As our society becomes more sedentary and allows technology the licence to relieve us of the burden of light activity, we become estranged from some of the basic joys of life. Walking is increasingly foreign to the upwardly mobile human being. Who has time for enjoyable activity in this busy life?
How can you justify the time taken to amble around, often to accomplish a complete circuit, effectively going nowhere? As science has shown over and over, we really need a policy for regular exercise, because as I am about to show you, there's no sense in avoiding it.
Gary Taubes writes a compelling argument in his book Why we get fat and what to do about it. He delves into the assertion of the scientific canon that strongly suggests exercise causes the heavy to lose weight, and the lean to stay lean. Strangely, the evidence isn't there. What science has been able to establish is that in populations that have successfully lost weight, exercise played no part in maintenance of that loss. This is rather shocking to the person who has grown up under the assumption that exercise will cause weight loss — that person being myself. A study that surveyed 13,000 runners found that those who run the most weighed the least, but they all put on weight every year, even high volume runners. The researchers, clearly shocked by their findings, went on to advocate yearly increases in running distance to maintain weight which, when applied over years would see the casual runner having to eventually run five half marathons a week.
Robert Lustig in his book Fat Chance points out that when you exercise you build muscle, which increases weight. "Good for your health but doesn't reduce your weight." Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra, Sports Science Professor Tim Noakes and Sports Doctor Stephen Phinney published an article in the British Medical Journal: "you cannot outrun a bad diet". They open the pages of evidence stating the startling truth, much to the dismay of the producers of sports drinks who promote the message that as long as you burn the energy you consume, you will be fine, however this is not true. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger. Fat calories induce fullness or "satiation". It is the quality of the calories not a simple balancing act.
So my case for walking is looking tenuous. Hang on a bit.
Lustig lays out three solid reasons for exercise. Weight loss doesn't figure.
1. Exercise will make your cellular machine run better. You get new mitochondria which are the microscopic pieces of equipment in every cell responsible for producing the energy that makes you move like a slug or a gazelle. You can exercise more and outrun that pesky cheetah ... or not. Getting new ones means you get rid of the old ones.
Your muscles become more adept at using glycogen with exercise causing muscle building rather than fat building. This is a way of explaining what is felt by the exerciser — wellbeing, vitality and betterment.
2. Stress levels will drop and stay low for the whole day, and you get more endorphins which make you feel really good. For the uninitiated, think of an endorphin as the natural version of morphine.
3. Your liver burns energy cleaner and faster. This means energy gets from food to you faster, and it doesn't get wasted in fat storage.
So if you want to lose weight, you have to delve into the biochemistry of eating. You need to figure out what to place in that mouth of yours but that topic is for another article. Maybe as Michael Moseley found, fasting or putting no food in the mouth was also very beneficial.
What I can conclude for your collective benefit is that exercise is one of the few actions that costs you little, and yet yields richly in longevity and excellence of body function. Yes it is true that you burn a large amount of calories in your sleep and lounging in front of the TV (called resting energy expenditure) but with no health improvement value.
My stroke of genius in exercise strategy was to buy a house 3.4km from work. I try to walk to work briskly most days. It is the time of day that I can either focus on the day to come, or completely tune out to it. I can take in 32 minutes of a fusion of nature and urbanisation, or as is my habit of late, listening on radio to Winston not talking about old rugby injuries, and answering every question with a question. It's also fascinating watching the one in five drivers simultaneously operating a heavy lump of moving vehicle while checking their Facebook. Walking and googling is so much healthier!
What I have noticed is that such a regular habit of walking did nothing to prevent a gradual shift in weight from the late 80s (kg) into the mid 90s. In trying to trim down, I actually gained weight walking more briskly over the three months of a weight loss challenge and eating less. Exercise was the strategy, although not much more than I was doing before, I was startled to see gain. Perhaps I caused my quads and gluteals to bulk up in a minimalist way, which could explain weight gain? Arnold Schwarzenegger's top competition weight was 113kg. His body mass index would have been 32. This is classified as obese. Muscle weighs more than fat, so weight alone is a poor indicator of metabolic health.
The lesson is that the scientifically reasoned and tested purpose of exercise is for wellbeing only. Mark Twain's insight aptly describes what we see happening today in exercise and nutrition's sacred cows: "education consists mainly of what we have unlearned".
A recent radio report mentioned that the way you walk determines the way you sleep. I heard one thing — perhaps a "ministry of silly walks" style of walking allows you to sleep in new and imaginative ways — but found the report actually endorsed more exercise for better quality sleep instead. Didn't we already know that? Perhaps a better headline was "more walking makes you less woke".
Exercise comes with an essential need to upgrade as the machine likes to settle into the gains that you have made. You need to mix it up rather than just fixate on the same routine. If walking is the thing that you do and enjoy, consider throwing in a few hill climbs or stairs, and once a week put a few textbooks or bottles of water in a backpack and turn up the speed.
As a qualified advocate for the physical health of the general population, it is my responsibility to zoom out of the specifics from time to time to help the whole person restore the optimum workings of their machine, with such fascinating facts as I have shared here. Your response is to now evaluate your exercise level and really question if you are investing in the long term with regular moderately sweating exercise. Enjoy your walk!
Greg Bell is a physiotherapist practising at Bell Physiotherapy. www.bellphysio.co.nz