As a Wellness Coach and fitness enthusiast, I’ve observed extreme behavior when it comes to fitness routines: Guys coming to the gym twice a day, seven days a week, exercising one muscle group per visit; Gals monopolizing a Stairmaster for literally hours; Guys and gals doing a rigorous gym workout and then heading outdoors to bike 50 miles or run a 10K. I’ve seen it all but oddly it doesn’t seem that crazy when you’re surrounded by like-minded people immersed in a supportive environment. Of course, these overachievers view this as normal and the rest of the world as unfit but is this behavior truly healthy?
On the other side of the spectrum, I’m now observing an alarming number of people who apparently view walking from the parking lot to Dunkin’ Donuts as the cardio portion of their exercise regimen and a low fat muffin qualifies as a diet program. Obesity levels are rampant in my community and rapidly becoming a national epidemic. This growing group (pun intended) is obviously not fit, but just how unhealthy are they?
The concept of health and fitness tend to get lumped together but they are very different so allow me to delineate between the two. Health generally means you are free from disease, able to get around with full mobility, and overall wellbeing (Mind, Body, Soul). Fitness, in a cardio sense, is how much oxygen you move through your body to get to your muscles. Thus, good health and fitness can be two mutually exclusive goals. Your health goal may be to live pain free into your golden years; your fitness goal may be to run a marathon.
The good news for the vast majority of the population is you can achieve health without drastically raising your fitness level. New studies show the optimal amount of exercise for improved health and longevity is actually very moderate. Conversely, extreme fitness can adversely impact your health. A study by the Mayo Clinic argues that excessive amounts of vigorous exercise, particularly running, can harm the heart. Resistance training can break down joints, tendons and ligaments that ultimately lead to chronic pain. There is a bell shaped curve to the benefits of fitness, and extended routines quickly reach a point of of diminishing returns
So where is the sweet spot for fitness to achieve optimal health? It is surprisingly moderate. In a recent study, the data suggests that walking and light jogging are uniformly beneficial for great health and can add years to your life span. Three or four walks per week at a brisk pace for 30 minutes can sufficiently increase age expectancy and decrease the risk of mortality from any cause by 14%. No more than twenty miles of light jogging at a 10- or 11-minute mile pace produces similar results.
Hopefully, this is good news for sedentary people who are intimidated just by the concept of exercise. They may be relieved to know that simply walking can have a profound impact on improved health. But its efficacy best correlates when mitigating other health risk factors, like poor diet and nutrition, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc. Conversely, hardcore fitness enthusiasts may want to pause and reassess their intense routines to better evaluate their overall health, especially if they are experiencing extreme fatigue or chronic injuries. Start with the frame of mind that the purpose of exercise is to challenge the body, not punish it. New habits are hard to make; old habits are hard to break. But when the reward is increased health and longer life span, it’s worth striving for the sweet spot of moderation.