In recent weeks we have devoted many articles to weight loss, calories, pounds, and exercise. In those articles we made two points that might seem contradictory. One is this. Exercise is not a great calorie burner. The second point is that despite not being a great calorie burner exercise (strength and high intensity interval training) is needed to build and maintain muscle mass which is a great calorie burner.
Below are some of those articles. The point of this article is this. If you are going to exercise then exercise with intensity. Exercise must be of a certain intensity to build muscle. Higher intensity exercise whether it is strength or interval training brings about more beneficial physiologic changes to the body than lower intensity exercises.
Effective and Efficient Exercise
It is essential to your health that you be physically active as exercise has many benefits that go far beyond weight management. But do not mistake activty for results. Just because you do something does not mean you are going to get results. Simply studying doesn’t mean you will ace the test. Your studying has to be effective. You have to channel your efforts into the studying the right material – the material that matters and is most likely to tested.
The same is true with exericse. You have to exercise in ways that matter – in a ways that bring about the most physiologic changes that matter most to health. Higher intensity exercise accomplishes that. Exercise should be effective and efficient. Higher intensity exercise is effective and efficient.
We frequently use the terms “aerobic” and “anerobic” to classify or describe exercise and we discussed some of the differences between the two categories in this article. In short, aerobic exercise requires oxygen to utilize energy. Anaerobic does not require oxygen.
Exercise Intensity and Activities of Daily Living
The focus of exercise should be directed towards improving your ability to perform your activities of daily living, and thus improving your quality of life in the process. This is more relevant the older we become. Low intensity exercise like walking and steady pace aerobic exercises like biking and running are not as effective as higher intensity exercises like strength training and high intensity interval training or high intensity sports like tennis, hockey, or basketball (stop and go activities involving bursts of movement) in improving quality of life and activities of daily living.
You may be able to run a 10k or even a marathon but what are the chances you will have to run that distance in the normal course of a day? But, you might have to run down two flights of stairs in an emergency. You may have to sprint to get away from a dog chasing you. These are anaerobic activities.
Strength training will improve your chances of getting out of chair when your 80 years old. Long distance running will not. Tennis and other stop and go activities will improve your balance which is critically important the older we become much better than running and walking.
Exercise the Way You Live or Play
Let’s take a look at football conditioning and conditioning in general and apply it to life.
Former NFL coach Hank Stram and winning coach of Super Bowl IV made this observation about football. He said he never bought into the notion that football is a game of 60 minutes. Coach Stram felt if was a game of 6 seconds repeated over and over again. Six seconds are the average length of time it takes to run a play in football.
He would ask his players, “Can you give me your best physical effort for six seconds?” His players would respond, “Yes!” He then would ask them, “Can you focus on your assignment for six seconds?’ Again his players would respond, “Yes!” “Good”, Stram would say. “Now go out there and do that 40 times (the number of plays a player would be involved in).”
Giving your best effort in all ways is much easier to grasp and execute in six second intervals than doing it continuously for 60 minutes.
Life is much the same. You have to live it in bites at a time. And, our exercise training should reflect that. Life is stop and go.
So if football is a game of six seconds having players exert themselves in ways that go way beyond that is self-defeating. Running a mile does not help a football player run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds or break a tackle. The longest play in football time-wise is typically a kick return for a touchdown and usually takes less than 12 seconds (the recent kick return by University of Miami to beat Duke with no time on the clock took 46 seconds but is the exception).
Therefore there is no reason why any conditioning in football should last longer than 12 seconds. When you go beyond that you are using energy systems and training muscles in ways that do not apply to the game of football. Practice like you play. John Gagliardi was a master at that.
John Gagliardi is the winningest coach in college football history with 489 victories yet many football fans never heard of him because he coached at the Division 3 college of Saint John’s in Minnesota. His teams did no conditioning and his practices were relatively short lasting just 90 minutes. Yet, during that 90 minutes his teams would run 200 plays.
Two hundred plays is equivalent two and 1/2 football games. His practices conditioned his teams for the demands they would face in the game without any formal conditioning during practice. Coach John Wooden of UCLA the winner of 10 NCAA National Basketball Championships approached his team practices much the same way. Short practices, well organized, highly intense, stop and go yet continuous in nature.
One last analogy about training like you play. I had the opportunity to meet Michael Johnson, winner of four Olympic and eight World Championship Gold medals all in the 200, 400 meters, and 400 meter relays. He still holds the World and Olympic records in the 400 meters and the world’s best time in the 300 meters.
He was a patient of my partner, Jim Montgomery, MD (Monty). Monty is one of the top knee surgeons and sports medicine specialist in the country and was head physician for the United States Olympic Team during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Michael was a local Dallas product where we practiced and was still competing at the time I met him. I asked Michael about his training. This was before I knew what I know now about conditioning.
“Tell me about your workouts. What do you do on Mondays?”, I asked. “Well, I run eight 200 meters,” Michael said. After a bit of a pause I asked him, “And what else do you do?” He looked at me somewhat incredulously and asked me this, “Have you ever tried to run eight 200 meters as hard as you can?” I said, “No.” He replied, “Well you should try it. It takes everything out of me. That is all I do on Mondays.” He then went on and described his workouts the other days of the week and stated that he never ever runs more than 800 meters at a time.
Interestingly, the way the body works once you exert yourself more than 2 minutes, which is what you would do if you ran more than 800 meters, you start to involve your aerobic energy system and start conditioning your type 1 slow twitch aerobic muscle fibers, which is not what you want to do if you are a sprinter.
If you sprint you do not want to train your aerobic system at all. Running eight 200 meters is a form of interval training and releases growth hormone and testosterone that we have discussed elsewhere.
That is why sprinters are more muscular despite no or little strength training compared to endurance runners who show signs of muscle atrophy (see adjacent photo showing endurance runner on the left and sprinter on the right).
Long endurance activities are actually catabolic meaning they break down muscle through the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. There can even be a break down in heart tissue, which is also muscle. Cortisol is also released following high intensity training whether it be intervals or strength training, but its harmful effects are more than neutralized by the anabolic effects of growth hormone and testosterone.
The body has 3 energy systems: ATP-CP pathway, glycolytic pathway, and the oxidative pathway. Oxygen is needed for the oxidative pathway, but not the ATP-CP or glycolytic pathways. The ATP-CP and glycolytic pathways together provide energy for activities lasting two minutes or less. Beyond two minutes we start tapping into the oxidative pathway.
Life: is it Aerobic or Anaerobic?
Your conditioning or exercise should simulate life. Is life aerobic or anerobic? Life has been described as a marathon. If it is then it is a marathon of repeated short bursts of activity much like the game of football as described by Hank Stram. Life is largely anaerobic.
Some of these these activities are relatively non-strenuous like getting out of a chair when you are young but become more challenging with age – if you don’t prepare for it. Others are more taxing like walking up a few flights of stairs. But, for most of the day we exert ourselves in intervals far less than 2 minutes. We largely use our anaerobic energy systems.
How to Train Your Anaerobic System
Exercise like we live – in bursts. We’ve discussed how to train anaerobically before. Strength training and high intensity interval training are the ways. The more intensely you do both the better the results. That means lifting to fatigue and doing intervals near maximal exertion.
Exercise like you live. Adjust your exercise intensity. Exercise to live better!