More exercise is not necessarily better

Vital Signs Summer 2023 - Ask the Doctors
Illustration: Maitreyee Kalaskar
Illustration: Maitreyee Kalaskar

"Ask the Doctors” is a nationally syndicated column written by Eve Glazier, MD, president of the UCLA Health Faculty Practice Group, and Elizabeth Ko, MD, medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative.

DEAR DOCTORS: I started running a year ago to deal with stress and be in better shape. Instead of a set distance, I do 15 minutes of mixed fast and slow running twice a day. Buta friend says unless you’re always trying to go farther and faster, it’s not really helpful. Is that actually true?

DEAR READER: We’ d like to begin by congratulating you on starting a fitness regimen and maintaining it. The day you took your first run, you started to make an investment in your future health and wellbeing.

Exercise is a frequent topic in the letters we get, and we have often discussed the wide range of physical, mental and emotional benefits that being active can confer. These include a lower risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity and metabolic syndrome. Exercise has also been linked to a lower incidence of certain cancers. And your turning to exercise to help manage anxiety is spot on. Numerous studies, as well as a wealth of anecdotal data, correlate regular workouts with improved mental and emotional health. This includes issues such as stress, poor mood, depression and anxiety.

The more-is-better philosophy that your friend is urging you to adopt has certainly been popular in the past. However, exercise that is too long or too intense can lead to over-use injuries. There is also some evidence that it may contribute to chronic inflammation. Meanwhile, a recent body of research suggests that shorter workouts, such as the ones you have added to your daily routine, may be more beneficial than extended ones. In fact, studies show even two-minute bursts of intense exercise, such as powering up a few flights of stairs or sprinting the last few hundred yards to a destination, are associated with measurable health benefits. It’s not the duration of the exercise that matters in these instances, it’s the intensity. This type of exercise has been shown to be quite effective at helping to build muscle and bolstering the cardiovascular system.

The current exercise recommendations for adults are 150 minutes of moderate activity — or 75 minutes of intense activity — per week. For kids and teens, it’s one hour per day. Add up your twice-daily runs, and you’re exceeding those standards.

Rather than make any changes to the running portion of your workouts, it would be useful to consider expanding into other areas. Aerobic exercise is just one part of a well-rounded program. Weight-bearing exercises to build muscle, as well as stretching exercises for flexibility, are also important. Taken together, these three forms of exercise help to maintain and improve strength, balance, agility and stability.

Turning daily exercise into a long-term habit can be a challenge for many people. This is particularly true when you’re first starting out. In following a running program that you find to be manageable, comfortable and enjoyable, you have created a workout that you’ve been able to stick with for a year. That qualifies as the best type of exercise of all.

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