Exercise has amazing effects on health. If all of the exercise benefits could be squished in to a pill, late-night television infomercial writers would have a field day: imagine a pill that lowers blood pressure and cholesterol; reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke; helps with weight loss; reduces depression; and improves mood, bone density, and longevity.
The challenge for most busy people is when and how to exercise. For years as a primary care doctor, I recommended walking to my patients because walking doesn’t require any special skill or equipment except decent – and comfortable – shoes. Walking can be done most anywhere, requires little preparation, and can often be done with a friend. The latter has at least two benefits: scheduling a walk means you’re more likely to do it (meeting the social obligation of the agreed event) and socializing adds some fun to the ‘work.’
New evidence indicates that very significant improvements can be made to a walking program by adding interval training to a routine. This type of training has been around in sports for a long time. I remember my high school coach made us run ‘wind sprints,’ where five of us would jog in a line and the guy in back had to sprint to the front of the group. Then the next guy did the same, and over and over. What is new is applying interval training to walking for older adults, and better research on the metabolic effects is making headlines..
A recent study shows that in people with diabetes, there is a very large difference between two kinds of walking: walking at a steady pace and walking alternating ‘brisk’ with regular walking every 3 to 5 minutes. The interval walkers had a highly significant (more than 3 times) reduction in maximum blood glucose compared to steady walkers, and no increase in low blood sugars. This is the first study of the effects of interval walking on a chronic disease, and the degree of improvement is striking.
Previous studies of interval walking have shown other benefits including “physical fitness — maximal aerobic power and thigh muscle strength — increased by about 20 percent,” hypertension, hyperglycemia and obesity decreased by about 20 percent,” while depression scores dropped by half, Gretchen Reynolds writes in this New York Times article.
As a former runner who now rides a bike, I find this data reassuring about the benefits of bicycle riding also. Riding the roads around my home in Haydenville, or near my former home in Vermont, absolutely requires ‘interval training’ because I cannot avoid hills!
Now I ride with a heart rate monitor and measure my progress on various rides; apps on my iPhone combined with data from my heart rate monitor allow me to compete with myself. Periods of very hard pedaling alternating with glorious downhill times of relatively less exercise is the biking version of interval training. I have noticed that going extremely fast downhill actually raises my heart rate transiently. There are plenty of bicycle versions of interval training options available for everyone from the bike commuter to the competitive athlete.
So the new optimal exercise for a health benefit appears to be interval walking or its equivalent. I recommend my walking friends try this variation, and I will keep looking for biking loops with alternating hills and valleys rather than long climbs followed by long, lazy descents. Post a comment about your exercise.
And find more information about interval training here.
Cooley Dickinson Hospital • 30 Locust St. (Route 9), Northampton, Mass. • (413) 582-2000
Learn more about our Healing Garden (our current background image) by clicking here