What is the “Right Dose” of Exercise for a Longer Life?

I recently stumbled across a blog post from April 2015 in which NY Times writer Gretchen Reynolds was discussing the “right dose” of exercise to increase longevity.  Her article was based on two new “impressively large-scale” studies that she thought would provide “clarity” on the topic.

It’s a principal of toxicology that “the dose makes the poison.” In other words, drugs that are beneficial in small does may be toxic if you take more than the prescribed amount.  For many people, exercise might as well be a toxic chemical: they want to know what is the minimum dose necessary to stay healthy.  Even better if they could take a pill and not have to break a sweat.

Toxic-bottles
Exercise?

My attitude is different.  It seems sad to me that a natural activity like exercise would be “dosed” like a pharmaceutical.  And in any case, I’m skeptical about scientists who claim they can measure such things.

My faith in humanity was restored, however, when I read the post’s top-ranked comments:  readers had raised interesting questions about the studies’ logic, disputed the purpose of the article, and taken Reynolds to task for naivete.

In fact, after reflecting on the comments, I’ve concluded that the “right dose” of exercise is the maximum amount possible…

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What is the “Right Dose” of Exercise for a Longer Life?

Seeking “Flow”

A recent post on New York Magazine’s website gushed about ultra-marathoners who run in a state of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of people who are focused, productive, and happy.  According to the author, even casual runners recognize flow as “getting in the zone, cranking out your best stuff, and just being awesomely lost in a creative process.”  Endorphin-induced feelings of accomplishment, focus, and strength produce in the runner a “near-spiritual feeling of Zen and nirvana,” the author asserts.  The premise seems simple:  run, experience flow, and you’ll become happier and more productive.

But if you read Csikszentmihalyi’s work, you’ll find it’s not that easy.

Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Csikszentmihalyi_Mihaly_WEB
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Source:  Association for Psychological Science

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Seeking “Flow”

What does “training” mean to you?

For contemporary runners, “training” has a narrow meaning.  Query a runner, and you’ll hear about weekly mileage, long runs, track work.  The media is full of training tips, like exercises to strengthen your hips or advice on how to swing your arms.  Researchers study how training effects aerobic capacity and running economy.  It’s all about speed and distance.

Could there be more to training than this?

That’s what I was wondering when one day I started reading about the Yurok Indians, for whom training (“hohkep”) involves not only running, but also battling the elements, overcoming fear, sweating, fasting, thirsting, going without sleep, and ultimately venturing into the wilderness in search of spiritual powers.  For the Yuroks, training is meant not only to strengthen the body, but also to clarify thinking and focus the will.  It’s a path to self-discipline, self-reliance, and the realization of life’s purpose.  Now I wanted to know, what could we learn from them?

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What does “training” mean to you?

Northern Shawangunks Circumnavigation

To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday.

— John Burroughs

The week-long holiday break was time well spent with family, friends, and new acquaintances, relaxing, talking, celebrating, eating, drinking, hiking, and running.

And I was able to fit in one run that was a little longer than average and extra special:  a 42-mile circumnavigation of the Northern Shawangunks, on roads that parallel and then cross over the mountains.  To make life interesting, I brought no food or water.

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Northern Shawangunks Circumnavigation

Slaying the Sugar Dragon

For many of us, too much sugar is a bad thing, and ditto for processed carbs, like bread, pasta, and rice, which are similar to sugar in terms of how quickly they digest and how much glucose they dump into the bloodstream, with unhealthy consequences.

So the question is, if sugar and processed carbs aren’t healthful, why would you ever eat them?

Well, it’s easy to rationalize.  We crave variety in our diet.  Rather than taking an extremist stand, we should”seek moderation in all things.”  And, of course, sugar and carbs taste great.

But here’s the real answer:  in addition to being cheap and ubiquitous, there are reasons to suspect that sugar and processed carbs are addictive.

That’s why the modern food industrial complex stuffs its products with sugar and carbs.  So does your favorite neighborhood restaurant.  Family and friends delight in serving you the unhealthy substances that they themselves may be addicted to.  In the battle to eat healthfully, we’re on our own.

Over the years, I’ve cut back significantly on the sugar and processed carbs in my diet.  It’s been a long journey and a bit of a battle.  But “significantly” isn’t the same as “totally,” and so I’m faced with my own question:  why would I eat any of this stuff?

One day a few weeks ago, feeling in the mood to pick a fight, I decided to embark on an experiment.  The goal would be to cut out fully 100% of the processed carbs from my diet for a period of one week.  It would be interesting to see how hard this would be.

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Slaying the Sugar Dragon

Sedentarianism

Having just completed an 87-mile training week, I was disappointed in the results, although hardly surprised:

I had averaged a depressing 10 hours per day sitting.

This conclusion was based on diary that tracked how I spent my time over the last week:  sitting, standing, walking, running, and lying down.

The motivation for this exercise was the growing concern among healthcare professionals about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, especially too much sitting.  Indeed, according to one recent study, more than 7 hours a day sitting could be unhealthy.  In which case, I’m at risk.

sedentary 1
Time spent in different activities (average daily hours and percentage of total) for the period December 7-13, 2015

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Sedentarianism

Getting to Know the Corbitts

Ted Corbitt, known as the “father of long distance running,” is famous for many accomplishments.  I had heard that his training regime included weeks where he’d run 200 miles or even 300.  I couldn’t imagine how someone could do that while working full time.  And why would you want to?

And so it was with great interest that I attended a presentation hosted by the New York Road Runners featuring Corbitt’s son, Gary, who shared personal insights about his father and talked about the history of the New York running scene.

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Ted Corbitt, 1957

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Getting to Know the Corbitts