There was a feature on BBC Breakfast news this week about high intensity training. The news hook being that it only takes one 3 minute session a week to get cardio-vascular fitness. It was linked to a repeat of a Horizon programme ‘The truth about exercise’.
To be fair, the report did try to point out some of the limits of this assertion, namely that the intensity of the exercise has to be at around 100% and that’s difficult to measure outside a laboratory. Once effort levels drop to 85%, the effect is vastly reduced.
But, although I have no reason to doubt the science, I think it’s a dangerous idea to put out there. When there’s research that shows most people in the UK are not active enough to avoid premature death, a get fit quick plan is an empty promise.
It also promotes a rather limited view of fitness. Cardio-vascular health is very important. It’s like the body’s engine and fuel system, so if you’re going to opt for one aspect of fitness, that’s the one to go for. But it’s not the whole picture.
Having a healthy heart and lungs alone won’t help you lose fat. And what about the muscles that help you move? What about healthy bones, strengthened by muscular movements? What about balance? Agility? Mental health?
The three minute exercise fad doesn’t promise to deliver on any of these.
My own thinking about fitness, is that it should be functional. What will help you keep running around after your kids, picking up and hanging out the washing or enjoying a day out walking around a country park?
For my own part, I know I do a lot of exercise – way more than the recommended two and a half hours of moderate activity each week, or one and a quarter hours of vigorous activity. But that’s because I enjoy it.
I’d certainly never recommend anyone starting off trying to match what I do. But I didn’t start where I am now. At first I started to build up with shorter, easier sessions or running and walking, lifting weights and the odd exercise class, because those were things I enjoy.
You may prefer to go for a long walk, play team sports or even just chase your dog around on the beach. The thing is to move, to be active for your health.
The rewards of fitness shown in the media are often linked to weight, size or shape. And I think that’s a very limited view. I’ve always taken a whole body approach and as well as working on things that help me move faster, I’ve also seen improvements in strength and balance over the past few years of training.
Those things will help me in races, sports and in some day-to-day activities - shopping doesn’t carry itself upstairs.
But arguably the biggest change I’ve experienced is one that impacts every area of my life. It’s about confidence. About setting goals and beating them. About doing things that scare me (like open water swimming) and finding I can overcome those fears. Those are experiences I draw on in my career and my personal life.
I know people who run to help them manage depression; who say they would fall apart without it. And I know the power of putting my trainers on and getting out to clear my head or the release of punching a boxing pad after a frustrating day.
There’s so much more to exercise than just physical fitness. I don’t reckon three minutes on an exercise bike would give me any of that.