All the right moves

The key to success is surprisingly simple: make workouts short, intense, social and ‘mindless’

Photograph By Andrew Tolson

Sometimes, Tara Mackay works up to 80 hours a week, and hitting the gym at the end of a long day is the last thing on her mind. A lawyer at a major law firm in downtown Toronto, “my legal career is very demanding and challenging,” says Mackay, 36. “The primary impediment [to exercise] is time.” Still, Mackay manages to squeeze in two workout sessions per week, at 6:30 a.m., with personal trainer Jacqueline Gradish. “If she wasn’t there waiting for me, I would probably hit the snooze button,” she says.

A lack of time is the number one reason people give for skipping the gym, “but is it the real reason? No,” says Kathleen Martin Ginis, an exercise psychology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. The real problem, she notes, is a lack of motivation—one sparked by our own unrealistic expectations. “A lot of people start an exercise program because they want to change how they look,” Martin Ginis says, and quickly grow discouraged when the pounds don’t melt away. “Exercise has lots of health benefits,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “But losing weight is not one of them.”

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We live in what’s called an “obesogenic environment,” says Bob Ross, a professor at Queen’s University and obesity expert—one that predisposes us to be heavy. Instead of walking to work, we drive. Instead of climbing the stairs, we take the elevator. Instead of cooking meals at home, “we don’t even have to get out of the car, and we can consume 2,000 calories in a cheeseburger,” he says. Given the sedentary lifestyle that most Canadians lead—coupled with access to cheap, high-calorie food—it’s no wonder losing weight can be a massive struggle. Even putting in an hour at the gym “might burn an extra 300 calories a day,” Ross says, less than what’s in a Starbucks blueberry scone. With just that one change, “there’s no way you’re going to see a major reduction in body weight.”

Moreover, those who start working out just to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans probably won’t stick with it, a new study from the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests. Three million Canadians aged 20 to 39 are inactive, it notes, and 2.5 million are overweight or obese. In a survey of 2,000 people, the HSF found that 62 per cent intentionally lost five pounds or more over the past five years, but then failed to keep it off. Of those who were overweight or obese to begin with, 70 per cent regained all the weight or even more.

Motivation likely has a lot to do with it: generally, people who quit exercising “often start for the wrong reasons, and never found a good reason to continue,” Martin Ginis notes. Indeed, among the group of young Canadians polled by the HSF, “half are interested in losing weight, but it’s clearly driven by aesthetics as opposed to good health,” says Dr. Marco Di Buono, director of research for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. As a result, they choose “quick-fix solutions” like crash diets or unsustainable workouts, which can “lead to weight loss over a short period, but without continued practice, you regain all the more,” he says.
And it isn’t cheap. Of overweight people aged 20 to 39, half report spending money to lose weight (paying for gym fees or dietary supplements, for example). “On average, every attempt to lose weight by a Canadian adult costs $500,” whether it’s a one-time investment or a multi-week program, Di Buono says. “It’s pretty hefty.”

Those who are serious about getting fit will have to look beyond the mirror for motivation, at least at first.

Photograph By Andrew Tolson

One good strategy is exercising with others. In one study of the University of Oxford rowing team, researchers looked at what’s called the “rowers’ high”—a release of endorphins that can create a mild sense of euphoria after exercise. In the study, rowers performed 45-minute workouts on rowing machines, alone or in teams of six. Afterwards, a blood-pressure cuff was squeezed around their arm until they reported pain, a test that measures endorphin levels. Incredibly, rowers who worked out together could tolerate twice as much pain. Performing as a group seems to ramp up the endorphin rush we get from physical exertion; since endorphins contribute to feelings of happiness and belonging, this effect could help explain the sense of belonging we get from other communal activities, like dancing or making music, researchers said.

Exercise takes energy, Martin Ginis notes, and not just the physical kind: willpower is finite, her research has shown, and runs out as the day goes on. Tasks like “working toward a deadline, or not shouting at the guy in front of you at the supermarket, whittle away your willpower,” she says, which comes into play “at the end of the day, when you’re deciding whether to go to the gym or drive right past it, go home, and put on your jammies.” Strategies that make exercise “mindless,” whether a fitness class, an appointment with a personal trainer, or an established routine, make people more likely to work out instead of lounging in front of the TV.

For those who complain they lack the time to exercise, short, high-intensity workouts could be one solution.

Long thought to be more geared toward high-performance athletes, interval training is now catching on with average people looking to get fit. “It’s an uncomfortable and demanding form of exercise,” that can bring one’s heart rate up to 95 per cent of the maximum, says Martin Gibala, chair of McMaster’s kinesiology department, who studies this kind of training. “But there’s no free lunch. If you’re looking at time-efficient ways to exercise, increasing the intensity is the way to do it.” He adds that while people should consult a doctor before embarking on an exercise program, “just about everybody” could benefit from an interval-based approach to fitness.

And it’s effective. One recent McMaster study, of which Gibala was lead author, concluded that short bursts of high-intensity interval training—10 one-minute sprints on an exercise bike with about one minute of rest in between, done three times a week—improved muscle health just as much as several hours of conventional biking.

Even so, those who think they can spend an hour a day at the gym—and the other 23 at a desk, in the car, or on the couch—are dead wrong, according to Ross, the obesity researcher. In fact, time spent sitting still could be an independent risk factor for disease. “We are starting to appreciate now that the amount of time you are sedentary can predict disease and death, beyond the amount of time you’re physically active,” he says. One 2008 Australian study, for example, found that sedentary time was associated with metabolic risk factors: it “may have a stronger influence on waist circumference,” a predictor of heart disease, diabetes, and other dangers, “than moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.” Physical activity guidelines alone might not be enough, says Ross. “One day, we might need guidelines for physical inactivity, too.”

A growing number of studies suggest that light, unstructured physical activity—like mowing the lawn or taking the dog for a walk—has positive health effects of its own. For example, one recent study showed that women who walked at least two hours a week reduced their risk of suffering a stroke by 30 per cent, and women who walked briskly had a 37 per cent lower risk. Another, from 2007, concluded that activities like ironing and washing the dishes were beneficially associated with blood glucose levels (chronic high blood glucose is a marker of Type 2 diabetes). Light activity, the study notes, is the main factor that determines how much energy is expended in the day. People who walk or bike to work have been shown to have fewer heart disease risk factors, too. And in one unpublished study, recently reported in the New York Times Magazine, volunteers spent an entire day sitting, and another standing. The difference in energy expenditure was hundreds of calories.

Even if some of exercise’s benefits—like heart health and weight control—can take time to appear, working out does provide one gratification that’s almost immediate: it makes us feel happier. Exercise is a “magic drug” for people who suffer from anxiety and depression, a team of U.S. researchers recently concluded after looking over previously published studies. After a brief 25-minute workout, people tend to feel reduced stress, had more energy, and were motivated to do it again the next day. Exercise not only releases endorphins, it also burns cortisol (a stress hormone) and switches our attention to something that’s ideally pleasant—a walk outside, a swim in the pool—instead of the negative.

“Exercise is good for almost anything, but it’s a long-term proposition,” says Jasper Smits, director of the anxiety research and treatment program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But when it comes to mood and anxiety, its effects are, by and large, immediately there. After a 30-minute workout, people will say they feel better.” Most of us are after an immediate benefit, he notes, and so this might provide the motivation to keep at it in the short term, and the long. “I see very few people who exercise for five years,” Martin Ginis says, “and never do it again.”