Exercise – when less can be more

I regard myself as quite an active person, but the intensity or volume of the exercise I take is nothing like it once was. For extended spells during my childhood and early adulthood I was a ‘keen’ runner. I participated in athletics and cross-country running at school, and continued running afterwards too. At some points, I was running upwards of 40 miles a week, and I would compete in 10 km and half-marathon races. I genuinely felt I was ‘born to run’. However, while I got a lot of personal satisfaction from my running, the reality is that I generally dreaded the thought of it.

Running quite hard for up to an hour and a half at a time takes a degree of effort and discipline. Sometimes, a scheduled run would play on my mind until I’d completed it, and I’d invariably be mightily relieved to ‘get it out of the way’. Often, after a run, I would ‘veg out’ and hardly move a muscle for several hours.

If I look back, I realise that my exercise habits were also a bit ‘all or nothing’. I would perhaps spend 6-18 months running regularly, and then have several months of doing nothing (sometimes partially enforced through injury) before resuming my running.

These days, I don’t struggle with my ‘exercise’ in the same way, because the walking, swimming and brief resistance exercise sessions I do are simply not that onerous for me. I’m never left feeling exhausted, either.

The change in my exercise habits and my relationship to physical activity came back to me today, on reading about a study in which the impact of two exercise regimes were tried in a group of men.

In this Danish study, moderately overweight men were instructed to expend either 300 or 600 calories a day (e.g. 30 or 60 minutes a day of running) for 12 weeks.

One of the outcomes measured was weight loss, which was an average of 3.6 and 2.7 kg respectively. In other words, twice the exercise did not appear to translate into improved weight loss.

But, for me, the most interesting element of this study was that a selection of the men were asked about their attitudes to the exercise they were taking and its impact on them.

Those exercising for about an hour a day reported increased fatigue, and generally expressed some negative attitudes to exercise including it being ‘time consuming’. On the other hand, those exercise for about half an hour a day had a generally positive attitude to exercise, and did not find the exercise ‘load’ to be a burden.

What someone feels is a suitable and sustainable amount of exercise will, I think, vary enormously. However, my experience and this study point to the fact that more exercise in not necessarily better. Higher volumes of activity are not just generally harder, but can take more time, and this can create barriers for people and reduce the sustainability of activity.

When talking about these issues with clients, I sometimes like to gauge the sustainability of someone’s exercise habits with this specific question: “Can you imagine doing this when you’re 80.”

I have no issue at all with individual enjoying themselves with, say, mountain biking, rugby, football or triathlons. However, such activities tend to fall away in time, and the risk can be that when they do, someone can go from one extreme to the other. For others, being sedentary is partly the result of believing that exercise has to be long and hard and finding the idea quite daunting.

Sometimes, it can help individuals to establish some sort of exercise routine that is realistic and sustainable. I know I’m not going to set any records with my walking, swimming and home-based resistance exercise sessions. I do suspect, however, that I get a lot of benefit from these activities and will still be doing them should I make it to 80.


1. Gram AS, et al. Compliance with physical exercise: Using a multidisciplinary approach within a dose-dependent exercise study of moderately overweight men. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health epub ahead of print 16 September 2013

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19 Responses to Exercise – when less can be more

  1. George Cooper 20 September 2013 at 9:16 am #

    spot on! What you’re saying is reflected in the Chinese philosophy of Yang Shen (health preservation) which manifests as tai chi and qi gong. Exercise regimes for life

  2. Luigi UK 20 September 2013 at 9:35 am #

    I have been doing the primal blueprint fitness plan by Mark Sissons and as a result I notice I no longer get that really inflammed (I have hep c) feeling across the chest after a hard cardio session (he calls it chronic cardio) and generally feel more energetic.

  3. steve 20 September 2013 at 10:13 am #

    I’m 57 years old and woke up one day to find my weight had gone up somewhat. Likely due to less sport being played and too many puddings eaten + I suspect my age has something to do with it.

    My vision was to see if there was a reasonably easy way to get back more energy, better health and lose some weight as well. On the point of health my blood pressure was on average around 140/90 and wanted to see if this could get back down.

    I see my long term vision as being something which I could attain and retain and this meant challenging my habits and behaviour. In essence I wanted to create new habits and behaviour which would last me a lifetime.

    I have bought and read dozens of books on health, building muscle, fitness and dozens more books on food and health (including yours).

    The outcome so far is I have lost 3 stone in weight, become as fit and lean as I was in my 30s, my blood pressure now averages around 120/80.

    What I do is pretty simple really although it took me a while to get to where I am from a strength and fitness perspective;

    I now spend around 30 minutes per day in blocks of ten minutes over 3 sessions.

    I do 66 full burpees in the morning, takes about 10 minutes.

    Midday I do 50 Hindu Squats, 50 Press Ups and 40 Chin Ups. Each set is 10 Hindu Squats, 10 Press Ups and 4 Chin-ups and I do 5 sets. I then do another 5 sets of 4 chinups with a 30 second gap in between.

    Occasionally I will do a stair run up/walk down for around 5 minutes and or I will do the same as the midday session later on in the afternoon/evening.

    When I started I could’t do one press up and just did a few against a wall. Chin ups and Pull-ups were impossible until I lost some weight. Now I can do 30 or so press-ups in one sitting and around 10 chin ups in one go.

    Food wise I keep a track of calories (I use MyFitnessPal.com) and keep sugar and refined carbs to a minimum. I do sort of follow the 5/2 regime which I got from a Horizon documentary. Weekends I kind of eat what I want and drink what I want.

    Of all the things I have researched, I have found the food part to be the hardest thing to get my head around. I’m only clear about one thing, sugar and fructose is a real killer. I’m not sure about whether saturated fat is good for me or bad for me, I do though suspect it has a bad reputation which is unwarranted.

    Aside from all this, I’m lucky to have a wife who cooks fresh food and we naturally steer clear from processed foods. We do eat some but keep it to a minimum.

    Could I do this everyday, I think the answer is yes and I see it as a lifetime habit.

    Doing 66 burpees is a bit of a killer but 10 minutes each day builds strength and explosive power plus gets my heart going.

    I simply love the amount of energy I now have.



  4. Martin 20 September 2013 at 10:29 am #

    I agree with the “time consuming” point – although I’m quite often exercising for 80-85 mins a day by cycling to work and back, I don’t really feel that it’s using up much of my time as I’d be spending 60-70 mins anyway if I went by car. The actual “time cost” to me is similar to the 30 mins in the study, so doesn’t seem too onerous.

  5. Hemming 20 September 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Great post! Its spot on on so many different accounts.

    Your story really reminds me of my own. I had the exact same thoughts about running. I enjoyed the feeling after a run much more than the actual running. It became an addiction for which completely thrashed my body leaving me stressed, chrinically fatigued, extremely irritable and my weight dropped to 49kg.

    I’m still recovering from the above but this day I have a very different attitude towards exercise and enjoy it a lot more with bike rides in the forest and swimming in the ocean.

    With respect to weight loss and general health I think there is so much more to the story than just going all out with WOD or being the typical weekend warrior.

  6. Mike 20 September 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Great piece (phew says I as I lounge back into the depths of the sofa).

    Very good news. I used to do exactly the same: weeks of endless running and then give up. Used to think I was lazy, but it just seems we are not designed for this.

    I gave up anyway because of knees and spent years looking for a solution. Mine is similar:

    Long walks a few times a week and at least a short walk on other days.
    Yoga (using an app) 3/4 days a week.
    Plus some push ups too just because I like them (about 5 sets of 10-14, a few times a week or less).

    Works for me.

  7. Galina L. 20 September 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    There is nothing like injuries that put everything into the right perspective. Having one of my foot bones shaved down was especially sobering for me. Doctor said that if I continue pounding with my legs, I should be prepared to repeat that surgery every 15 years. I enjoy getting exited doing exercise, but carefully avoid excess nowadays. I love rollerskating, hiking, swimming, dancing,yoga, tai chi . I hope to be able to do most of it in my 80-s.

  8. Irene Cross 20 September 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    What are burps (computer changes the spelling) and Hindu sqats?

  9. Stuart Ward 20 September 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    This article and research sums up that a little bit of stress is good for us, too much is bad. Exercises is stress so the same applies. I try not to think of exercises sessions as a “workout”, that means working yourself out until to tired to me. Exercise sessions should be either practice, training or fun. This is the only way to get consistent lasting results.

    I will use kettlebells or clubbells for 30 minute sessions and focus on technique and movement, not how much i can punish myself. This bring fantastic results and keeps me wanting to go back to it to improve.

    If you’re interested in clubbells or club training click on the link below which gives a quick intro with training videos.

  10. MikeS 20 September 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    A very nice post, and excellent comments. I believe the evidence is becoming overwhelming that fitness can be achieved in a short workout. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

    The idea is to do as much work as possible in as short a period as possible (with a minimum number of reps, with resting and recovery between work outs as long as a week if you’ve expended maximum effort). An excellent book incorporating the concept is “Body by Science” by Doug McGuff.

    Another good book is “Your Body is Your Gym.” by Mark Lauren. He is a former Navy Seal instructor, who believes you can gain strength solely by body-weight exercises, with the occasional additional use of rocksor other weights to increase the resistance.

    Both these keep workouts to a minimum, perhaps 15 minutes per day.

    Dr. Mercola has some interesting items about HIIT on his site:


  11. Steven James 21 September 2013 at 10:41 am #

    I think that this study shows that your diet is the primary factor while trying to lose weight. Yes, exercise is very important, but exercise should serve to preserve your muscles and not burn calories. If burning calories is the purpose of exercising then you run the risk of increasing your appetite too much by exposing yourself to too much exercise.

    So if you’re looking to lose weight stick to short and efficient exercise and a healthy diet that allows you to consume less calories. Its a lot easier that way.

  12. Ian Day 21 September 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Approaching 50, I was overweight & unfit, & becoming reconciled to the ageing process. Activity was limited to outing with the children, & diet was the “quick & easy” foods children love.

    I wanted an exercise activity I could sustain, so I joined a tennis club – I’d played a lot up to about 20, & then any sport was incompatible with raising the family, but I became self employed, working from home, & no longer felt guilty of leaving my wife for the tennis courts.

    I soon realised just how unfit I was, as a dash to the net left me puffed.

    Now, 25 years on (74 y-o & T2 diabetic since 2000) I manage 2 hours tennis 2 – 3 tiems a week, & 2 x2 hr gym sessions including badminton & table tennis. My opponents need make no concessions for my age.

    The advantage of tennis is the brief erst between points – it’s not continuous. I see no reason why I should not continue into my 80s.

  13. Christoph Dollis 21 September 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    You’ll find this New York Times article based on a similar study involving women of interest, Dr. Briffa: Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better Than Six

  14. Steve Montgomery 22 September 2013 at 9:58 am #

    I tend to agree with you although recently I was encouraged to take up barefoot running (in minimal shoes), for around 30-40 mins at a time, having quit for about 5 years.

    I found the talks by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman and Born to Run author Christopher McDougall inspiring and lead me to believe running doesn’t have to cause injuries if done right and is actually what we have evolved to be good at.


    on a side note, published today another interesting extract about cancer from Lieberman’s new book on evolutionary biology and importance of exercise

  15. paleozeta 23 September 2013 at 9:35 am #

    @ Irene Cross 20 September 2013 at 12:47 pm #
    What are burps (computer changes the spelling) and Hindu sqats?

    that was gas…

    me too, after running every day with countless overuse injuries, since two years i am diversifying my activities the like of running, bike, weights, reducing the length. that results in better time management, more fun, less inflammation, less head stress, more flexibility, less guilt when missing one or two workouts.
    runners or bikers know well that when missing a workout the mood plummet.

  16. Mike Abbotts 27 September 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Sorry Dr B (and I write as a fan) but this is poor science.
    To quote your summary: “In this Danish study, moderately overweight men were instructed to expend either 300 or 600 calories a day (e.g. 30 or 60 minutes a day of running) for 12 weeks.) 60 minutes of running a day equates to 5 – 6 miles a day (35 – 42 miles a week) – that is more than many fit, experienced 10,000m runners in athletics clubs, pretty much what you claimed to have done yourself when you were an active runner. (And I appreciate that the team used a cross trainer – not just running). It can hardly be a surprise that moderately overweight men found it tiring and demotivating. As a coach I would not dream of getting a sedentary individual, much less an overweight one, up to 600 calories a day without a lengthy build up.
    So there was roughly equal weight loss across the 2 exercise groups. Big deal! 2 crucial factors were missing. First, although there was supervision (some men were removed from the trial for not meeting exercise targets) the researchers have no idea whether the moderate exercise group limited themselves to 30 minutes a day or became more active during the study and thereby increased calorie burn. I would put money on this happening – it’s what happens when you get fitter. Second, there was no consideration of diet. There is a tendency, reported frequently in your blogs, for people taking up exercise to over-estimate the calorie burn due to exercise and therefore to allow themselves to eat more: “I’ve earned this energy bar or chocolate”.
    And, in any case it was a tiny study, covering 61 men, of whom only 53 completed the trial and 18 were in a non-exercising control group. Even worse, only a few of the men “were asked about their attitudes to the exercise they were taking and its impact on them” (10 of the 53 who completed the trial) and they were not even asked until some time after the trial had finished. So much has been hung on the post trial recollections of 4, yes 4 individuals, who were asked to exercise to a level which was not really sensible for individuals with a BMI over 25 without a lengthy build up.
    I do agree when you say that “ What someone feels is a suitable and sustainable amount of exercise will, I think, vary enormously” and I have no argument with the previous comments from people who have found their own way forward, but you have developed a habit (a bad one in my view) of generalising from your own unsatisfactory experience as a runner to knock exercise as a form of weight control: it works for me and countless others. Now 67, still running 30mpw, cycling 25mpw, swimming and walking, I never consider the question “Can you imagine doing this when you’re 80?” How is it a helpful question? I’ve already abandoned 2 sporting activities because of age, but with your test I should not have taken them up in the first place and I should probably not have bought a first road bike this year.

  17. Dr John Briffa 28 September 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Mike Abbotts

    “Can you imagine doing this when you’re 80?” How is it a helpful question?”

    In my view it is a useful question – for the very reasons I outline in the blog post. Though, of course, you may disagree. I fear you may have missed the point of the post, which was about the sustainability of exercise habits. Please re-read.

    “but you have developed a habit (a bad one in my view) of generalising from your own unsatisfactory experience as a runner to knock exercise as a form of weight control: it works for me and countless others.”

    Actually, when I was running I was considerably lighter. Problem is, I was ‘wasted’ from a muscle perspective.

    My observations on the impact of aerobic exercise on weight control come from my observations of many people (not me) and not just that, but the science too. The research shows again and again just how generally ineffective cardiovascular exercise is for this purpose. See Shaw K, et al. Exercise for overweight or obesity. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD003817 for a start. Of course, you are at liberty to ignore the research if you wish.

    If you want to run, go for it – I have no issue with this. But also spare a thought for the individuals who have found it to be essentially useless for the purposes of weight loss. Also, please consider those who have ended up suffering from chronic musculoskeletal issues as a result of running. Have a word with the ‘man (and woman) in the street’, and you’ll see there are a lot of those people out there.

  18. Simon 28 September 2013 at 7:11 am #

    Being nearly as old the recommendation to eating low-fat, cardiovascular exercise often replaces diet as a way to lose weight. Who better to follow than those already there? Professional distance runners and cyclists, along with other elite endurance athletes, maintain a small, toned figure throughout their careers, which many began as children. And this is the key: they’ve always been thin, slim and trim. Never in their lives did they need to lose body fat.

  19. Rural patient 4 October 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    I’ve never enjoyed exercise for its own sake even though I have a long-distance runner’s physique. I far prefer to achieve other goals which between them should provide enough incidental exercise; e.g., establishing and maintaining a 1350 m2 garden, walking or cycling from A to B.

    But decades of apparent government indifference to cyclists’ safety has made the cycling so dangerous that I’ve given up. I’d rather be alive and marginally less fit than fitter but dead. I cycled nearly everywhere when I lived in cycle-friendly places; e.g., Cambridge. The UK appears clueless re. how to make pedal power safe and popular for normal commuting/shopping trips, as it is in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands.

    I’ve always heard rumours of the risks of over-exercise. Does this BBC story provide more evidence, along with the impact of carbs.? – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24298109.

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