Friday 17 August 2018

Your Health: Are you just wasting your time at the gym?

Emily Hourican loves running, but she had reached a plateau and was not seeing any improvement. However, when she signed up for 12 weeks of doing things differently, she found amazing results and Dr Michael Mosley debunks some common health myths

Emily Hourican, exercised less, and got fitter. Pic. Gerry Mooney.
Emily Hourican, exercised less, and got fitter. Pic. Gerry Mooney.
Doing things differently: Emily Hourican is reaping the benefits of Dr Michael Mosley’s 5:2 diet and High Intensity Training programme. Photo: Gerry Mooney
One myth is that everyone gets fitter when the exercise.
It's a myth that doing ab workouts and crunches will get rid of body fat.

Emily Hourican

To hear me, you'd swear I was preparing for the Olympics. All the talk of 'training', 'lean muscle,' 'personal best,' 'base metabolic rate' - presumably this is the way Katie Taylor and Derval O'Rourke might be heard to discuss their regime with their coaches.

Of course, there isn't any real similarity, but until a new vocabulary gets invented - one that takes account of the degrees of achievement and professionalism involved - then I am stuck with the language of the superstars. Which suits me just fine actually, because by the standards of my own physical development, 'recent events' - as I shall call them until I explain more fully what they are - strike me as pretty fantastic.

Back in September, I began a 12-week programme of the 5:2 diet, as laid out by Dr Mike Mosley, combined with a new sort of exercise regime, known as High Intensity Training, or HIT to us devotees.

Essentially, this involves shorter, more intense bursts of exercise, with the specific aim of building lean muscle and busting fat. And when I say short, I mean short. Think 30 seconds sprinting or biking at full intensity, followed by a rest period of perhaps a minute, repeated five or six times, with a warm-up of maybe two minutes. And that's it. Your entire workout done and dusted in about 15 minutes. There is plenty of science around this, but all you really need to hear from me is that there are proven benefits in terms of athletic capacity, glucose metabolism and fat burning. All those years of 'more is better', when we all tried to slog it out for hours on end on treadmills, exercise bikes and in parks, have given way to what looks like the most perfect marriage of the modern insistence on instant results, allied to the equally modern love affair with expediency.

However, it didn't sound very convincing to me, frankly, when I began. It sounded too easy. I have been running regularly for several years now, roughly nine miles a week, broken down into three three-mile runs. My goal was always to increase that, to run for 12 or 15 miles a week, except that there never seemed to be enough time to squeeze an extra or longer run out of the many other demands.

I run because I love it - for the mental switch-off as much as anything physical - and I figure this is the only way I am ever likely to stick with anything. I haven't joined a gym in the last ten years, because the sheer boredom of it, after the first six weeks or so, means that only a superhuman effort is going to get me to go, and how many times a week or month can one really make a superhuman effort?

However, I had noticed a bit of a plateau creeping into my running. I didn't seem to be improving, more running to stand still really. I don't go in for marathons (I'm waiting 'til I turn 50 for that particular piece of age-denying activity), so there weren't any major incentives to ramp it all up, and all my talk of fitting in an extra 35 minutes somewhere came to nothing most weeks.

And so, for a variety of reasons, I found myself signing up for 12 weeks of doing things differently. Frankly, at first, it felt like a bit of a cop-out. When you're used to psyching yourself up for half an hour of running around the park in the wind and rain, with the odd bit of sleet thrown in (yes, I love it, but like most of us, only when I'm actually there, doing it, not before), the notion of swapping that for six 30-second sprints feels very much like ducking the pain. But, being an obedient sort, I did what the programme told me, and after four weeks I went back for a weigh-in and a body scan.

'Hot news,' I texted to any and all I thought might listen, 'I've lost 2kg of fat and gained 1kg of lean muscle.' I didn't get many responses - a slightly sarky 'OMG' from my sister (she didn't quite say 'whatevs', but I felt its presence…) - but I didn't care. I was perfectly high on my own excitement.

Losing the 2kgs was pleasant, but the real thrill was the lean muscle gain. I wanted to stop strangers in the street and ask them, 'do you know how hard that is to do?' Over the age of 40, the general tendency is to gradually put on fat, bit by surreptitious bit, and lose muscle, until eventually we all turn into soggier, heavier, weaker versions of ourselves. It's a pattern I am not keen on, and am possibly deluded enough to believe I can avoid. I want to be one of those 80-year-olds who runs marathons (without actually running marathons) and looks 60 (I know, but its all about achievable goals, and we're still talking 20 years there).

I should mention that as well as the HIT, done three times a week, I had been faithfully sticking to the 5:2 diet. This is where you eat normally for five days a week, then restrict calories to just 500 per day (600 for men) for the remaining two. It's not easy, in fact the first day of 500 calories was one of unrelenting misery, but one does get used to it, so that it becomes just another minor inconvenience that must be assumed, like booking summer holidays early to avoid disappointment, or not finishing the bottle of wine because it will certainly give you a hangover. Again, there is plenty of science around it all, and a growing body of demonstrable evidence, into not just the benefits of weight-loss, which are pretty obvious, but also the virtues of intermittent fasting, in terms of lowering of insulin, increase in healthy cholesterol and possible longevity. This is the only diet I have ever done, and I feel a profound faith in it. It feels like a kind of edited option, one of those things that promise confidently to be 'The Only (blank) You'll Ever Need', whether it's a pen or a life principle.

The thing is, I am fighting not so much a losing battle, as a one that is predicated on the law of increasing returns. You can't just reach your goal and stay there. Unless you keep increasing the quantity or type of exercise, the natural tendency to less-muscle-more-fat, is going to see that you slide gradually, inexorably backwards. And so, at my eight-week weigh-in and body-scan, although I had lost another kilo of fat, there were no more lean muscle gains. This was utterly disappointing, in a way I hadn't anticipated. But, it did stiffen my resolve. And so, to the six 30-second sprints I have now added a series of strength exercises: squats, mountain climbers, the plank, that sort of thing. Nothing particularly complicated; they probably only take about two-and-a-half minutes to complete, but enough, I hope, to show some gains at the 12-week assessment. If the sprints were the gateway drug, the entry level, then I guess this is level two. God knows where it will end - perhaps soon my entire day will be taken up with keeping age, flab and weakness at bay - but in the meantime, for sheer return on investment, HIT and the 5:2 are, for me, a revelation. They are the Delta Airlines of shares, the kind of minimal-effort-for-maximum-return type thing I usually only associate with delicious stews or cat ownership. And of course in the meantime I get to talk like an Olympic athlete.

Debunking some of the myths

By Dr Michael Mosley

After a few weeks of seasonal self indulgence during which the average person puts on over 2 kilos of fat, you may be thinking it's about time to get out there and do some exercise. Before doing so you might want to read some of the more persistent myths.


Stretching before you exercise will prevent injury

It's widely believed that static stretching - the kind that involves holding a movement, such as bending over and touching your toes- makes your muscles more flexible, primes them for activity and reduces the chance of injury.

But is it true? Probably not. In a review article in Sports Medicine,"Stretching and Injury Prevention" the authors conclude that if the sport you are doing involves a lot of stop-start (ie football) then you might get some benefit from stretching. If you are running, jogging or swimming then the overwhelming evidence is that stretching has "no beneficial effect on injury prevention".

If you want to stretch before you start, make it dynamic, with movements such as arm circling and side-stepping. Dynamic movements send a message from the brain to the muscles saying, "we are ready to work out". Static stretching, in contrast, triggers an inhibitory response in the brain. For sports like football dynamic stretch might mean a bit of ball kicking and dribbling.


Everyone gets fitter when they exercise

Before I met Jamie Timmons, Professor of Precision Medicine at Kings College, London, this is a claim that I would have put a lot of money on being true. His research has shown that while some people (about 20%) respond incredibly well to exercise (super responders), others , the non-responders, get very little. If you are interested in getting yourself tested to see which you are, have a look at Professor Timmons website, XR Genomics (


Doing ab workout and crunches will get rid of body fat

If you want a six pack then exercise alone is not going to do it. You can have the best toned and muscular abs in town, but no-one will see them if there is a layer of fat covering them. Achieving a six pack requires dieting and lots of varied abdominal exercise.

As the author of "The Fast Diet" I naturally enough recommend trying intermittent fasting. In one form or another it's something that is very popular with the body building community. You will also need to do a regular programme of sit ups, crunches, leg lifts, butt ups, the dreaded plank and pulls ups. You can find out how to do them online, or many are included in my other book, "Fast Exercise".


The more exercise you do, the better

The evidence is strong that moving is much better than not moving, but beyond a certain point more is not necessarily better. A study carried out in Copenhagen ("Longevity in Male and Female Joggers") which followed a group of 20,000 Danes over 37 years found that regular jogging will add around 4 years to your life. The ideal, according to this study, is to jog 30-50 minutes a day, 3 days a week, at a pace where you feel "a little breathless but not very breathless". You can still chat but probably not sing. Beyond that and the health benefits drop off rapidly. This is all very well if you have the time and inclination to jog. Personally I prefer doing much shorter bursts of high intensity training (HIT) and building as much activity as I can into my everyday life.


Isotonic drinks are the best way to rehydrate

There is a large and lucrative market in expensive isotonic sports drinks. They are sold as a quick and effective way to quench thirst, rehydrate and provide energy. So do you need them? Unless you are working out for a long time and doing a lot of sweating then the answer is "no". They are mainly sugar and are simply adding a lot of unnecessary calories. If you are thirsty then water will do the job. If you are a serious sports-person the best option is probably skimmed milk. A recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that "Milk is better than either a sports drink or water because it is a source of high quality protein, carbohydrates, calcium and electrolytes".

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