I start cardio training as soon as possible. Not one to change my exercise regime so easily, I had a lot of questions for him.
My Husband and Exercise
My husband spent six years as a competitive cyclist in the US and Europe. Not satisfied with just being good, he wanted to understand why and how to become better; so, he got a Masters in Exercise Science. He’s used these experiences to help others train for competition and for the ability to do activities more easily. Recently, he’s taken up indoor rowing and is currently top 5 in the world for his category.
Needless to say, my husband is my in-house expert on anything to do with exercise. So, I decided to interview him – for myself and for you!
The Interview: Doing It Right
A quick answer is our muscles (and neurogenesis) will slow or reverse without increasing stimulation. The key phrase is increasing stimulation.
Why do we have to increase stimulation? Why can’t we stick with the same old exercise program that we are used to?
Just like counting by 2 until 100 will not increase your mental abilities much once the pattern is learned and walking around your yard will not increase muscle or cardiovascular strength once you can do it without shortness of breath; intensity of effort, physical or mental, needs to increase or our body will not continually adapt.
What do you mean by “our body will not continually adapt”?
This means that our muscles are not getting stronger and may actually weaken.
Resistance training leads to trauma of the cellular proteins in muscle. This prompts cell-signaling messages to activate satellite cells to begin a cascade of events leading to muscle repair and growth. Once this adaption is complete, continual exercise at the same intensity will not generate repair and growth and, as one becomes more efficient at that set intensity, muscle strength can actually decrease.
If I understand correctly, our muscle strength can actually decrease if we don’t continue to challenge our exercise regimen? It really doesn’t just remain the same?
Yes. However as we age, muscle strength will decline. Challenging the muscles will slow the process but not return your youthful power.
How do I know that my muscles are getting stronger?
Your muscles will, at times, experience a low-grade ache. This mild trauma to muscle fibers from resistance training, coupled with the inflammation that accompanies these tears, causes the pain that we often feel 24-48 hours after exercising. Longer lasting ache, or more painful ache, is more likely a sign of over exercising and if continually repeated, will lead to muscle decline.
Is there a way to ease the pain?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but lightly exercising at a level that elevates body temperature will help reduce this pain. Increased body temperature causes blood flow to increase, bringing fresh oxygen and healing nutrients to the traumatized area which assists in removing the chemical irritants responsible for pain.
I get it. There is just no escaping exercise as a means to better health! We need to exercise even more just to ease the pain of exercise itself.
Now, how can I properly monitor my exercise by myself? How do I know I am challenging myself?
Exercising within a set heart rate range is a reliably way to ensure intensity increases as strength improves. With increased strength, the effort to do the same intensity decreases which lowers the heart rate associated with that set level of intensity. By keeping the heart rate within a set range, one needs to increase intensity as one becomes stronger: this is what challenging the muscles/increasing intensity means. Researchers from Rush University examined the exercise stress tests of over 5,000 women and found that those whose exercise capacity was less than 85% of their age-specific maximum were twice as likely to die of any cause during the eight year study. For people with heart disease who followed a similar intensity for 30 minutes 3-5 days a week, there was approximately a 25% reduction in mortality over a one–three year time period and for those without documented heart disease there is a 50% reduction in risk of death from a heart attack. Increasing intensity to match increased strength is also noted for helping long-term weight loss. When you lose weight, your muscles get more efficient (change in the ratio of carbohydrate to fat enzymes that a muscle burns), resulting in using fewer calories when you move around. Overtime, this increased muscle efficiency can lead to the return of weight gain. Exercising at increasing intensities, rather than longer duration, was found as an effective strategy for keeping weight off over the long-term.
Is it better to exercise longer or harder?
More research is concluding that the benefits of exercise continue to climb even at the most intense levels of exercise. According to a 2005 study from Great Britain, “Just six minutes of intense exercise a week does as much to improve a person’s fitness as a regime of six hours…” The catch is the level of intensity is much greater than most are willing to tolerate, but the findings support the point that harder exercise is better than longer exercise.
So, for better health, we have to get the heart pumping for a shorter time rather than exercise at a relaxed rate for longer?
Assuming you are not someone with heart disease or risk factors for developing heart disease or stroke, then the answer is Yes. A similar correlation is being discovered that the results of exercising harder (not longer) could surpass the results from lengthy periods of moderate exercise in preventing and treating type 2 diabetes to increasing the cardio and muscular strength of individuals with rheumatoid arthritis.
OK, increasing the intensity of our exercise is good for our body’s health and longevity. That’s a lot.
Actually, there are more benefits. Increasing exercise intensity has been found to increase neurogenesis. The hippocampus is important for the acquisition of new memories and is one of the few regions of an adult brain that can generate new nerve cells. Studies have found that exercise increases neurogenesis in this area and other research found that a lack of exercise reduced neurogenesis. More studies are supporting the belief that exercise alleviates major depressive disorder through hippocampal neurogenesis similar to the therapeutic effects of antidepressants. A study from University of South Carolina found that physical exercise strengthens the brain by creating new mitochondria (the power plants of your cells) in your brain. A school in Pennsylvania installed fitness centers and added 10 minutes to the school day to increase daily gym time. Standardized test scores have risen from below the state average to 17% above it in Reading and 18% in Math. A German researcher found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster after exercising. And, University of California at San Francisco researchers found that stressed-out women who exercised vigorously had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and not active.
Is this research saying exercising can make you smarter and happier?
That is the direction of the findings: getting stronger, living longer while also being happier, less stressed, and possibly smarter. All for a reasonable, chemical free, exercise schedule.
What kind of exercise schedule would you recommend for non-athletes?
Given that for the majority of individuals, the most common cited barrier to regular exercise are a lack of time, it seems increasing intensity to maintain 75%-85% of maximum heart rate (208 minus 0.7 times age) is a viable, time-efficient strategy to improve physical and mental abilities over the long-term when one exercises 3-4 times a week, 20-25 minutes per session.