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Time To Crank Up Your Workout

New research finds that if you exercise harder, you’ll live longer


by Sarah Mahoney

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For decades now, experts have been saying any exercise is good exercise. But a new study has found that working out harder makes a big difference, reducing mortality risks by up to 13%. The study, from James Cook University in Australia, which followed more than 200,000 people for over six years, has been getting plenty of buzz. Life Reimagined asked lead author Klaus Gebel, Ph.D., to explain what it means for those looking to change their health in midlife. (And to make your workout work twice as hard for you, check out this Life Reimagined program.)

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Lots of people aren't sure about the difference between moderate and vigorous workouts. Can you explain? 

Vigorous intensity makes people sweat, breathe harder or puff and pant, like jogging, brisk cycling, or competitive tennis. Another way to look at it is that, relative to a person’s fitness ability, vigorous-intensity physical activity is usually a 7 or 8 on a scale of 0 to 10.

What are the benefits of getting sweatier? 

The study looked at three groups—those who said that none of their physical activity was vigorous, those who reported that up to 30% was, and those who said they exercised more vigorously 30% of the time or more. Those who worked out hard up to 30% of the time had a 9% lower mortality rate. And for those who did so for more than 30% of the time, mortality risk fell 13%.

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What’s the best way to increase exercise intensity? 

People do not have to run marathons to get additional health benefits of vigorous on top of moderate physical activity. Any activities that are intense enough to make them sweat or puff and pant are sufficient.

How might this change fitness guidelines?

Current guidelines recommend that adults put together at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both. [One minute of vigorous activity counts as much as twice as much moderate activity.]

However, emerging evidence, including the findings from our study, indicates for those who are capable of doing so, it would be good to enjoy some regular vigorous-intensity activity for extra health and fitness benefits. 

For example, for people who so far have been meeting the physical activity recommendations by doing at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, it might yield additional health benefits if they engage in 25 to 30 minutes of vigorous activity.

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Why have experts been so focuses on the “any exercise is good exercise” recommendation? 

Until the 1970s, most exercise research focused on vigorous effort. Then, evidence showed that moderate activities were associated with significant health benefits. That led to a paradigm shift, highlighting the benefits of moderate-intensity activity.

So the pendulum is swinging back toward harder workouts?

Recently, one researcher commented that running beats walking by a factor of 2:1 to 4:1 in mortality reduction.

And lack of time is a factor. Vigorous activity is more time-efficient, so promoting it might be particularly fruitful. Research indicates that it is possible to encourage overweight middle-aged men and women—even with a range of chronic health problems—to safely participate in vigorous activity in the form of high-intensity interval training. 

But it’s not for everyone?

Significant proportions of older adults are frail and have limitations, such as arthritis, which make vigorous physical activity difficult or impossible. And very intense physical activity can trigger acute myocardial infarction, particularly among those that are not regularly active. But, in the long run, habitual activity is associated with a lower risk of coronary events.  

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