This year, exercise science expanded and fine-tuned our understanding of how physical activity affects our brains, joints, hearts, and even genes, beginning before birth and continuing throughout our lifespans, which can be lengthened, it seems, by exercise, especially if we pick up the pace.
This year’s fitness news was variously enlightening, validating (if, like me, you never bothered cooling down after a workout anyway), and practical (DIY concussion testing, anyone?). It was also occasionally deflating, at least if you hoped that barefoot running invariably would reduce the risk of injury, gentle exercise would quash your appetite, or training for a marathon would automatically exempt you from being a couch potato.
But the lesson that seemed to emerge most persistently from the fitness-related studies published this year was that intensity matters, especially if you wish to complete your workout quickly. The most popular column that I wrote this year, by a wide margin, detailed ‘The scientific 7-minute workout’, a concept that appealed, I have no doubt, because the time commitment was so slight. But the vigour required was considerable; to gain health benefits from those seven minutes, you needed to maintain a thumping heart rate and spray sweat droplets around the room.
Almost halving the time spent exercising was also effective, a later and likewise popular column showed. In that study, out-of-shape volunteers who ran on a treadmill for a mere four minutes three times a week for 10 weeks raised their maximal oxygen uptake, or endurance capacity, by about 10 per cent and significantly improved their blood sugar control and blood pressure profiles.
The results undercut a common excuse for skipping workouts. “One of the main reasons people give” for not exercising is that they don’t have time, said Arnt Erik Tjonna, a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who led the study.
But they emphasise, too, the potency of hard effort. The volunteers ran at 90 per cent of their maximum aerobic capacity for those four minutes, a level that is frankly unpleasant. But, in four minutes, they were done.
There were other hints throughout the year that exerting yourself vigorously may have unique payoffs, compared with less strenuous exercise. In a study that I wrote about a few weeks ago, for instance, people who walked briskly, at a pace of 17 minutes per mile or less, generally lived longer than those men and women who strolled during their walks, at