I admit it: I have a bias against endurance exercise. In my defense, I developed it the hard way, having tried multiple times, dating back to my freshman year of high school, to develop better endurance. Each time I failed to reach that goal, and failed to enjoy the process.
My last attempt was in 1999. I was working in an office in which everyone was a runner, and I was the only guy who focused on strength training exclusively. So, I launched a running program with a big-bodied coworker, the only guy in the office who wouldn't leave me in the dust after a quarter mile. As usual, it was a disaster for me; I lost strength and muscle, my knees ached continually, and I found I couldn't develop my endurance beyond a certain point, which was only slightly beyond my starting level. On top of that, I felt like crud. My body was generating the opposite of pleasure-causing endorphins. (I dubbed them "endurephins"-they made every minute of exercise miserable to endure.) There's a happy ending: I felt better as soon as I quit running, and have never been tempted to resume.
The more I write about fitness (and it's been 14 years now), the more I think that all types of exercise get you to more or less the same place: You feel better, and you improve your health. No, you can't train your body to lift heavy weights and expect to be able to run a marathon. No, you can't run an hour a day and expect to look like a bodybuilder. No, you can't limit your routine to three yoga classes a week and expect to look or perform like anything except a guy who takes three yoga classes a week.
The physiological adaptations to each type of exercise are going to be different, but the value of each may end up equal. Movement is good. Stress reduction is good. Weight control is good. Just getting away from your email and cell phone for an hour a day is good. You can accomplish all that with weight lifting, running, pick-up basketball, Pilates, tennis, swimming, cycling, calisthenics, yoga, or just about anything else that qualifies as serious exercise.
And yet, if you spend a lot of time reading scientific research, you'll notice that the phrase "exercise training" always means "endurance training." That's because there's still a pervasive idea, in the world of exercise science, as well as among the general public, that movement designed to take you long distances is "real" exercise. Embedded in the phrase is the idea that only endurance exercise improves health and contributes to a longer life.
So consider the results from a study of nearly 2,000 middle-aged men in the U.K. The researchers, starting in 1979, looked at the subjects' exercise patterns and work-related physical activity (whether they lifted boxes on a loading dock or sat in an office all day, for example). They tracked the men until 1997.
The results, published in the journal Heart in 2003, found something that'll probably surprise you: Light and moderate physical activity walking, gardening, dancing, playing golf, bowling-had no effect on heart disease, death from heart disease, or death from all causes. Even the ones who did the most light and moderate activity, up to 90 minutes a day of walking or light yard work, got no measurable protection from heart disease, or any other terminal illness.
The ones who got that protection were the ones who did what the researchers call "heavy" exercise: climbing stairs, playing vigorous start stop sports like tennis and badminton, hiking, jogging, swimming, serious landscaping work. The ones who got this protection burned as little as 54 calories a day doing that heavy exercise. To put that in perspective, if you're a 180 pound guy, you'll burn just under 500 calories in an hour of chopping wood or shoveling snow (or serious weight lifting, for that matter). That's about 70 calories a day.
So one hour of heavy exercise a week offers you more protection from heart disease, as well as from death by any cause, than 90 minutes a day of walking.
Over the course of the study, the heavy-duty exercisers had 62 percent less chance of dying of heart disease, and were 47 percent less likely to die of any cause than the rest of the men who participated. My point here isn't that this study invalidates the idea of aerobic fitness as a path to health and longevity. It's that you don't have to run 100 miles a week to meet the 54-calories-a-day standard. In fact, you wouldn't have to engage in any aerobic activities at all. An hour of serious yard work or home repair would do it. An hour of basketball or tennis or hockey or soccer would fill the bill.
Lou Schuler is author with Alwyn Cosgrove of the new book “New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle” (Avery/Penguin; January 2006; $25.95). Schuler is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of “The Men’s Health Home Bible” and “The Testosterone Advantage Plan.”