On Your Marks. Moderate Exercise Is Fine, but a More Vigorous Workout Has Added Benefits. How Competition Can Help You Maintain a High-Intensity Regimen

By Kuchment, Anna | Newsweek, March 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

On Your Marks. Moderate Exercise Is Fine, but a More Vigorous Workout Has Added Benefits. How Competition Can Help You Maintain a High-Intensity Regimen


Kuchment, Anna, Newsweek


Byline: Anna Kuchment

Last summer, I was pretty much a fat guy getting fatter," says Steve Chugg. The 52-year-old worked a high-stress job as a sales executive, indulging in hefty expense-account meals and finding no time to work them off between long-haul flights and meetings. His weight had ballooned to 240 pounds, and his high blood pressure was out of control. Then, in June, his doctor delivered more bad news: he had type 2 diabetes. "I was basically killing myself," says Chugg.

At this point, most adults would vow to change their habits, only to sink back into the comfort of the living-room couch. Not Chugg. After attending a Senior Olympics event with his son, Ben, a high-school track athlete, he made a drastic change: he quit his six-figure job and decided to devote himself full time to training for this summer's National Senior Games in Louisville, Ky. (For now, he's trying to make ends meet as an amateur art dealer.) After passing a stress test at his doctor's office, he began walking every day, then jogging. Then he hired Ben, 15, as his coach and started running hard. Last September Chugg qualified for Louisville with a bronze medal in the 100-meter dash and a silver in the long jump at a regional meet. More important, his blood pressure is down and he hasn't had a problematic blood-sugar reading in months. "It's changed my life," he says.

Chugg is an example of how high-intensity exercise can rapidly improve your health. Research has shown for decades that people who work out regularly are at lower risk for such health problems as obesity and heart disease. While the benefits of moderate exercise are much greater than little or no exercise, several recent studies have shown that vigorous exercise is even better for you. (Vigorous is defined as working at 60 percent or more of aerobic capacity; moderate is 40 to 60 percent.) Specifically, it's more effective at lowering blood pressure, improving insulin sensitivity (which can reduce the risk of developing diabetes) and raising one's aerobic capacity. "Almost all cardiovascular risk factors respond significantly better to vigorous exercise than to moderate exercise," says Brian Duscha, a clinical researcher who specializes in exercise physiology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Participating in a competitive sport can help you stick with a high-intensity routine. Many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the kinds of lifestyle changes necessary to go from couch potato to gym regular. Joining a team forces you to do things that you might not otherwise do. Not only is it fun, but you have an obligation to show up for practices and events. There are teammates to work out with, and there's usually a coach on hand to keep track of your progress, help set new goals.

William Gillies, 38, used to look forward to frequent after-work pub crawls with friends. But after he joined a marathon training program organized by the New York City running shop Urban Athletics, his priorities shifted. "My coach would give me a hard time whenever I missed a session," he says. He taught Gillies about proper nutrition and "instilled the spirit of competition" in him. Susan von der Lippe, 41, a former Olympic swimmer from Loveland, Colo., does laps with a USA Swimming masters club three mornings a week and competes in meets once a month. "The camaraderie and the competition is what keeps me involved," she says. "I like setting myself goals and seeing how fast I can make this old body move."

In a recent study, Duscha and his co-workers showed exactly how high-intensity exercise can improve health. The Duke group divided 282 overweight and sedentary adults (read: your average American) between the ages of 40 and 65 into four groups and had each group exercise at a different intensity three or four times a week over the course of nine months. One group did a lot of high-intensity exercise--the equivalent of running 20 miles per week fairly quickly. …

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