If you think you need to slog away on the treadmill for two hours per day to get healthy and fit, think again. New research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology indicates that short, intense exercise sessions may be healthier than longer, moderate exercise sessions, even if they burn the same number of calories.
The study focused on the relationship between exercise and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that occur together and increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Individuals with metabolic syndrome may have excess abdominal fat, difficulty controlling blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and low levels of “good” cholesterol. Metabolic syndrome doubles the risk of heart disease and increases the risk of diabetes by five times. In other words, preventing it is of utmost importance.
We know exercise is important for a variety of reasons, including keeping metabolic syndrome at bay. But just how much exercise do we need and how hard do we have to work? To answer these questions, researchers from Queen’s University in Ontario used data collected from 1,841 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one-third of participants had metabolic syndrome.
Participants wore an accelerometer on their right hip during all waking hours for seven days. The device provided data on movement and exercise intensity. The researchers found that the more active people were in general, the lower their risk of metabolic syndrome—but what’s more, they observed that vigorous exercise reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome more than moderate exercise. Those who engaged in the most vigorous exercise reduced the risk of developing metabolic syndrome by two-thirds, compared with those who did no vigorous exercise. Individuals who performed 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week were 2.4 times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those who performed 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
The researchers concluded that short, intense exercise sessions may provide more health benefits than long, moderate exercise sessions. This is an association, not cause-and-effect—but it appears that vigorous exercise is critical. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week—with the idea being that they result in the same amount of caloric expenditure. But the results of this study indicate that the benefits of exercise might come from the intensity rather than the number of calories burned.
The bottom line—a shorter, more intense workout may save time and your health. Vigorous exercise includes activities such as running, jumping rope, sprint intervals, and mountain biking. In contrast, moderate exercise might consist of walking or biking at a leisurely pace. Of course, any activity can be performed at a higher intensity level. If you want to boost the health benefits of your fitness program, get intense.
Janssen I, Ross R. Vigorous intensity physical activity is related to the metabolic syndrome independent of the physical activity dose. International Journal of Epidemiology. Published online March 24, 2012. doi: 10.1093/ije/dys038