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“…i don’t have a weight problem. …i have a height problem!” Cartoon character, Ziggy rails at his bathroom scale. ©2016 Ziggy and Friends, Inc.

Barbell Aerobics Finds Support

High-Low Exercise Body Dynamics

I coined the term “Barbell Aerobics” in my book Challenge Yourself, published in 1999. The idea came from bond traders who buy long-term bonds and short-term bonds to achieve the best possible balance of yield and risk. In a nutshell, I argued that a combination of high-intensity intervals or sprinting combined with walking is the best way to burn fat and achieve aerobic fitness, without interfering with weight workouts. That moderate steady-state exercise disturbs ongoing recovery inside muscles challenged by high-intensity exercise (strength and aerobic). Walking on the other hand aids recovery and burns fat. Calorie burn is better achieved by eating quality foods than by steady state exercise such as jogging.

Several recent studies reinforce my offering. The first one was reported February 8, 2016, in the journal Current Biology. It's an eye-opener.

A team of researchers led by Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of anthropology at City University of New York’s Hunter College, studied activity levels and energy expenditures in 332 adults, age 25 to 45, from the United States, Ghana, Jamaica, Seychelles, and South Africa. Surprisingly, they discovered that extremely active people (think hunter-gatherers) weren’t burning any more calories than moderately active adults in the United States or Europe.

How could that be?

Pontzer et al concluded that total energy expenditure plateaus above moderate activity levels, suggesting that the body adapts to higher activity levels to keep total energy expenditure within a relatively narrow range. Activity level and calorie burn go hand in hand, but only so far; there comes a point of diminishing returns. At higher levels of activity, we may be spinning our wheels as far as calories are concerned.

“The body works pretty hard to keep energy expenditure in check,” Professor Pontzer told the Chicago Tribune (February 4, 2016).  His team found that daily calorie burn from exercise tends to level off at the equivalent of walking a couple of miles a day. A typical number of steps per mile is between 2,000 and 2,500; it depends on stride length and varies from person to person.

“It makes more sense to focus on calorie intake [than to overdo activity level], Pontzer explained.  (Keep in mind that some calories count more than others. See http://www.cbass.com/unlockfatcells.htm )

He was, however, quick to add that “exercise is super important for your health.”

Dr. Chip Lavie, director of exercise laboratories at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans (who was not involved in the study) observed that “there are numerous benefits of exercise besides just weight loss.” He stressed that best results—fitness, lower heart disease, stress relief, enjoyment, etc.—generally come from high-intensity exercise.

Put all that together and you have Barbell Aerobics.

Best overall results come when we save energy and enthusiasm for high-intensity aerobics and strength training. The high-intensity end of the barbell (weights and aerobics) builds total fitness, while the low-intensity end aids recovery and fat burn. Combine the two ends (along with a quality diet) and you’re on your way to lifelong leanness and health.

 If you enjoy running, sprinting uphill is more productive than steady-state jogging.
 Fast-paced walking uphill can also be very effective.
Photo by Guy Appelman

Step Count Benefits—and Shortcomings

Two other studies, one published November 4, 2015, in PLoS ONE and the other November 19, 2015, in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, investigated the benefits—and the limits—of walking.

The first study, from Australia, was designed to determine the effects of self-reported, pedometer measured step count on mortality.  Researchers led by Terence Dwyer followed 2,576 participants, average age 59 years, over a 10 year period. Daily activity ranged from sedentary to 10,000 steps.   

Daily step count was found to be directly associated with long term mortality. More steps appeared to mean longer life.

“A sedentary person who takes a very low number of daily steps (<1,000) but who is able to change behavior, for example, to meet the popular 10,000 daily step guideline would have a 46% lower mortality,” the researchers reported. On the other hand, a sedentary person who increased his or her steps to 3,000 five days a week would have a 12% reduction in mortality.  

The study is believed to be the first to quantify mortality reduction using pedometers to measure physical activity in a free living population.

The second study, reported a few days later, involved 12,274 men and 14,209 women at least 20 years of age—and took some of the steam out of the Australian study. It found that a high level of cardiovascular fitness can substantially reduce the deleterious effects of prolonged sedentary living, even in those who do not meet minimum physical activity recommendations. Revealingly, participants who were unfit—but did meet minimal physical activity guidelines—had increased risk of cardiovascular risk factor clustering.

The Norwegian researchers, led by Javaid Nauman, concluded that high levels of fitness “abolished” the negative effects of prolonged sitting.

The finding lends credence to the Barbell Aerobics approach. While it’s not a good idea to sit around all day, there’s no need to walk 10,000 steps every day—if you do high-intensity exercise (aerobic and resistance) to build and maintain fitness. (I generally walk about 4000 steps on my two workout days and 6000 on rest days.)

We’ll close with a study that demonstrates the alarming effects of inactivity—even for as little as two weeks—and highlights the failure of aerobic exercise (steady-state and intervals) to restore function. It takes strength training to complete the job.

The Effects of Inactivity—and Optimum Restoration

Researchers led by Andreas Vigelso (Center for Healthy Aging, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Panum Institute in Denmark) reported the effects of brief leg immobilization in the June, 2015, Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine—and the surprising course of rehabilitation afterward.

Seventeen young men (average age 23) and 15 older men (average age 68) had one leg immobilized for 2 weeks, followed by 6 weeks of retraining. All subjects were healthy and untrained. The men were instructed to use crutches and to avoid doing any weight-bearing activity with the immobile leg. Retraining consisted of 12 sessions of continuous biking and 8 sessions of high-intensity interval training.

The young men experienced a 28% loss of strength in the immobilized leg, while the older men showed a 23% decline. Leg lean mass was lost only in the young men. “The more muscle you have the more you’ll lose,” Vigelso told Yahoo Health (July 22, 2015).  

Interestingly, both groups also lost about 10 percent of the strength in their free leg. Whole body activity decreased by one-third during the period of restriction. 

“For the younger guys, this was like aging 40 to 50 years in a matter of days,” Vigelso explained.

The overall effect was probably about what would happen if you spent two weeks in bed.

The disappointment came during the 6 weeks of rehab. Aerobic training (steady-state and intervals) for three times as long as the period on immobilization failed to fully restore muscle strength in either group; aerobic work capacity restored in both groups. The young men also regained the lean mass they lost. The older group had no loss of lean mass to restore. 

“This indicates that intensive endurance training 4 times/week in untrained individuals may impair explosive leg strength,” Vigelso et al wrote. (Barbell Aerobics, of course, calls for only one high-intensity aerobic session a week.)

“Aerobic training may only be considered as a partial alternative to strength training,” the researchers wrote. “And this may also be the case in even very weak people,” Vigelso added to Yahoo Health.

“It’s well-known that cycling doesn’t improve strength very efficiently,” Vigelso continued. “Strength training is the ideal way to recover your losses. Aerobic exercise can be added to your regimen, but shouldn’t be relied on alone—even if done in explosive bursts—to help you rebuild lost strength and lean mass.”

Barbell Aerobics and weight training are the dynamic duo.

*  *  *

Barbell Aerobics—high-intensity aerobics and walking—is the way to aerobic fitness and weight control. Add weight training and quality eating and you have total fitness--and robust health.

(Thanks to Dr. Richard Winett for calling my attention to the two step-count studies.)

April 1, 2016

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