Exercise Intensity Matters

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Some of my favorite activities are the ones that challenge me the most — vigorous bicycling, running, swimming, or hiking. There’s just something about working up a serious sweat that leaves me energized and ready to seize the day. I don’t work out that hard every time — but I make a point of exercising vigorously several times a week. Why? I like how it makes me feel — and because exciting research over the last several years has shown that vigorous exercise offers additional protective health benefits that are worth my extra effort. Walking at a moderate pace is touted as one of the best ways to meet the minimum physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes/week. I wholeheartedly agree — it’s easy, inexpensive, and fun. But after you reach this minimum level of fitness, consider pushing yourself harder a few times a week — for fitness-enhancing, life-saving results. High-Intensity Benefits Some of the longer-term benefits of regular vigorous vs. moderate exercise include:
  • Better heart health. Vigorous exercise has a greater protective effect on heart health and appears to be more effective in improving risk factors for heart disease compared to moderate exercise.
  • Reduced risk of chronic disease. People who exercise vigorously have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness — which, in turn, is associated with decreased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Decreased cancer risk. A 17-year study of 2500 middle-aged Finnish men found the men who were most physically active were the least likely to develop cancer, especially lung or gastrointestinal cancer. And that was after controlling for factors such as age, dietary fat and fiber, and cigarette smoking. The subjects’ activities ranged from low intensity (such as fishing) to vigorous (like jogging). The men who jogged or performed exercise of a similar intensity at least 30 minutes a day had the least cancer risk — a 50% reduction.
Is My Workout Moderate or Vigorous? With moderate exercise, you can talk comfortably while you do it, but you can’t whistle or sing. With vigorous exercise, talking is uncomfortable — you may be able to say only a few words without stopping to catch your breath. A Healthy Mix I’m not going to tell you to stop gardening, golfing, or going for a leisurely stroll if these are activities you enjoy. But to realize some of the most compelling health benefits of regular exercise, make sure you also devote time and effort regularly to more vigorous activities (brisk walking, stair climbing, hiking, jogging, biking, and swimming) that get your pulse moving and make you sweat — as long as your doctor says it’s safe for you. If you love to walk, boosting intensity can be as simple as including a few hills or stairs in your walking route, swinging your arms vigorously, using Nordic walking poles, or break into a jog periodically along the way. Vigorous exercise takes more effort, but it’s a terrific use of your time and energy. Make it a habit, and the payoffs will make you feel like you’re scoring a huge fitness bargain. Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports. References
  1. Swain, D.P. and Franklin, B.A. (2006). Comparison of cardioprotective benefits of vigorous versus moderate intensity aerobic exercise. American Journal of Cardiology, 97: 141-147.
  2. Williams P, Vigorous Exercise, Fitness and Incident Hypertension, High Cholesterol, and Diabetes, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: June 2008 – Volume 40 – Issue 6 – pp 998-1006 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31816722a9
  3. Laukkanen J, et. al. Intensity of leisure-time physical activity and cancer mortality in men, Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.056713