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By Dr. Péter Mester ND, LMT

The best exercise and overall physical activities are ones that involve the large muscles in your body. In the 1970’s, “aerobics” became the type of exercise that was recommended most often by scientists and fitness “experts.” (Aerobics is exercise whose chief characteristic is the increase in both heart and breathing rates. In a more strictly scientific definition, aerobics is exercise in which all the energy used by the body comes from mixing oxygen with food.)

The 1970’s triggered the exercise revolution in America. Today, experts recommend using both aerobic and resistance (weight training) exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine included twice-weekly resistance training sessions in its 1990 recommendations.

You can find many books on both aerobic and resistance training in any bookstore or local library. As you plan your exercise program, however, keep in mind that it’s the total calories burned per week that matters for health, not the intensity of the exercise.Recent Research Challenges Traditional Notions About Exercise

Many people, including the army of personal trainers flooding the market, push for hard exercise. They emphasize the need to elevate heart rate into the training zone; it’s in this zone, they believe, that the best results for health and fitness come. Recent research, however, questions this long-held notion that high aerobic capacity is necessary for good health.

The fitness revolution spawned the exercise prescription which emphasized intensity, duration, and frequency. The primary purpose of aerobic training was to increase the body’s capacity to use oxygen. Of the three prescription aspects, intensity drew the most interest. A belief in the importance of intensity led to the hard, sweat-producing workouts that most fitness “experts” still believe are necessary for results.

Aerobic capacity is the maximum amount of work you can do using oxygen to produce energy. This is measured by a standardized test called the maximum oxygen uptake test. A question, however, now arises: Is there a difference between training programs aimed at performance and those aimed at health? And further, what’s the relationship between maximal performance and health? Is it maximal physical exercise or moderate physical activity that confers health (versus performance) benefits?Science Confirms that the True Health Benefits of Exercise Relate to Total Calories Burned, not Intensity

Scientists tell us that it’s moderate physical activity, measured by total calories burned, that determines health benefits. Aerobic fitness is related to health, but the achievement of high levels of aerobic fitness doesn’t seem necessary for optimal health benefits. Hard exercise, therefore, is not necessary to achieve good health.

Because of this fact, it’s important that you re-evaluate the notion promoted by many of our new-day fitness experts that health comes by ‘training till you hurt.’ This form of training may pound you into shape for competition but actually may compromise your health because of its compromising effect upon your immune system and psychological well-being.

Further, it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with a hard program, and when you finally quit because hard training is so painful, you’ll plummet from burning 3,000 calories a week through exercise to burning 0 calories a week.

Health benefits from physical activity relate to total calories burned per week. Therefore, it’s unnecessary for health benefits to perform hard training in the “target heart rate zone.”

Today’s knowledgeable “personal trainer” promotes duration and frequency, recommending life sports and activities such as walking and swimming: activities one can do on his or her own — and do them regularly, with pleasure and without pain, with intensity reserved for competitive athletes.

Resistance training has now entered the armamentarium of today’s fitness enthusiast. It promotes increases in muscle tissue whereas aerobics, as we’ve learned, doesn’t significantly increase muscle tissue. It’s argued that aerobic exercise is effective in increasing the body’s ability to burn fat. In contrast, most people believe that slow resistance training will not burn-off body fat.

However, bodybuilding-type training does increase the body’s ability to burn fat. Both types of training, aerobic and resistance, are effective in maintaining Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) during calorie-reduced weight loss programs. But resistance training is more effective in changing the shape of the body.

In summary, for those who ‘train-for-pain,’ there is a significant difference between health-related exercise and performance-related “training.” Unless you’re a competitive athlete, concentrate on duration and frequency, not intensity. What counts are the total calories burned per week, not the rate of calorie burning.How Exercise and Activity Affect What You Weigh and What You Eat

Why doesn’t exercise get more emphasis on weight loss and weight control programs? One reason, as we’ve learned above, is that exercise scientists are not convinced that exercise is the weight control aid everyone believes it to be. Another reason is that most programs for weight loss and weight control concentrate on cutting calories as the main strategy. After you lose weight on your 800-1,500 calorie a day diet, what do you do when it’s time to eat normally again? You do what almost everyone does: you regain all the weight you lost — and then some.

People think that for exercise to help them control their weight that it must be long and strenuous. This isn’t true. When people perform hard work, they experience changes in body composition: Their body weight remains the same, yet their muscle mass increases, compared with their amount of fat. It is argued between experts that people develop appetite with the increase of activity.

However, one important finding is that the amount they eat matches what they burn. Increases in food intake automatically occur with vigorous activity to make up for the extra calorie demand. In this situation, body fat usually decreases while muscle mass increases to a point, with bodyweight remaining stable. Food intake, in short, doesn’t increase enough over the long run to make one gain weight or get fatter. It increases enough only to cover the calorie burning requirement of the increased activity.

This is, of course, only true in people who allow self-regulation of appetite to occur. One can easily override automatic self-regulation by consuming more food than required to meet energy needs.

Heavyweight weightlifters are such an example.Below the Normal Activity Zone

This is the zone in which most people live, a zone in which one may get into trouble because of too little activity. In the Inactive Zone, one experiences further decreases in activity and in the calorie burn associated with activity. In this Zone, food intake often doesn’t decrease and actually increases.

Body weight and body fat then increase, and muscle tissue decreases because there’s too little activity to sustain it. Now, eating even a little food is actually ‘too much’ food because one’s activity level is below the zone in which the body can self-regulate food intake.

Another study showed that 1 hour of daily exercise leading to a marked decrease in body weight had no effect on appetite. Middle-aged men exercising for 45 minutes by jogging and doing light calisthenics increased their fitness but had no increase in appetite and food intake.

This creates a Negative Energy Balance Equation leading to fat loss and muscle gain. Then, the integration of activity and a balanced intake of calories sets up a new pattern. This pattern helps you eat the number of calories you need to meet your body’s requirements and to maintain a leaner and more muscular body.

The interesting finding of Mayer’s study is that food intake is tied tightly to activity.

If you stay in the Normal Activity Zone, then food intake and activity balance each other. But if your activity level drops below the Normal Activity Zone, as it has for 60-80% of Americans, problems develop. In Mayer’s study, with both human beings and laboratory animals, the balance breaks down when activity falls below a threshold level of calorie burning. When this occurs, one finds himself in the Inactive Zone. Athletes’ body composition — how much fat and muscle they have — varies with the sport the athletes play. Usually, though, athletes are low in fat and high in muscle. Even very active, non-competitive people often have the same body composition profile as athletes.

Forceful sports such as weightlifting build profound degrees of muscle mass. Resistance trained male athletes have body fat levels as low as 5-10% and female athletes as low as 12-18%. In a female, the lowest body fat amount I ever heard was 6.9%.What is the Best Exercise to Build Bone Mass and Density?

Of course weight lift goes to the front of the line but evidence shows that even swimming, mowing the lawn, or any type of pulling, pushing against resistance will help with bone density. People often ask me what type of exercise then is the best to keep healthy? All I can say is this:  As I mentioned above, the best exercise is the one that involves the large muscles in your body but in general it’s the type that you are able to execute safely on the long run.