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Pace it easy

Moderate exercise is far better for your health than vigorous workouts. Gretchen Reynolds writes.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 23, 2012 23:46 IST

For people who exercise but fret that they really should be working out more, new studies may be soothing. The amount of exercise needed to improve health and longevity, this new science shows, is modest, and more is not necessarily better.

That is the message of the newest and perhaps most compelling of the studies - presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Francisco. For it, researchers at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health and other institutions combed through the health records of 52,656 American adults who'd undergone physicals between 1971 and 2002 as part of the Aerobics Center

Longitudinal Study at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. Participants completed physical testing, activity questionnaires and returned for at least one follow-up visit.

It was found that about 27% of the participants reported regularly running, although in wildly varying amounts and paces. The scientists then checked death reports.

Over the course of the study, 2,984 of the participants died. The incidence was much lower among the group that ran. They had, on average, a 19% lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners.

Best in moderation
The researchers found that running in moderation provided the most benefits. Those who ran one to 20 miles per week at an average pace of about 10-11 minutes per mile reduced their risk of dying more effectively than those who didn't run, those who ran more than 20 miles a week, and those who typically ran at a pace swifter than seven miles an hour.

"These data certainly support the idea that more running is not needed to produce extra health and mortality benefits," said Dr Carl J. Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans and an author of the study. "If anything," he continued, "it appears that less running is associated with the best protection from mortality risk." His analysis echoes the results of another new examination of activity and mortality, in which Danish scientists used 27 years' worth of data collected for the continuing Copenhagen City Heart Study. They reported that those Danes who spent one to two and a half hours per week jogging at a "slow or average pace" had longer life spans than their more sedentary peers or those who ran faster.

This decidedly modest amount of exercise led to an increase of, on average, 6.2 years in the life span of male joggers and 5.6 years in women.

"We can say with certainty that regular jogging increases longevity," Dr Peter Schnorr, a cardiologist and an author of the study, said at the European Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation.

"The relationship appears much like alcohol intakes," he continued. "Mortality is lower in people reporting moderate jogging than in non-joggers or those undertaking extreme levels of exercise."

There's further confirmation of that idea in a study of exercise habits published last year in The Lancet, which showed that among a group of 416,175 Taiwanese adults, 92 minutes a week of moderate exercise, like walking, jogging or cycling, increased life span by about three years and decreased the risk of mortality from any cause by about 14%.

In that study, those who embarked on more ambitious exercise programs did gain additional risk reduction, as seems only fair, but the benefits plateaued rapidly. For each further 15 minutes per week of moderate exercise that someone completed beyond the first 92, his or her mortality risk fell, but by only about another 4 percent.

Whether and at what point more exercise becomes counterproductive remains uncertain. "In general, it appears that exercise, like any therapy, results in a bell-shaped curve in terms of response and benefit," says Dr James H. O'Keefe, a cardiologist and lead author of a thought-provoking review article published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings that examines whether extreme amounts of vigorous exercise, particularly running, can harm the heart.

Diminishing returns
"To date, the data suggests that walking and light jogging are almost uniformly beneficial for health and do increase life span," Dr O'Keefe says. "But with more vigorous or prolonged exercise, the benefits can become questionable.

"I'm a fan of distance running," he adds. "I run. But after about 45 to 60 minutes a day, you reach a point of diminishing returns, and at some point, you risk toxicity."

His advice? The study by Dr Lavie and his colleagues offers excellent guidelines for safe and effective exercise, Dr O'Keefe says. "Twenty miles a week or less of jogging at a 10 or 11-minute-mile pace can add years to your life span. That's very good news." Indeed it is - especially since that routine happens to replicate almost exactly my own weekly exercise regimen.

"I wouldn't automatically discourage people from doing more if they really want to" and are not experiencing side effects, like extreme fatigue or repeated injuries, Dr O'Keefe continued. "But the message from the latest data is that the sweet spot for exercise seems to come with less."

First Published: Jun 23, 2012 23:43 IST