Don’t kill yourself at the gym – Horizon: The Truth About Exercise

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a fondness for educational TV. BBC’s Horizon is a great bit of television. Having watched last week’s episode, I thought I’d stop being quite so lazy about posting and blog about it.

Firstly, Michael Mosley is a first class science presenter. Horizon has benefitted in the past from great guest presenters; Alan Davies on maths and measurement for How Long is a Piece of String? Ben Miller going back to his physics roots for What is One Degree? as well as regular TV scientists Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili, Adam Rutherford and Brian Cox. Mosley is no exception.

If you are a gym user or have any interest in improving your health and fitness, it is well worth a watch. If you can’t be bothered to watch an hour’s worth of educational TV, there were two very interesting take home points. While the government recommends two and a half hours of moderate to vigorous exercise a week for adults, some scientists suggest that this one size fits all approach to exercise is not helpful. Mosley takes advice from researchers on the cutting edge of exercise physiology, and while they all concede that many people get a lot out of the gym or running, there are more efficient ways of obtaining the benefits of exercise.

Consider that it would take 55 minutes of running at 6 miles per hour to burn off the calories in a banana (stats shamelessly stolen from the programme), the health benefits of improving fitness, increasing insulin sensitivity (reducing the risks of developing diabetes) and burning calories are not necessarily best acheived by everyone by endless hours in the gym.

The two most interesting findings in the programme were the results of High Intensity Training (HIT) and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).

For HIT, you do short bursts of very intense exercise for 20 seconds. You do this 3 times (so that’s 1 minute of exercise) and you do this 3 times a week. This is still being trialled, but Mosley’s insulin sensitivity improved dramatically over just one month.

NEAT is any movement in everyday life that isn’t sleeping or sitting – so walking, cycling using the stairs and so on. Using high-tech fidget pants containing sensors, scientist James Levine monitored movement in Mosley and two other volunteers over the course of a day. Sitting at your desk doing naff-all burns no calories. However, making a conscious effort to walk around frequently, use stairs etc increased Mosley’s energy expenditure by around 500 calories in one day. Levine argues that this is far more beneficial than just going to the gym.

Rather interesting findings, I thought.

Link to the programme.

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