Research and lived experience indicate that many people who begin a new exercise program see little if any improvement in their health and fitness even after weeks of studiously sticking with their new routine.
Among fitness scientists, these people are known as “nonresponders.” Their bodies simply don’t respond to the exercise they are doing. And once discouraged, they often return to being nonexercisers.
But an inspiring and timely new study suggests that nonresponders to one form of exercise can probably switch to another exercise regimen to which their body will respond. And a simple test you can do at home will help you determine how well your workout is working for you.
One of the first major studies to report the phenomenon of nonresponders appeared in 2001, when researchers parsed data from dozens of previously published studies of running, cycling and other endurance exercise.
The studies showed that, on aggregate, endurance training increased people’s endurance. But when the researchers examined individual outcomes, the variations were staggering. Some people had improved their endurance as much as 100 per cent, while others had actually become less fit, even though they were following the same workout routine.
Age, sex and ethnicity had not mattered, the researchers noted. Young people and old had been outliers, as had women and men, black volunteers and white. Interestingly, nonresponse to endurance training ran in families, the researchers discovered, suggesting that genetics probably plays a significant role in how people’s bodies react to exercise.
Since then, other researchers have found that people can have extremely erratic reactions to weight training regimens, with some packing on power and mass and others losing both.
And a study published last year concentrating on brief bouts of intense interval training concluded that some people barely gained endurance with this type of workout, while others flourished, greatly augmenting their fitness.
These studies, however, were not generally designed to tell us whether someone who failed to benefit from one form of exercise might do well with another.
So for the new experiment, which was published in December in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and the University of Ottawa decided to focus intently on whether a nonresponder to one form of exercise could benefit by switching to another.
They began by gathering 21 healthy men and women and determining their VO2 max, a measure of how much oxygen the lungs can deliver to the muscles; heart rates; and other physiological parameters related to aerobic fitness.
Then they had each volunteer complete two very different types of workouts. Each training regimen lasted three weeks, and the researchers waited several months before starting the next regimen, so that volunteers could return to their baseline fitness.
One three-week routine involved typical endurance training: riding a stationary bicycle four times a week for 30 minutes at a moderately strenuous pace.
The second type of exercise revolved around high-intensity intervals. Each volunteer completed eight 20-second intervals of very hard pedaling on a stationary bicycle, with 10 seconds of rest after each bout. The intervals were brutal but brief.
At the end of each three-week session, the researchers again checked each volunteer’s VO2 max and other fitness measures.
As a group, they had gained admirable amounts of fitness from both workouts and to about the same extent.
But individually, the responses varied considerably.
About a third of the people had failed to show much if any improvement in one of the measures of fitness after three weeks of endurance training. Similarly, about a third had not improved their fitness much with interval training. And after each type of workout, some participants were found to be in worse shape.
A majority of the participants, in other words, had failed to respond as expected after one of the workouts.
But, importantly, no one had failed to respond at all. Every man and woman had measurably improved his or her fitness in some way after one of the sessions, if not the other.
Those who had shown little response to endurance training generally showed a robust improvement after the interval sessions, and vice versa.
These data suggest that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise,” said Brendon Gurd, an associate professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University who oversaw the study. “But it does seem as if there is some size that fits everyone.”
The question is how to determine which form of exercise best fits you.
The answer, Gurd says, is simple trial and error.
Before beginning a new exercise routine, he says, measure your fitness. You can do this by briskly walking up several flights of stairs or quickly stepping onto and off a box three or four times. Then check your pulse. This is your baseline number.
Now start working out. Walk. Jog. Attend interval training or spin classes.
After about a month, Gurd says, repeat the stair or step test. Your pulse rate should be slower now. Your workout sessions should also be feeling easier.
If not, you may be a nonresponder to your current exercise routine.
In that case, switch things up, Gurd recommends. If you have primarily been walking, maybe try sprinting up a few flights of stairs and walking back down, which is a simple form of interval training.
Or if you have been exercising with intervals and feeling no fitter, perhaps jog for a month or two.
The message he hopes people will glean from his and other studies of exercise nonresponders “is not that you shouldn’t bother exercising because exercise might not help you,” Gurd says. “It does help everyone, once you find your own best exercise.”
There’s merit in starting something, starting anything. But, for many of us, starting is not the problem, it is persevering that brings us unstuck.
Like so many who achieve and surpass their goals, David Goggins understands that it is often our minds, not our bodies that create obstacles and throw us off track.
Exercise to offset sitting risks
It’s not as hard as it sounds if you follow these new guidelines that might even extend your life expectancy.
It is what the 41-year-old former navy SEAL and ultra-marathon runner refers to as the 40 per cent rule.
In a new book, entrepreneur Jesse Itzler describes how he hired Goggins to be his live-in trainer for one month ahead of a race.
David Goggins. Photo: Facebook
Goggins – known as the “SEAL” – explains to him that when our minds tell us we are finished, we are only at 40 per cent of our capacity. This is how so many people (as much as 99 per cent of starters) finish a marathon; they break through the inevitable mental barrier that hits them at some point during the race.
“The first day that ‘SEAL’ came to live with me he asked me to do – he said how many pull-ups can you do?,” writes Itzler in Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet.
“I did about eight.
“And he said all right. Take 30 seconds and do it again. So 30 seconds later I got up on the bar and I did six, struggling. And he said all right, one more time. We waited 30 seconds and I barely got three or four and I was done. I mean couldn’t move my arms done.
David Goggins. Photo: Facebook
“And he said all right. We’re not leaving here until you do 100 more. And I thought there’s no – well we’re going to be here for quite a long time because there’s no way that I could do 100. But I ended up doing it one at a time and he showed me, proved to me right there that there was so much more, we’re all capable of so much more than we think we are. And it was just a great lesson.”
In a new interview, Goggins, who once held the World Record for most pull-ups done in 24-hours (4025), insists his message is about finding ways to challenge our beliefs about our capabilities, not to all become masochists.
“It’s not about pushing yourself until you die,” Goggins tells Rich Roll in a new podcast. “It’s about not giving up when something is uncomfortable – that’s what the message is.”
Goggins intimately understands how we hold ourselves back by telling ourselves we are incapable.
He grew up in an abusive home where his father beat him up, was bullied at school, stuttered and was, at one stage, obese. The first time he ran, he made it only 400 metres.
“I saw myself as the weakest man on the planet,” Goggins reveals, “and I wanted to change that.
“Instead of making it ‘woe is me’… I changed my thought process.”
As he challenged his perceived weakness, taking on physical challenges, he uncovered his self-doubt.
“Before you start a goal – let’s take care of our insecurities because they are going to surface when you put yourself in the crucible and you’re suffering,” says Goggins, who has been a top finisher in 10 of the world’s most difficult ultramarathons.
“What keeps the person in the fight is having a purpose – leave the ego at the door, because the ego will kill you every time, you will always quit.”
Every time he told himself he should quit, he reminded himself of the pain he had endured and how he had made it through.
“When you’re in hell, you forget how great you really are because you’re suffering and you forget the great things you’ve done,” he explains.
While Goggins believes he has now gained the insight into himself he needed from running ultramarathons (and doing 4025 pull-ups in one hit), he says it has taught him that even when he fails “20 times trying”, he is far more capable than he ever believed and he hopes to help others realise they are too.
“People think you need to have all this stuff [to achieve] and they have this thing like ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ – if I had that mindset one damn time in my life, I’d be a 400 pound man spraying for cockroaches still,” Goggins says.
“My whole thing now is I know how to think properly to be successful in all aspects of my life. It’s not about ultra running, or being a SEAL or pull-up records, it’s about if you want to be better you have to change your perceived limitations and take the barriers down.”
Breaking barriers in our minds to create breakthroughs
Many experts in mindset understand that growth and success in any area of our life starts with our minds.
“Big changes can come in small packages,” reminds author of Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss. “To dramatically change your life, you don’t need to run a 100-mile race, get a PhD, or completely reinvent yourself. It’s the small things, done consistently, that are the big things.”
Philanthropist and author Tony Robbins adds that we cultivate change with these small things by starting “at the root: a shift in perspective”.
“It’s these small changes that can lead to shifts in behaviour, and cumulate over time to create one massive transformation.”
To shift perspective and cultivate courage to change and grow in the face of challenge, Michaela Haas, author of Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs suggests many methods. These include anchoring with the breath, identifying unhelpful patterns, practicing compassion and daring to explore.
This writer lives in a wonderful range: almost exactly halfway between the city and the wild foothills and mountains that surround it. Dogs in the city are walked sedately, on a leash, along the concrete surfaces. In the wilderness of the foothills, they often run free. This gives canines a heart-thumping workout as they scramble up the trails of the resorts, along with their human companions.
The only reason I give you this information now, instead of months ago, is because it’s ideal weather for hiking with an energetic dog.
Exercise with a buddy. Photo: iStock
But there are many caveats to keep in mind if you are letting your dog run off leash, especially along wilderness trails and meadows. The first, and most important, is that your voice should be an absolute magnet to your pet. Train your dog so that if you call, he or she will come immediately. This must be very strict training. But that’s only part one.
Part two is that you’re also there to get a workout. You are running with your dog. That means your heart is pounding as well. Your pooch should never be more than three feet away. If you can’t run fast enough to keep up, leash up the dog and run together. You’ll be pulled along by the leash, so you’ll easily run faster with less effort.
Part three: are you running up a meadow, like a wide run at a snow resort that has not yet opened for the season? There’s usually so much room that you can see if other dogs or people are nearby, and take necessary precautions. Or are you running up a narrow trail with a hill on one side and a cliff, or steep drop-off, on the other? That’s a dangerous kind of trail to take with your furry best friend. Another dog may come along and start barking or acting aggressively. Your pooch may be frightened enough to run off the trail and fall over the cliff, leading to injuries or even death. The sad part is that you’ll have to find a way down to it, and perhaps also find a way to carry your pet back to your vehicle if it’s injured.
If your dog tends to aggressively vocalise with stranger dogs, a muzzle may be a good idea. That way, your dog can’t bark or bite.
At the same time, another important thing to remember is that even though temperatures may be cool, both your dog and you will eventually need water after getting heated up by a hard run. Carry a water bottle for you in your backpack, carry a foldable water bowl for your dog, and enough water to fill it several times for your canine.
Running in the wilderness is a wonderful way to spend a day bonding with your dog. Afterwards, you’ll both love each other even more than you do now.
There are many paths to the same destination and, a new study has found, this is true for exercise too.Anything is better than nothing and if you can only exercise on the weekend, then you still stand yourself in good stead according to the research by the University of Sydney which analysed the data of 63,000 adults.
Compared with those are physically inactive, ‘weekend warriors’ or those who only exercise once or twice a week have a significantly lower risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease, even if they did not meet the physical activity guidelines.The researchers also found little difference in health outcomes between the weekend warriors and those who exercise regularly throughout the week.
For instance, the risk of premature death of any cause was 30 per cent lower in weekend warriors and 35 per cent lower in the regularly active. The risk of death by cardiovascular disease was reduced by the same amount (41 per cent) in weekend warriors and the regularly active while the risk of early death by cancer was 18 per cent and 21 per cent lower respectively.
The study’s lead author, Emmanuel Stamatakis, of the Charles Perkins Centre, suspects that the type of activity that the majority (94 per cent) of the weekend warriors participated in – various sports – explains the results.
“The weekend warriors did so well because of increased vigorous physical activity,” Stamatakis said. “That’s a possible explanation.”
The World Health Organisation recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity. Surpassing these guidelines leads to additional health benefits.
While researchers do not yet know exactly how much of a difference the breakdown of frequency and intensity of the exercise makes, this new study shows that how we do it is secondary to just doing it, says Stamatakis.
He does note however that they were looking at specific outcomes (premature death) and that the frequency of exercise is still important to other outcomes, like diabetes. Diabetics are advised to exercise at least three days a week and avoid more than two consecutive days without exercising.
“The key message from our study is a little is better than nothing,” says Stamatakis od the research published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. “It highlights that a little physical activity can go a long way.”
Statamakis points out that for people who go from being physically inactive to even 10 to 20 minutes of brisk walking a week “the benefits are phenomenal” and include improved mood, musculo-skeletal function and a reduced risk of chronic disease.
This is significant given about 60 per cent of Australian adults do not meet the exercise guidelines and physical inactivity (low levels of physical activity) is the fourth leading cause of death due to non-communicable disease worldwide.
The more we move the better, but the important message is that however we get there, starting and finding something we enjoy enough to stick with long-term is the key to turning these grave statistics around, Stamatakis says.
“The study is very encouraging that there are many different ways to get the benefits from physical activity.”