Go to the Gym? I’d Rather Take the Stairs…

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Without wishing to brag, I used to be rather fit (physically fit, not the other one). From my time at primary school all the way up to college, I kept myself fit simply by walking. I would walk to primary school, which was a good 10-15 minute trip, and even though I used to get lifts to secondary school I didn’t suddenly become unfit. Whilst at college, I would normally walk there and back again, which was a good 40+ minute trip both ways; as tiring as that was, that was probably when I was at my fittest (my own personal peak I guess). I did tail off a bit whilst at University, but I still considered myself to be in fairly decent shape. That’s certainly not the case now; I’ll hold my hands up and say I am completely out of shape and unfit. What’s changed? Well, as much as I enjoy walking, I’m not moving around as much as I used to…plus I eat like a horse.

I’ve always been of the opinion that by simply walking, you can gain as much fitness as you would by going to the gym. Personally I’ve never really had the drive, nor the interest, to visit a gym. There are easier, less strenuous (and cheaper) ways to keep yourself ticking over. If that sounds like the lazy man’s guide to keeping fit…well it probably is. I’ll happily lift a couple of dumbbells, but I’d rather do it in the comfort of my home away from prying eyes. So you can imagine the smugness of my grin when the results of a report were released last week, revealing that short bursts of exercise, such as walking up and down a flight of stairs, can be just as beneficial as visiting the local gymnasium. Oh sweet vindication…

As it turns out, light forms of exercise such as walking around whilst talking on the phone, or raking the leaves in your back garden all add up to help stave off disorders that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol. The study’s co-author, Professor Brad Cardinal of Oregon State University in the States, told the Mail Online, “This is a more natural way to exercise – just to walk more and move around a bit more”. The researchers for the study discovered that 43% of those who did light exercise (including everyday chores that may only take a couple of minutes to complete) met government physical activity guidelines of 30 minutes per day; less than 10% of those who worked out at a gym met those guidelines.

Professor Cardinal, an expert in exercise and sports science, went on to say, “People get it in their minds that if they don’t get 30 minutes they might as well not exercise at all. You will always be presented with things that entice you to sit or be less active – such as using a leaf blower instead of a rake. Making physical activity a way of life is more cost-effective than an expensive gym membership. You’ll be healthier, more mobile and just feel better all round”. This is music to the ears for lazy slobs like me, however there’s an even lighter alternative to this seemingly perfect regime. Scientists at the Universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Bath claim that by completing three intense, 30 second bursts of exercise a day (amounting to around 3 minutes a week), you can feel the same health and weight-loss benefits as you would by going to the gym. They advise that these three short bursts be completed in less than five minutes, with short rest periods in between.

These scientists believe that these results are so ground breaking that it may lead to conventional medical textbooks on exercise being torn up. Instead of sweating for hours and going hell for leather in the gym, you can just rapidly run up and down your stairs at home in three short bursts and supposedly feel the same benefits. Although I’m not entirely sure what health and safety would think of such an activity. It was late last year when a large scale trail involving over 300 volunteers was implemented to test this system. The on-going study is led by leading exercise expert Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology; the team call their system High Intensity Impact Training (HIIT). So I hear you ask, what proof is there that this system does what it says on the tin?

Over the past 8 years, the team has tested hundreds of unfit middle aged volunteers from Britain and Canada, and the results have shown that the same significant health improvements can be achieved through 3 minutes of exercise a week that you would get through hours a week spent in a gym. The strangest part of this study is that the scientists still don’t quite understand why the short burst regime boosts a volunteers’ stamina and fitness of their heart, lungs and blood-vessels as profoundly as it does. Professor Timmons told the Mail Online, “The truthful answer is we do not fully understand this. But a growing body of independent research shows this is the case and that the textbook explanation of the science of exercise requires revision”. A currently unsolved mystery then…that might make you feel even more sceptical and cynical, but even the NHS website backs the light exercise and short burst regimes (although they still urge a rather more strenuous regime, which I’ll touch on momentarily). In fact, even they are offering 10 minute exercise programmes that you can do at home, if the gym isn’t the answer for you.

Now, I know it might sound like I’m giving gyms a verbal kicking here, but there are still plenty of people who would opt for a gym membership over one of these regimes, because that’s what works for them. However, for people like me, and lest not forget, people who simply don’t have the time to go to the gym, these regimes could be the answer to keeping us fit. As reported on the Mail Online, a vast majority of us currently ignore the NHS’ advice to do at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise five times a week (plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercise, such lifting weights etc.), with more than 60% of men and 70% of women admitting they can’t manage it; the main reason being a lack of time. So the next time you fancy a bit of exercise, but can’t (or won’t) visit a gym, climb a flight of stairs or walk around the house…who needs a treadmill?

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