The empty promise of the 3 minute workout

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.

Writing’s exercise too

Blogging’s taken a back seat just recently. Partly out of necessity because I’ve been busy working, studying for my fitness qualification and with my own training too. But also because I felt I’d lost a bit of my writing mojo.

It happens sometimes. When the impetus is not so strong, or I feel like I’m in danger of saying the same old thing the same old ways again and again and again.

Professionally, in my job, basic craft, good habits and sheer commercial imperative will always mean I can meet a deadline. And I like to think it’s generally good.

But it’s the moments when I strike on a word or a phrase that delights or surprises me that make writing sing. And the singing moments make it all worthwhile.

I’ve learned through experience, not to fret too much about it. To have faith that it will return, probably most unexpectedly.

And I’ve been thinking, well, reminding myself actually, that writing is an exercise.

You can work on your technique, change your style, learn from others, take inspiration from your heroes, mimic them, follow their rules and plans for success.

But it takes discipline, criticism, learning and consistency to get there.

You find your favourite routes, understand your strengths and work to eliminate your weaknesses. You can use your mantras and motivation, but there’s no substitute for just getting out there and doing it.

It’s like running, or any kind of training, really.

I haven’t always been a runner, but I’ve always had an ear for a story or my head in a book. Two very different activities, but they fit together very well.

Happy birthday Newcastle parkrun

Like many parts of the UK, we had a decent snowfall last night, leaving the roads and pathways covered in, as they say around these parts, ‘propa sner’.

Tony the Fridge and me at Newcastle parkrun 20 January 2013
Tony the Fridge and me at Newcastle parkrun 20 January 2013

But while this meant a couple of local parkruns had to cancel, the blanket of white stuff on the Town Moor was arguably safer than wet and icy paths and Newcastle parkrun was declared on.

So, off I went. Wrapped up fit for an arctic expedition, unsure whether to run or to marshall, but prepared for both. I wasn’t there for the very first event, but three years ago, the very first Newcastle parkrun took place in very similar conditions. A select few runners and a hardy bunch of volunteers turned out in the snow to ensure the free 5k timed run went ahead. It’s grown in support hugely since then and lately has had record attendances of over 400 runners.

All parkruns have their own individual character. Some are hilly, some are muddy, some are multi-laps, some just the one. Newcastle has the reputation of being a ‘fast’ course as it’s largely flat. But conditions on the Town Moor can be testing, and it can be more like a cross country run at times.

The wind can seem to change direction as you run, and the exposed nature of the course, can leave hands and toes tingling with cold – and that’s just the runners, never mind the volunteers who stand out in all weathers, directing turns or holding gates. Oh and we must be the only parkrun that has to issue regular cow warnings in the summer months.

Today was a special event to mark the 3rd anniversary of this run. And there’s a nice tradition, started by its original founder Niyc Pidgeon, of celebrating Newcastle parkruns anniversary with a bit of a get together and award presentation afterwards.

Me and Tony the Fridge on Day 20 of his Great North Run challenge
Me and Tony the Fridge on Day 20 of his Great North Run challenge

The special guest presenter was inspirational North East runner and passionate fundraiser for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, Tony Phoenix Morrison, better known as Tony the Fridge, who this year completed the route of the Great North Run 30 times, whilst carrying a 40kg fridge on his back.

Now, I know Tony a bit, in that I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of running a few miles with him during his incredible challenge. So when I started running, I said hello and we fell into step for a while. I hadn’t intended to go out and race hard given the conditions today, but finding he didn’t have anyone running with him today, I thought, why not stick with him.

Because it is always a pleasure running with Tony. He’s not what you might expect and he always makes me think as we chat. He’s easy to listen to and talk to. And today, running over the fresh snow under the beautiful bleak skies of the moor, it just felt effortless ( but I wasn’t carrying an extra 40-odd kilos of metal on my back).

Afterwards at the awards presentation, he shared his story with fellow parkrunners who had gathered in the warmth of the Royal Grammar School to enjoy tea, coffee and cake and celebrate some of the achievements of parkrunners.

The awards are very much in the spirit of parkrun and not only celebrate the consistently fast and impressive performances of the speedier runners, but also give a chance for the volunteers and others to have their moment in the spotlight.

Amongst the awards I was really pleased to hear my mate Jeff’s name, after he’s run every Newcastle parkrun this year and put in some impressive times too. And there was a big cheer for Eric Appleby, our 80-year-old runner who still turns out and inspires everyone to be the best they can be. It was nice too, that Paul  Davison was recognised for always being among the first to thank the volunteers that make it possible for this free run to go ahead.

Parkrun really is inclusive. From the fastest to the slowest, old to young, from babies in buggies to teenagers, dads, dogs, and grandads, everyone’s welcome. Running or volunteering both have their own rewards, from chasing a new best time, to simply getting a smile on a grey day. So if you’re thinking of taking up running, just starting out, or even if you’ve been doing the mileage for years, check it out.

I got a couple of very welcome compliments today. My ultra tough, speedy, never-give-up, running pal Rob said, “Your blogs are always worth reading.” Although he did also admit that if we’ve had a chat, he likes to see if he gets a name check – so there you go Rob 🙂 But it was nice to hear, and it came just at the right moment, so thank you my friend.

2012 blog review

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 8,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 14 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.