Improving Well-being and Health With Low Intensity Aerobic Exercise (It is Much Easier Than You Think)

Boston Mini Marathon, Boston, GA, 2015. Photo by Herb Wills

"I'd like to get into running."

"I have trouble sticking to a routine."

"I can never seem to develop any fitness."

"I always wind up with nagging injuries."

Have you ever said one of the above phrases? I hear them all the time. In this post I explain how getting into a regular exercise routine is much easier than people think. It begins by going very slowly.... Let me share an anecdote that captures what I mean.

While taking a much-needed break during an academic conference in MontrĂ©al, QUE, my friend Justin and I went for a jog up Mont Real. (I didn't realize until running there that "MontrĂ©al" was named after its mountain!) 

I had already run a few marathons, but Justin was only just starting to run on a regular basis. He explained that whenever he tried to start a running program, he would get tired or burned out and eventually give it up after a few weeks. It was a common story. Maybe it's your story.

I noticed that Justin was gasping for air every few words. From this I could tell that he was running too fast. Without saying anything, I slowed down until he could speak in complete sentences without stopping. Within five minutes, he was already trying to speed us up. His inner spedometer told him he was running too easily. "Aren't we going too slow to make an impact?" Justin asked. "No," I told him. "This is where you want to be. This is where the magic happens."

We ran like this for another ten minutes. He observed, "this is actually really nice."

After talking to dozens of people like Justin, I have decided that the first benchmark that people set for themselves with exercise is almost always too high. Aerobic exercise and endurance are stimulated at a remarkably low intensity level. For the majority of people, this is at an ordinary walking pace. When you spend 3-4 hours a week at this level of continuous activity, the benefits begin adding up. If these only folks were to get into the habit of taking easy 40-50 minute walks five times every week, then they would begin developing and strengthening their aerobic systems, burn fat, and would be able to do so in a sustainable way.

But I guess that isn't as sexy as "I ran a 10K" or "I'm training for a marathon." So, instead of starting easily, they run so hard that they can hardly breathe. They feel miserable after 15 minutes, and then they wonder how they will ever lose weight. 

How to Do it

Before getting into the problem of obesity and all of the benefits of regular exercise, here is a simple plan for developing a regular workout routine.

  1. Choose a simple aerobic activity. Choose something you can reasonably do. Walking is the easiest. But maybe you enjoy biking or the stairmaster. Pick something that is practical and available to you.
  2. Look at your schedule and find 3-5 spaces where you could fit 30-45 minutes of exercise. Now isn't the time to go crazy. Err on the side of doing too little. Make sure they are not all on the same day. Pencil in your workout routine.
  3. Do not let anything interrupt your workout time. Be ruthless and uncompromising. Walk for the full 30-45 minutes. If you are soaked in sweat and need to sit for 30 minutes afterwards in recovery, then you were going too hard. It is entirely possible to feel more invigorated and more energized after your workout. Aim for that.
  4. Do this for two weeks before choosing whether to increase the length of exercise or the number of days per week. (Note: I am not encouraging any increase in intensity. Only increase in duration or volume of effort.)
  5. If you can keep up your schedule for a month, then you have developed a habit that will be difficult to break. I don't care what diet and exercise and weightloss fads promise: getting into a habit of regular exercise is the best way to drop weight and improve fitness, because the results are drawn out over a lifetime. There is no "oops, I put it back on," because the routine has become part of who you are.
On to more stuff about why regular low intensity exercise is so wonderful.

The Overweight and Obesity Epidemic

The United States is the most overweight country in the world. Over two-thirds of the adult population is overweight or obese, and this number is growing. 

The body-mass index (BMI) classifications of “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” and “obese” are not arbitrary categories of waist-size, but indicate probability thresholds for cardiac disease and death. I think its medical usage is generally overlooked. Persons who fall into the “normal” BMI category are not "average sized;" the are considered normal because they have the lowest incidence of cardiac disease mortality. I have a normal BMI, but I am far below the average BMI of Americans. “Overweight” and “underweight” indicate a significant increases in incidence of cardiac disease and death. Obese indicates a dramatic increase. 

To be sure, the BMI ratings, which reflect a ratio of height and weight, are imperfect: there is a good deal of error because they do not account for other related factors such as body composition. This error means that it is possible that the BMI and cardiac disease mortality interaction expressed above is actually stronger than the statistics suggest (once correcting for confounding variables such as musculature and bone density).

Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

Exercise burns calories at a rapid rate, and persons who exercise burn more calories sleeping than do similar persons who are sedentary. Running is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most time-efficient forms of exercise that contributes to cardiovascular health. This is why it is commonly prescribed as part of a lifestyle change for patients who have suffered from cardiac disease.

But the benefits of exercise do not end there. When exercise does not exceed 70% of maximum heart-rate, it leads to an increase in cerebral blood flow. This state is neurologically indistinguishable from increased cognitive load such as performing complicated spatial reasoning tasks. This is why light exercise is so important for patients recovering from minor traumatic brain injuries such as concussions. Light exercise leads to the reduction of cognitive symptoms in patients suffering from post-concussion syndrome. 

Less than 70% of maximum heart rate is a very low intensity. For many who are just starting to run, this is can be achieved by walking up a slight incline or alternating jogging and walking on level ground. Once a runner exceeds 70% of maximum heartrate, cerebral blood flow is diminished so that blood can be diverted to the working muscles. Doing so exacerbates cognitive and physiological symptoms associated with post-concussion syndrome (even in non-concussed athletes like an individual that runs so hard she becomes light-headed or nauseated).

Light running is demanding on the cardiovascular system, leading to increases in stroke volume and power from the heart, increases in lung capacity, and increases in cellular efficiency in the capillaries (retrieving nutrition and oxygen, and removing waste).

As you exercise, you get stronger. It is the natural organism-environment response. As the environmental stress increases, the organism—that’s you in this equation—must strengthen in order to handle the continued stress. The organismic adaptation will continue as long as the stress is incrementally increased. This is what happens when you introduce a stressor: your body breaks down and then rebuilds again—though stronger this time. This does not merely mean that you are capable of running longer and farther, but you tire less quickly while doing yardwork, walking up stairways, or enjoying other active hobbies. Running needn’t only lead to more running, but may enhance the capabilities associated with other tasks that bring richness and fullness to a person’s life. 

Athletes who began with walking would find themselves being able to run for increasing lengths of time and covering greater distances--all without exceeding 70% of their maximum heart rate. It may give the impression that longer and faster is always better, but that isn't the case. The goal is to keep it around 70% of maximum effort, which, again, isn't that uncomfortable. (It begins to get uncomfortable only when you reach competitive levels of endurance sports.)

Darton Women's Soccer Fundraiser 5K
Photo credit unknown

Running has the Potential to be a Spiritual Practice

Formal National Football League linebacker Dave Meggyesy has found sporting activities to be similar to spiritual practice in a number of ways. He lists eleven points of overlap between sporting and spiritual practices. A few of these have been selected that demonstrate how running has the potential to develop spiritual discipline in a person. He notes how sports can be practiced daily and involve repetition of fundamentals. He observes how sports cultivate focus, mindfulness, and presence to experience. It requires that one check one’s ego at the door. It requires the cultivation of disciplined habits and a lifestyle commitment. And number 11 which deserves to be shared in full: Running requires that you “[l]et go, become the experience, become it; enjoy the freedom, exuberance, clarity, and insight that result from training and practice.” 

Incidentally, the only main difference between sports and a spiritual practice, Meggyesy observes, was that sports are practiced in order to increase performance whereas spiritual disciplines are directed towards well-being and/or enlightenment. 

"In sport, generally speaking, improvement means getting better, becoming more proficient, and increasing enjoyment. Getting better in spiritual training is often seen as attaining and experiencing heightened or more comprehensive states of awareness, including critical thinking, and becoming ‘awake’ (with the emphasis on becoming—fully and directly experiencing life and our existence, as it is, in every moment)."

What Meggyesy describes as the goal of spiritual training is indistinguishable from what we are describing as running in service to potential.

Michael Murphy dedicated himself to the running practice later in life. While he had some success with performance, he also clearly understood its spiritual aspects. He wrote several books that examined the intersection of spirituality, consciousness, and physical ability: Future of the Body, The Psychic Side of Sports, and Golf in the Kingdom, among others. 

But the spiritual transformation is not just for the superlative athlete. While some athletes and spiritual practitioners are able to devote extended periods of their lives to their discipline, others have life commitments such as careers, families, and community involvement that prohibit complete devotion. For these Leonard and Murphy use the Hindu term “Householder Path” to describe these spiritual practitioners: “a spiritual practice not for full-time practitioners but for those who have family and job obligations."

Running has the Potential to be a Psychological Practice

By admitting the mind-body relationship, all of the physiological and spiritual benefits may also be understood as psychological benefits. For example, the cerebral blood flow that is elicited by light exercise also improves focus and attention. Many runners have also reported a “high” or peak psychological state of well-being that accompanies a long-distance run.

Runners who have trained under former Adams State University track and cross-country coach, and former USA Olympic marathon coach Joe Vigil understand that the sport is deeply psychological. Vigil emphasizes that his athletes not only improve performance, but also that they must “Improve personal relationships,” “Improve achievement motivation,” “Improve maturity” and “Show integrity to value system” (np). Before training commences, Vigil writes, "[O]ur athletes would do one thing. They would take a long and thorough look at what they wished to achieve, how they thought it could be achieved and how long it would take them. The time that we spent in individual and team meetings, surveying our ambitions, was time well spent" (p. 4). Read more about it in his book, Road to the Top.

It is telling that dozens of therapists in the 1970s and 80s used jogging and group running as part of treatment programs. Read more about these in Psychology of Running.

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