Is Endurance Training the Best Type of Exercise to Slow Down Aging?
Authors Note: I originally wrote this article on my other blog in August 2014. I will close down that blog and continue to write here, but I believe that this blog is important enough to keep alive.
Over the last few days I have been doing some research for my book. I am on the chapter that applies the Hystrength(sm) training program to the older exerciser. The research for the most part is fascinating. Many articles and papers talk about how exercise can even reverse aging to a certain degree. I agree with this, but the choice of exercise and proper implementation goes a long way to at least slow the aging process down.
In one article, the author makes the claim that endurance exercise is the best type to do if you want to protect the body’s metabolism from aging.
Here is an excerpt(1).
Endurance exercise is also the best way to protect the body’s metabolism from the effects of age. It reduces body fat, sensitizes the body’s tissues to insulin, and lowers blood sugar levels. Exercise boosts the HDL (“good”) cholesterol and lowers levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. And the same types of activity will fight some of the neurological and psychological changes of aging. Endurance exercise boosts mood and improves sleep, countering anxiety and depression. In addition, it improves reflex time and helps stave off age-related memory loss. All in all, many of the changes that physiologists attribute to aging are actually caused by disuse. Using your body will keep it young.
Yes, endurance exercise can produce these benefits, but endurance exercise takes a lot of time…time most people do not have, nor are willing to devote to exercise. Furthermore, you can do too much and suffer the signs of over training. This is where, in my opinion, the body can wear down more than it has to, especially over time.
The latest research is demonstrating that very little exercise is needed to bring about these same bio markers. As a matter of fact, it has been shown that as little as three minutes a week of intense exercise is all that is needed to do it. The secret is in the intensity. It has to be very high…above the anaerobic threshold for a period of time to trigger the right response.
Dr. Mercola, (2) for example, developed his program called the “peak 8″ protocol, whereby a trainee is on a stationary bike for about 15 to 20 minutes. He has the trainee intersperse 30 seconds of pedaling as hard as possible, followed by 90 seconds easy pedaling, for a series of eight rounds. He recommends doing this two or three times a week.
In Britain, researchers have come to the same conclusions. They have been successful with only three minutes of hard work in contrast to Dr. Mercola’s eight minutes (3). Moreover they say you only need to do it once a week.
Here, in this video Mike Mosley shows what it is all about.
They call it high intensity training (HIT), although the name has been used for a strength training protocol created by Arthur Jones over 50 years ago (more on that later). This style of training is also called high intensity interval training (HIIT), which I think better describes what it actually is.
So how can so little exercise work? This is a lengthy discussion in and of itself, and I will expand on these concepts in my book. For the sake of brevity and some insight, I will list three main reasons:
- The production of human growth hormone(2). This hormone is responsible for muscle growth, cellular repair and maintenance, and many other benefits. In essence, human growth hormone helps keep the body young. Human growth hormone production slows as we age, and intense exercise can stop, or even reverse that.
- Improved insulin sensitivity. Intense exercise will drain the glycogen stores in the muscles. This is good because when they get drained, the body has to switch to using fat for fuel. For the purpose of anti-ageing, draining the glycogen stores help the cells to stay sensitive to insulin because insulin drives glucose into the muscles. When the glycogen stores are drained they are much more responsive to insulin because they need the fuel. If they do not get drained, they kind of get “gummed up”. They become insensitive to insulin, whereby metabolic syndrome and diabetes can set in.
- Slows down telomere shortening(2). Telomeres are part of your cells, and they shorten every time your cells divide. It is believed that when they shorten from 15,000 bases long down to 5,000 bases long, you will die of old age. Bad eating habits, smoking, and other toxins speed up the shortening process, and it was believed that there was nothing you can do to prevent it…until now. Research is showing that high intensity exercise can reverse this process. To what extent remains to be answered, but the news is promising. Ironically, endurance exercise has not demonstrated the same capability.
I understand these benefits first hand. I used to do a lot of running and biking when I was younger, but I switched to high intensity training, and I never looked back. The main reason I stuck with it once I switched is because of the way it made me feel. I would be more energetic. I would have overall better stamina. I have a high libido, and I look younger than most men my age (recently at a poker game I took my son to, two people could not believe he was my son. He gets that all the time). I know I could not do this, particularly at my age, with endurance exercise.
I do not practice high intensity exercise like these protocols suggest. Even though they are good programs, I still think they lack a crucial piece…strength training. We do lose muscle mass as we age, and many experts think this is the main reason of aging. I do not do the conventional approach. I train with weights in the same manner as the peak 8 protocol. I will do a very hard set, as close to failure as I can stand, then I will move on to the next set as soon as I am ready. I train the whole body the same day, and I stay above the anaerobic threshold as much as I can. This is, in essence, what the original high intensity training that Arthur Jones was famous for does. This approach has the added benefit of increasing the fast twitch fibers, thus creating more glycogen storage (good for insulin sensitivity), more force production capability, and better stability for my joints.
The more I study exercise, the more I am convinced that brief and intense bouts done infrequently are far more beneficial than spending several hours a week at a gym. Do not mistake this point of view with cutting out recreational activities. If you enjoy the occasional jog or bike ride, keep doing them. I am, however, suggesting that if you spend several hours a week in the gym in an effort to get healthy and slow down the aging process, do change your approach. There is a better way.
- Exercise and aging: Can you walk away from father time? Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Exercise_and_aging_Can_you_walk_away_from_Father_Time.htm
- Mercola, Joseph. M.D. :Human Growth Hormone in Your Body Can Transform Your Health-Takes Just 20Minutes.http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2010/12/24/a-fountain-of-youth-in-your-muscles.aspx
- Mosley, Mike: The Truth About Exercise. Youtube.