By John Marsh
Bill sent a report in the New York Times about a recent study “showing that a fairly leisurely approach to scheduling workouts may actually be more beneficial than working out almost daily.”
The study was conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and published this month in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The study included 72 sedentary women, ages 60-74, who were randomly assigned to three different exercise groups.
The first group exercised two days a week. On one of the days, they lifted weights. On the other, they did an endurance workout (cycling, jogging, or something similar).
The second group exercised four days a week, lifting on two days, and doing an endurance workout two days. The final group did three of each workout type each week, exercising six days a week.
The researchers monitored the workouts and gradually ratcheted up the duration and intensity of the exercise over a four-month period. At the end of the four months, according to the study abstract, “Aerobic training consisted of 40 minutes of aerobic exercise at 80% maximum heart rate and resistance training consisted of 2 sets of 10 repetitions for 10 different exercises at 80% of one repetition maximum.”
The Surprising Findings
“There were, remarkably, almost no differences in fitness gains among the groups,” the Times reported. “The women working out twice a week had become as powerful and aerobically fit as those who had worked out six times a week.” All the groups had lost body fat as well.
The women were also measured for a substance in the blood, cytokines, thought to indicate physical overexertion. There were no differences among the three groups in cytokine levels. They were measured for a host of other variables, as well, including energy expenditure.
Here’s Where It Really Gets Interesting
The researchers discovered that the four-days-a-week group were burning 200 more calories per day (on top of what they burned while exercising) than they had been burning when the experiment started. The two-days-a-week group were burning 68 more calories a day (again, beyond what they were burning while exercising).
However, the six-days-a-week group were burning 150 calories a day less than when they started the experiment.
“We think that the women in the twice-a-week and four-times-a-week groups felt more energized and physically capable” at the end of the experiment, said Dr. Gary Hunter, the UAB professor who headed the study. According to the Times report, the women indicated to Dr. Hunter that they were choosing to take the stairs more often and walking more, in general.
The women in the six-days-a-week group, though, reported feeling harried, and made choices aimed at saving time – taking the elevator vs. stairs, driving vs. walking, according to the report. “They complained to us that working out six times a week took too much time,” Dr. Hunter said.
What to Make of This?
As I shared with Bill after reading the Times article, and the study’s abstract, I see a lesson in the fact that the four-times-a-week group ended up burning more calories each day and, overall, reaped the best combination of fitness, energy expenditure and well-being.
We all know that rest and recovery should be part of your overall exercise routine. Without it, you can rob your muscles of the time they need to repair themselves and grow stronger, and you can easily get burned out or harried because you feel you don’t have time for other things, like the six-days-a-week group in the study reported.
Make no mistake, though: The study clearly pointed out that the women who exercised six days a week were not physically overtaxed. Many people can, and do, handle quite well both the physical and mental exertion (time-management, etc.) of daily or near-daily exercise. (And we’ve all read about studies promoting daily exercise!)
What this study says to me is that there is an exercise “sweet spot” in which you get the most benefit from the time you spend exercising – across a spectrum of areas that include (among others) fitness, energy expenditure, weight-management, and overall well-being.
Your personal sweet spot likely varies throughout the year, as well, based on your goals and event preparation, time available for exercise, work and family life, etc.
One person’s sweet spot may be six or seven days a week of exercise. Another person’s may be four. The key is the find your sweet spot – whatever it may be.
John Marsh is publisher of the weekly RBR Newsletter and www.RoadBikeRider.com, which provide expert advice, tips and shared knowledge to road cycling enthusiasts – from beginner to experienced rider – to help them become better cyclists and enjoy our sport even more.