ARTICLES         BOOKS         VIDEOS         LINKS         EDU PAGE         EVENTS         CONTACT


Fact or Fiction?
"To keep fit, exercise 30 minutes a day,
three to five times a week"
A myth busted by Don Bennett DAS

Why do we exercise? We all know it's good for our health, but have you ever thought about it?  Do you exercise the way you do because you've heard that's the way it should be done? Is it possible that the current way of working out could be good for some parts of our body, but bad for others... are we doing more harm than good? Are we spending more time exercising than we need to?

Is there a healthier way to exercise?

If you exercise (or intend to exercise)
to help be fit and happy, then read on!


The Facts

In order to produce permanent physiological adaptations, our body requires a significant stimulus. This biological fact means that we need to look at three fundamental variables that govern exercise:


Our bodies are homeostatic organisms that are very resistant to change. To stimulate adaptive changes, exercise intensity must cross a certain threshold before the body will respond. Forcing muscles to move enough resistance until movement becomes impossible, allows us to cross this threshold. And we do this by exercising to muscular failure.


When intensity is high, it is physiologically impossible to work out for a long time. Doing more exercise than is minimally necessary to stimulate adaptive changes (or to maintain a proper level of fitness) drains bodily resources and compromises recovery. A properly performed workout should take no longer than 45 minutes, which if done in a gym can also include some time spent on a treadmill at the end of the workout.


Upgrading physical fitness is a metabolically expensive process that requires sufficient time. After a "request" that adaptive changes be made, the human body needs recovery time to effect those changes, and for repair and replenishment. Exercising too often serves only to interrupt the recovery phase, further drain bodily resources, and hinders improved physical fitness. Exercising once every seven days is enough exercise to improve and maintain your level of fitness. More is not necessarily better when it comes to exercise... more is better when it comes to recovery. Think about it, since you don't know the precise moment recovery is completely finished, you will work out again either before recovery is done or after it is done. Common sense would dictate that it's better to wait until recovery is definitely finished before another intense workout is performed, which means you should be working out after you're done recovering. If you work out a few days before you should have, you will interfere with your recovery. If you work out a few days after you could have, you will not lose anything you've gained thus far.

Strength and Cardiovascular Training ("cardio")
Addressed in one Exercise Protocol

The popular belief is that two training methods are needed to be physically fit: working with weight for muscle strength, and aerobics for cardiovascular fitness. This is untrue. One of the biggest jobs of the cardiopulmonary system (heart and lungs) is to service the muscles. If the cardiopulmonary system were a retail store, the muscular system would be its biggest customer. When your muscular system works harder, the cardiopulmonary system works harder; it's not the other way around. So, working your muscles hard will force the cardiopulmonary system to work hard. Muscular work of sufficient intensity requires the cardiopulmonary system to work hard to meet muscular demands, so one activity takes care of both muscular and cardiopulmonary fitness. And that activity is strength training. Think about it, you can't exercise the cardiopulmonary system without exercising the muscular system! So, although the fitness industry remains blind to the above facts, strength training will provide you with every exercise-related health benefit you could possibly want. Doing "cardio work" is a waste of time and physiological resources, and can actually be counterproductive.

How was it discovered that there is no such thing as an overall, general, cardiopulmonary fitness? Out of shape college kids were recruited for a study where they trained on a stationary bike for 90 days, but only one leg did the pedaling. Before they started training, their VO2max was tested, first using both legs, then only the left leg, and then just the right leg. (VO2max is a measurement of cardiopulmonary efficiency.) As you might imagine, all three results were the same. Then one leg was worked out for 90 days on the bicycle; the other leg got to continue to be a couch potato. At the end of the 90 days, you could tell by looking which leg had been exercised. Now for the revealing part. When VO2max was tested for the leg that had been trained, its VO2max improved as expected. But what do you think happened when the unexercised leg was tested? Do you think its VO2max also improved along with the other leg, or do your think there was no improvement. It's shocking how many personal trainers and exercise physiologists that I put this question to got it wrong. There was no improvement. Proving that cardiopulmonary efficiency is muscle specific. This means that when you get less winded, and your heart rate no longer rises as much after you've trained to do something, it's not your heart or lungs that accounted for the improvement, it's the muscles involved.


The following fax from Dr. Philip Alexander will help
dispel the popular notion of how exercise should be done.

Monday, Sept. 27, 1999

Good Morning, John Coleman,

I happened to see your September 20th column in the Clarion-Ledger on "Superslow". I'm glad you wrote about it, and I know exactly how you feel because I was the same way until about three years ago.

For years, my colleagues and I have been telling our patients to walk, run or ride 30 minutes a session, three to five times a week. That was almost religious dogma in the cardiology world. And for 20 years I ran ten miles, four times a week.

But many of us made the observation that one of the best ways to objectively measure the aerobic benefits of endurance exercise was the HDL (cholesterol) level, and that these three activities usually had very little effect on HDL. We here are now following 29 patients on this high intensity (Superslow) protocol (17 minutes in the gym every 5th day), and 28 of the 29 have more than doubled their HDL's, mostly from the low 20's to the mid/high 50's. (Show this to your doctor and see if he knows of any drug or activity that can double HDL!)

Additionally, the post-menopausal women in the group are averaging a 1% increase in their bone mineral density monthly. (Show this also to your doctor, and ask him how this compares to Fosamax or Miacalcin.)

A patient of mine who consistently ran 20 miles, three times a week (60 miles a week – how much more "aerobic" can you get?!) had an average HDL of 36-38. For the past year, on only the program described above, his HDL averaged 56-59. (Okay, I guess you'd better show that one to your doctor also!)

I believe we are coming around to the conclusion that what was recommended for years by the medical community (30 minutes of "aerobic exercise" 3-5 times a week, getting the heart rate up to 80% max. for age, etc.) has been inadequate, and of too low an intensity level. When an activity is of sufficient intensity, and not of a certain duration or repeated a certain number of times, the body will initiate a total-body response (metabolic, HDL, glucose tolerance, blood pressure, bone mineral density, immune competency, etc.) It appears that if this level of intensity is never reached, regardless of the amount of time spent or the frequency it is repeated, the beneficial response by the body never occurs, or is at least blunted.

Also, it stands to reason that if something is done that is very intense, it can't be done for very long, or very often. Therefore, we could walk on a treadmill for an hour, and do that daily, without much problem – or gain. But an activity that is very intense, by necessity, can be done only briefly, and infrequently (to give the body time to recover, and then to compensate, which means growth). The Superslow protocol is only a means to an end; and that end is to provide exercise to the body that is intense enough to stimulate the body to make its own internal improvements.

I didn't mean for my two cents to be this long, but I thought you might like an update on how this is all working out in the real world.

Philip Alexander, M.D.
Chief of Medical Staff, College Station Medical Center,
Texas A&M University College of Medicine



Increased muscular strength to a level appropriate for human beings

Increased strength of tendons and ligaments

Potentially improves flexibility (range of motion of joints)

Allows improvements in posture

Reduced body fat and increased lean body mass (muscle mass)

Potentially decreases resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure

Positive changes in blood cholesterol

Improved carb metabolism, glucose tolerance, and insulin sensitivity

Improved bone and joint diseases

Optimal strength, balance, and functional ability as you age

Helps prevent an abnormally fast "aging process" at the cellular level

Tips for effective and efficient exercise:

1.  Work out no more than once every seven days. (Why work out more often than that if you don't gain anything from it, and it hinders recovery and growth?) If, by necessity, it occasionally is every six or eight days, that's fine!

2.  Do only one set of each exercise. Doing multiple sets is wasteful and counterproductive. Numerous research studies have shown that there are no significant differences when performing either one, two or three sets of an exercise, provided, of course, that one is done with an appropriate level of intensity.

3.  Move v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y but smoothly. "Explosive" movement is not only nonproductive, but also dangerous. Plus, moving slowly eliminates momentum, which ensures constant muscle loading. Make a movement last about ten seconds. (A chin-up should take about ten seconds from the lowest to the highest point, and then another ten seconds from the highest to the lowest point. Same goes for a push-up.) There is nothing to be gained from fast movements. Moving slowly prevents injury. (There are over 30 million exercise related injuries annually in this country; most of these can no doubt be attributed to high-force movement.) Keep your movements low-force and high-intensity. An analogy: If you attempt to lift your car quickly, you will likely injure yourself even if using proper form. If you try lifting it slowly and intensely, your chances of injury are nil. Think of how you drive your car over speed bumps... fast will cause damage to the car's suspension, slow will not.

4.  Don't do X number of repetitions. The number of repetitions isn't the key factor time is. Simply exercise until momentary muscular failure (when you absolutely cannot do another rep no matter how hard you try).

5.  Even when you can't complete another repetition, keep trying to complete this "impossible rep". Even though you aren't moving, metabolic work is being done, and a more thorough "inroad" to muscular failure is accomplished. "Pushing to failure" signals the body to upgrade its capabilities ("adaptive response")... something it will not do unless given a good reason to.

6.  If an exercise can be done for more than 90 seconds, increase the resistance so that momentary muscular failure occurs within 45 - 90 seconds (this is considered "high-intensity" exercise). If you can do sit-ups for ten minutes, the intensity is insufficient to cross that threshold mentioned above, and you're just wasting valuable physiological resources. If you can't do even one rep, reduce the resistance (i.e. if doing a push-up, change from being on your toes to on your knees, or start from the top and slowly lower yourself; if using a machine, choose a lower setting; if using free-weights, pick a lower weight; if doing a chin-up, use a chair to boost yourself up to the top, then take your feet off the chair and slowly lower yourself).

7.  Movements should be over a full-range of motion for the joint(s) involved. Walking/running works muscles through a limited range of motion. Studies have shown that full-range exercise is necessary for a full-range effect.

8.  Move from one exercise to another as soon as you "catch your breath"... optimally within 30 - 60 seconds.

9.  Do exercises that involve multiple muscle groups, as opposed to isolating a particular muscle. Chin-ups are preferable to bicep curls with a dumbbell.

10.  Work the whole body during one session. Exercising different muscle groups on different days is counterproductive. Your whole workout should take no longer than 45 minutes, and this includes time spent on a treadmill to move lymph fluid to prevent lactic acid pooling in muscles. (Forty-five minutes, once a week for a high level of fitness... who can't find time for that!)

11.  Never hold your breath. Keep breathing as you exercise.

12.  Cool down after you finish your workout. This prevents blood from pooling in your exercised muscles. Walk around, move your arms in slow circles, get a drink of water, keep moving until your breathing has returned to normal and your heart rate has slowed.

13.  Stretching is useful only upon awakening from sleep... it is not necessary prior to working out. As muscles become stronger, their associated tendons and ligaments will be stretched appropriately during the actual exercise, and you will have "functional flexibility", which is all you need. Many people are over-stretching their ligaments, and this leads to joint instability, which increases the chances of injury. Unless you are engaged in martial arts, ballet, or are training for the Olympics, you do not need to consciously stretch anything prior to a workout performed as outlined here.

14.  If you don't feel like working out, don't! Listen to your body. Just because it's your "scheduled day" doesn't mean you must work out. If your body is taking a little longer to recover than usual, so be it. It won't hurt you to lay off for an additional day or two; you will not lose anything you've gained. If your body isn't ready, it's better to skip days than to work out anyway. Every seven days is only a target (some people have found every eight or nine days reap the same benefits).

15.  Make sure you get a good night's sleep, especially on the day you've worked out. This is crucial! Repair takes place during deep sleep. Your body normally gets a few deep sleep cycles during the night. If your alarm clock cuts short or eliminates one of these cycles, it's not a good thing. On your exercise day, you'll need to get a bit more sleep than usual; plan for it! Go to sleep a little earlier. Don't worry, after an intense workout you'll have no trouble falling asleep.

16.  Make sure you stay hydrated! Even mild dehydration hampers recovery. The drink of choice? Water! And for mineral replacement, especially sodium, I make sure my diet includes various amounts of celery, romaine lettuce, and most important, a nutritional adjunct to the diet, a powdered barley grass juice called Daily Green Boost (if the foods I eat are grown in soils that are sodium insufficient, I won't get enough sodium, and if those foods that are supposed to be good sources of sodium don't taste savory, they are grown in sub-par soils... like the celery I and most of us buy).

17.  If you're getting a normal amount of usable protein (about one gram per five pounds of body weight), your body will require a bit more protein than usual as you increase lean muscle tissue). Uncooked protein is preferable to cooked protein (cooking denatures proteins, damaging them, and making them appear as a foreign invader to the body which can trigger an autoimmune response). A good source of protein is fruits, vegetables, and nuts. (Yes, nuts have fat too, but it's "good" fat, and your body needs fat in your diet; you can have a lean body while eating the right kinds of fat!) Give your body the additional protein as it asks for it. Listen carefully, and you'll know when. Remember, it's very difficult to get too little protein; most people get way too much, and too much protein is a cause of degenerative disease. (See Fact or Fiction: High protein diets are great for losing weight)

18.  If you experience pain while working out, STOP! Although moving slowly drastically decreases the probability of injury, common sense dictates that if you feel pain, stop and try again a week later. Maybe you weren't hydrated enough, and maybe you need to reduce the resistance. And pain is not to be confused with a "burn". The expression, "No pain, no gain" is misleading. Pain is a warning to stop. A burning sensation simply means you've worked the muscle very intensely.


Points to Consider:

* Exercise isn't supposed to be fun or enjoyable (that's what recreation is for). Exercise is a means-to-an-end. It shouldn't be something you look forward to, nor should you dread doing it; it should just be part of your lifestyle... like eating or sleeping. If you DO look forward to it, and even crave it, you could be hooked on the endorphin rush you get from doing an activity that is considered by the body to be overdoing it. And since the body would rather you not do this, it would be prudent to respect the body's wishes.

* Strength building exercises will improve cardiopulmonary efficiency. The cardiopulmonary system exists to service the musculature (among other things). You "get at" the cardiopulmonary system through the skeletal muscles. When demands are made of the musculature which strengthen it, all systems that service the musculature will be strengthened accordingly. The cardiopulmonary system doesn't care what exercise you do. (However, the joints, ligaments, and tendons do; and while they don't mind the occasional sprint, they'd rather you not pound them with high-force activities for hours-on-end.) If the exercise protocol outlined above results in excellent cardiopulmonary fitness, why would you want to do more than you need to do? (And there are studies which suggest that doing more than you need is actually harmful to the heart!)

"Consider this: Dr. Kenneth Cooper (author of Aerobics, The New Aerobics, Aerobics for Women), the U.S. Air Force Cardiologist who coined the term 'aerobics" (meaning a form of exercise) and has promoted their use for over 25 years, now admits that he was wrong! According to Dr. Cooper, further research has shown that there is no correlation between aerobic endurance performance and health, longevity, or protection against heart disease. He will admit, however, that such activities do carry with them a great risk of injury. Further, he admits that gross-overuse activities such as running are damaging to the body." Ken Hutchins, SuperSlow Exercise Guild

* The more walking, the better. It's great for stress reduction, good for digestion, and wonderful for the lymphatic system. And stick to natural-stride walking as opposed to "power-walking", but do try and walk with a "spring in your step", also called "spirited walking".

* If you're looking to control your weight, exercise is the least efficient way to do it. You'd have to run for hours to keep the cookies you ate from adding to your waistline. It's far more effective to not eat the cookies. Making fruits and vegetables a larger part of your diet will help crowd out the foods that don't offer much in the way of nutrition, and which add pounds that shouldn't be there. Also, as you build lean muscle tissue, your body will lessen its fatty tissue, and your shape will change. If you're overweight, you're not trying to lose weight, you're trying to lose fat. If your goal is to look and feel great, strength building exercise will accomplish this while making you fit in the process. Doing only aerobics will not.

* After you reach your peak of development, you lose muscle tissue every day up until your death. The rate at which you lose muscle tissue significantly affects how fast you "age". Strength building exercise will slow this natural loss of muscle tissue. Would you rather age quickly or slowly? What kind of shape would you prefer to be in when you're in the Fall and Winter of your life?

* No, strength building exercise will not make a woman look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It will, however, reshape ones body (male and female). Toned muscle will displace fatty tissue. And with less fat and more lean tissue, you will, without a doubt, look (and feel) better.

* Exercise produces no benefits. Only the body can produce benefits. The only things exercise can produce directly are the stimulus to attain those benefits, and injury.

* Strength building is an expensive metabolic process. Although we see it as building muscle, our body is making global metabolic adaptations. It is upgrading its metabolic efficiency by synthesizing more enzymes to make metabolism more capable. This includes aerobic metabolism, anaerobic metabolism, gluconeogenesis, glycogen breakdown and transport, blood buffering agents, and of course new muscle fiber growth. All of this new synthesis is extremely metabolically expensive; that is why your body will not make these changes unless an intense stimulus is applied, and the organism is left undisturbed afterwards to make these changes.

* Respect the body's design when exercising. We are capable of doing many things the body was not designed to do. And this is also true when it comes to physical activity. We're designed to walk, climb, and sprint. We walked a lot back in the good old days when we foraged in paradise, we climbed to get the sweetest fruit, and we occasionally sprinted to escape danger. Take a cue from little kids: they love to climb, when they run they sprint (try to get them to do distance running), and they can walk just fine. When we do the activities we're designed to do, that's when we'll be in great shape... we won't be under-active, and we won't be over-active, and both are bad for the body, for different sets of reasons.

"Train intensely, train briefly, and train infrequently it's valid, and will work for everyone."
Mike Mentzer, trainer to Dorian Yates' (1992-97 Mr. Olympia)


Let's discuss the 800 pound gorilla in the room. We know what being undermuscled looks like, but most people don't know what being overmuscled looks like. And it is possible to work out in such a manner so as to be overmuscled, i.e., too muscular. This is because muscles have a "maximum potential" for size/mass, and an "optimum level". That headroom between the two is necessary so that when you're at where you need to be to exist in Nature, your musculature isn't being maintained at a maximal level, which is very hard on the tissue. But some people take advantage of that headroom and work out in such a way to get their muscular to that maximum potential and keep it there. And to many people, this level looks "great!" and "Wow!" and "look how fit he is!", but it is technically overdoing it, from the body's perspective. This is why I have a problem with raw vegan educators who teach body building in a way that gets people near that "maximal potential" as opposed to simply being optimally fit. And these educators' refusal to admit that there is such a thing as "too much" when it comes to natural body building makes my point, because there certainly can be.

We only need to be as muscled to be able to efficiently and effectively do the things we're designed to do: walking for long distances, some climbing, occasional sprinting... throughout our entire lives. It is possible to work out to be stronger than we need to be, but this is wasteful of bodily resources including nerve energy, and elicits more catabolism than is necessary for normal operation, which is to be avoided.

That's why I promote what is the healthiest way of getting into shape and staying there (this article). As far as staying there once you get in proper shape, work with your body weight or its equivalent when using machines at a gym. If you work with free weights, keep in mind that many people working with free weights are using more weight than is healthy (from their body's perspective), and are doing movements with those weights that have no relationship to how the body is meant to move with weight (which is why there can be damage to vertebral disks even if you're not aware of it). Yet this is what the vast majority of personal trainers teach.

So as with diet, an outside-the-box approach to fitness is also warranted.


A note about stretching

Just as there is being under-flexible, there is also being hyper-flexible (over-flexible). Both are unnatural conditions, and both can result in damage to ligaments and joints. If a person is over-flexible and is not also over-muscled, damage can result (but being over-muscled is not good either).

This is why stretching when you wake up (like all primates do) is fine and good to do; intentional stretching is not. Yes, if you don't intentionally stretch before running, you can get injured, but that's doing one unnatural thing (stretching) to deal with another unnatural thing (long distance running).

So it's better to be appropriately flexible (and appropriately muscled). And you will automatically have appropriate flexibility if you do natural exercises, like climbing. Think about it: Just before a wolf or deer runs, do they stretch first? No. And they never get injured. So most people who you see doing intentional stretching are overdoing it. The stretching we do upon awakening should be all the stretching we need. If we need more, then we're likely doing something that we shouldn't be doing... something we wouldn't have been doing 100,000 years ago.




For more information...

Too Much Exercise Can Damage Your Heart

You Can Over-Eat But Can You Over-Exercise?

Exercise for the Heart?

An article about the above technique


Back to list of Articles