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The Workout Enigma - Revisited

The New York Times - The Workout Enigma

What would you say if I told you that for some people, working out has no effect? Or that there's a chance, if you try and exercise, you might get weaker? Most people would say it's crazy. But that's exactly what an article in the New York Times claimed in November 2010.

The article (written by Gretchen Reynolds) made several outrageous statements and attempted to back them up by referring to a study conducted at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I ordered a copy of the study to see if the facts matched up to her article. Here's what I found.

[Here's a link to an abstract of the study on PubMed.com.]

Claim #1: "...there are those who just do not become fitter or stronger, no matter what exercise they undertake."

The central statement in Gretchen's article was wrong. The Finland researchers never said that, never hinted at that and never came to that conclusion.

The Study

In the study, subjects were randomly split into four groups. One did endurance training, the second strength training, a third combined endurance and strength training while the last was a control group. Then researchers measured their leg strength by performing a seated leg press.

Over the next 21 weeks, all the subjects who were in the strength and the combined endurance and strength programs performed 7-10 exercises, twice a week. The program was designed to "activate all of the main muscle groups."

Here are the problems with their approach.

  1. First, one of the most commonly accepted methods of determining changes in muscle growth is to take a biopsy of the muscle at the start and end of the test. Instead, the Finland researchers chose a test that measured a portion of lower body strength only. No upper body measurements and no other sample to assess muscular change.

  2. The second problem is the exercise program. Researchers have documented for decades that a few individuals have a problem with whole body strength training. Some people simply do not respond well to it, and that was clearly shown in the Finland results. Research also demonstrates that the way to stimulate muscle growth for low responding people, is to design targeted exercises that work specific body parts. But the Finland study didn't do that. It gave a one-size-fits-all approach for everyone to follow.

  3. The third and potentially most glaring problem with the study was that it didn't track what the subjects ate, especially in the critical 30 minutes after a workout. Your muscles ability to heal itself and grow is three times higher if you eat protein after a workout. Because there is no record of what the subjects ate, we have no way of checking to see if the non-responders skipped food during that critical window.

    Here's why the food component is so important. If a subject exercised and skipped eating for 2-3 hours, the muscle that was broken down during the workout would not be receiving the proper nutrition to heal and grow, so it's possible they could actually grow weaker from exercise, and that seems to be exactly what the researchers in Finland found out.

Claim #2: "...some people don't respond to endurance exercise [such as running or biking.]"

The proper way to build an endurance (also known as cardio) program has gone through a revolution in the last few years. In the Finland study, subjects rode a bicycle for 30 minutes the first 5 weeks. Then things were made harder by adding a 10 minute period of more strenuous exercise. Over time the workout was extend to 45 minutes, 60 minutes, and finally 90 minutes.

Ten years ago, that program would have looked perfectly acceptable. It's known as a "steady state" routine, because for the majority of the program, you're moving at the same pace. For decades it's been promoted as the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness, but just like in Finland, researchers in several studies found a small group of people who didn't respond.

That's why we started looking for alternatives. Two years ago we found it in a radical new way of doing cardio called "intervals." Three 15-minute intervals done over the course of a week, yield a greater cardiovascular benefit than 6-hours of traditional steady state cardio. What's more, every research subject trained to do intervals has seen improvement, unless there was some underlying medical issue that inhibited progress.

[To learn more about Interval Training, Click Here.]

Also, just like the strength training group, we have no idea what or when the endurance group ate, so we cannot determine if their nutrition was appropriate.

Claim #3: "...some [people] don't respond to either [strength training or endurance.]"

I'm not sure how Gretchen thought there were people who didn't respond to either strength or endurance training, because in the study the researchers said, "However, none of the subjects in ES [the endurance and strength training group] had a negative response to both aerobic capacity and maximal strength."

That bears repeating. Every single person in the combined group either saw an improvement in strength, or endurance, or both. There were no "negative responders."

If a journalist has a story published by the New York Times, I expect certain standards to be met. I want the facts, not a fantasy created by a writer intent on selling an article. If you aren't seeing results from your exercise program, don't blame your genetics. Make an appointment with an expert who can evaluate what you're doing and help you design something that works.

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5/29/2011