Back in the early 90’s, my college buddy and I decided to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. Never mind that we were beginner skiers, we were confident that we could tackle the Alps. We took a train to Zermatt, rented skis, took the lift to the top, looked in wonder at the nearby Matterhorn mountain, looked at the slopes, asked if we could re-board the lift to go back down, and the man said “the exit lift is 3 miles that way” with his finger pointing down-slope.
I had on my standard protective skiing outfit at the time: a pair of Levi’s jeans, t-shirt, sweat-top, blue-and-hot-pink jacket (from the 80’s), and neon red/pink gloves (also from the 80’s). My buddy had a comparable outfit on. On our best days, we could take a 30 degree slope, but starting from the top, we were looking at 45 degree slopes. Not wishing to die, we decided to sled down on our skis.
After much sledding, a few short bouts of skiing on small slopes, walking awkwardly on flat icy passages, shouting responses of “we’re okay, thanks for asking” to concerned skiers, we finally made it to the exit. We took so long that by the time the lift got to the bottom, it was almost dark. I had five holes in my jeans from the sledding; the two on my derriere were big enough that I had to hide them with my hands on the way back to the hotel.
Later, we found out that we were lucky because it would have been easy to head down the wrong side and end up in Italy (without our passports) instead of Switzerland. Looking back, I see that we were totally overmatched and unprepared, lacking the necessary skills and protective clothing. Still it was great fun once the ordeal was over. Youth are easily amused.
What strikes me is that back then, I was fine skiing around New England in jeans and whatever I had on hand. I didn’t feel the need for specialized winter clothing. Nowadays, I would need to spend several hundred dollars on thermal under-layers, a tri-climate jacket with high-tech materials, and waterproof snow pants before going skiing or snowboarding.
I feel that exercise and recreation have been commercialized, specifically in the expectation that I have to purchase expensive equipment as a prerequisite or precaution. To go jogging, I had better get running shoes that match my foot type and running form to prevent injuries. Back during high school track, I remembered that we had no problems running in tennis shoes (or whatever footwear we had on).
Now, I’m not against getting appropriate equipment if you want to, but I’m against being misled into believing that it is necessary or a safety requirement. Definitely, waterproof snow pants were a vast improvement over water-logged jeans. And if I ran a marathon, I would want the best footwear that I can afford. Or would I? It turns out that expensive, specialized running shoes may be no better, and may even increase the chances of injury, than an inexpensive, neutral pair.
“The First 20 Minutes” book by Gretchen Reynolds is a surprising look at how we exercise based upon the latest research. Reading it has caused me to change many of my assumptions. Here’s what I learned:
- 150 minutes a week of light exercise (like walking) split into any chunk of time is enough to achieve health benefits. Do more intensity or duration to increase benefits.
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce that time drastically (150 minutes down to 6 minutes of hard exercise a week, not including prep and rest times) while gaining equivalent health benefits.
- A warm-up (like stretching) before a workout may be counter-productive by tiring out muscles, so do it lightly or not at all. It’s better to just start easy; i.e., walk before you run. Having said that, dynamic stretching to activate the joints specific to the activity (handwalks for tennis) can be effective.
- Cool-down activity doesn’t lessen soreness. Ibuprofen, massage, and ice bath don’t reduce soreness either, but may actually slow down recovery. Rest from vigorous activity is the most effective remedy.
- During exercise, drink only when you are thirsty. After exercise, low-fat chocolate milk is better than Gatorade for recovery.
- Moderate exercise doesn’t rev up your metabolism for the rest of the day; the extra calorie burning ends with the exercise session. And moderate exercise isn’t effective for weight loss because the body compensates with less activity and more appetite/food intake. However, prolonged or painfully intense exercise will maintain the increased metabolism and blunt the appetite, resulting in weight loss. (Moderate exercise is helpful for maintaining weight though. Exercise is also necessary to mitigate the bad side-effects of a low-carb diet like Atkin’s.)
- Weight training (resistance exercises) improve cardio/endurance performance and vice versa.
- Core strength (that is, having a six packs) do not improve athletic performance. Repeated bending of the spine can contribute to damage of the spinal discs, so go easy on (or forgo) crunches (or sit-ups).
- Running is not a problem for many knees; marathon runners continue to have sturdy, healthy joints. However, running (and other intensive sports) does result in significantly more injuries than walking. In fact, elderly people who run lightly to moderately have healthier knees (less arthritis) than those who don’t.
- Reduce the duration of cramps by stretching the muscle (if you can) and/or taking a shot of pickle juice (no one knows why pickle juice works, but it does).
- Don’t use foot type as a basis for buying a running shoe because it is not clear that over- or underpronation is the real, underlying issue. Buy shoes that fit and feel right (and do not cause pain or discomfort) regardless of foot type. (The evidence is not solidly for or against barefoot running, so take it easy when transitioning to it.)
- The biggest predictor of injury is a previous injury, so don’t get hurt in the first place. When hurt, cortisone injections will slow healing; it’s better to do nothing (wait and see) or undergo physical therapy.
- Exercise is good for the brain, may improve cognitive capabilities, better your mood, and might prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The gist is that if you have not injured yourself with what you are doing for exercise (warm-up, using exercise equipment like shoes, eating/drinking before/during/after, and cool-down, etc.) and are comfortable doing it (no pain), then keep doing it. There is really no conclusive scientific evidence as to the best way to exercise.
Given all the benefits of exercise and really how little exercise we need to maintain our fitness, it is a no brainer to move. Walk a couple blocks to the grocery, take the stairs, park further from the store entrance, mow the lawn, vacuum the house, do push-ups when you are bored … it all adds up.