New Rule 17 Aerobic fitness is not a matter of life and death

If you spend a lot of time reading scientific research, you'll notice that the phrase "exercise training" always means "endurance training." That's because there's still a pervasive idea in the world of exercise science, as well as among the general public, that movement designed to take you long distances is "real" exercise, and strength training is something different.

Embedded in the phrase is the idea that only endurance exercise improves health and contributes to a longer life.

So consider the results from a study of nearly 2,000 middle-aged men in the United Kingdom. The researchers, starting in 1979, looked at the subjects' exercise patterns and work-related physical activity (whether they lifted boxes on a loading dock or sat in an office all day, for example). They tracked the men until 1997.

The results, published in the journal Heart in 2003, found something that'll probably surprise you:

Light and moderate physical activity—walking, gardening, dancing, playing golf, bowling—had no effect on heart disease, death from heart disease, or death from all causes. Even the ones who did the most light and moderate activity, up to ninety minutes a day of walking or light yard work, got no measurable protection from heart disease or any other terminal illness.

The ones who got that protection were the ones who did what the researchers call "heavy" exercise: climbing stairs, playing vigorous start-stop sports like tennis and badminton, hiking, jogging, swimming, serious landscaping work. (Weight lifting wasn't included, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.)

But that's not only the surprising finding of the study:

The ones who got this protection—and we're only talking about one-fifth of the men studied—burned as little as fifty-four calories a day doing that heavy exercise. To put that in perspective, if you're a 180-pound guy, you'll burn just under 500 calories in an hour of chopping wood or shoveling snow (or serious weight lifting, for that matter). That's about seventy calories a day.

So one hour of heavy exercise a week offers you more protection from heart disease, as well as from death by any cause, than ninety minutes a day of walking.

Over the course of the study, the heavy-duty exercisers had 62 percent less chance of dying of heart disease and were 47 percent less likely to die of any cause than the rest of the men who participated.

Even those in the next group down, guys who were averaging between sixteen and fifty-three calories burned a day with heavy exercise, saw their chance of dying from any cause decline by 16 percent, while their risk of heart-related death dropped 27 percent.

My point here isn't that this study invalidates the idea of aerobic fitness as a path to health and longevity. I corresponded with one of the study authors, John W. G. Yarnell, **. He emphasized that the men he and his colleagues studied lived in Caer-philly, a small town in southern Wales, and that the data were compiled in the 1980s, a time when few older men (forty-nine to sixty-four years old) would've been lifting weights. So almost all the "heavy" exercise included in the study had some endurance component.

Still, it doesn't take a lot of aerobic fitness to meet the fifty-four-calories-a-day standard. In fact, you wouldn't have to engage in any aerobic activities at all, since Dr. Yarnell's data include tennis and heavy yard work, which, as I'll explain below, don't primarily use the aerobic energy system for the "heavy" parts. An hour of serious yard work or home repair would do it. An hour of basketball or tennis or hockey or soccer would fill the bill.

Heck, by the standards we use today to determine exercise intensity, an hour of strength training would do it, even though I want to repeat that the men in Dr. Yarnell's study were not lifters.

Quick explanation:

Generally, "heavy" exercise means anything equal to or above six METs, or "metabolic equivalents." That means your metabolism cranks up to six times its resting speed to do the activity. Serious weight lifting is a six-MET activity, as are swimming (six to ten METs, depending on your effort), hiking (six), running (eight, at twelve-minute miles), cycling (six to ten), rowing (seven to twelve), cross-country skiing (seven to fourteen), tennis (five for doubles, up to eight for singles), basketball (six to eight), soccer (seven to ten), and dozens of others.

And, as suggested by the Caerphilly study, you can take your pick and help ward off death and heart disease.

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