The year in fitness: shorter workouts, greater clarity, longer lives

In fact, some of the year’s biggest fitness news concerned
how little exercise we might be able to get away with while maintaining or even
improving our health. A study from January, for instance, showed that just five
minutes of intense calisthenics substantially improved college students’
aerobic fitness and leg strength. Another series of studies from the University
of Texas found that four seconds — yes, seconds — of ferocious bicycle
pedalling, repeated several times, was enough to raise adults’ strength and
endurance, whatever their age or health when they started.

Even people whose favourite workout is walking might need
less than they think to reach an exercise sweet spot, other new research
suggested. As I wrote in July, the familiar goal of 10,000 daily steps, deeply
embedded in our activity trackers and collective consciousness, has little
scientific validity. It is a myth that grew out of a marketing accident, and a
study published this summer further debunked it, finding that people who took
between 7,000 and 8,000 steps a day, or a little more than 3 miles, generally
lived longer than those strolling less or accumulating more than 10,000 steps. So
keep moving, but there’s no need to fret if your total doesn’t reach a
five-figure step count.

Of course, exercise science weighed in on other resonant
topics this year, too, including weight. And the news there was not all
cheering. Multiple studies this year reinforced an emerging scientific
consensus that our bodies compensate for some of the calories we expend during
physical activity, by shunting energy away from certain cellular processes or
prompting us unconsciously to move and fidget less. A study from July, for
example, that examined the metabolisms of almost 2,000 people concluded that we
probably compensate, on average, for about one-quarter of the calories we burn
with exercise. As a result, on days we exercise, we wind up burning far fewer total
calories than we might think, making weight loss that much more challenging.

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On the other hand, exercise seems essential for weight
maintenance, according to other research this year. A new scientific analysis
of participants from TV weight-loss contest “The Biggest Loser” found that
those who exercised the most in the years after the programme ended were the
least likely to have regained all of the pounds they shed during the show.

Exercise also has a disproportionate effect on our odds of
enjoying a long, healthy life. According to one of the most inspiring studies
this year, overweight people who started working out lowered their risk of
premature death by about 30% even if they remained overweight, with exercise
providing about twice as much benefit as weight loss might.

Exercise enhances our brain power, too, according to other
memorable experiments from this year. They showed physical activity fortifying
immune cells that help protect us against dementia; prompting the release of a
hormone that improves neuron health and the ability to think (in mice); shoring
up the fabric of our brains’ white matter, the stuff that connects and protects
our working brain cells; and likely even adding to our creativity. In a nifty
study from February, physically active people tended to dream up more inventive
ways to use car tires and umbrellas, a standard test of creativity, than people
who seldom moved around much.

Taken together, this year’s exercise neuroscience research
makes “a strong case for getting up and moving” if we hope to use our brains
with ongoing clarity and in imaginative ways deep into our golden years, as one
of the researchers said to me.

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Still, the study that stuck with me most this year had less
to do with the myriad ways exercise remodels our bodies and brains and more
with how it might shape our sense of what matters. In the study, which I wrote
about in May, active people reported a stronger sense of purpose in their lives
than inactive people.

“A sense of purpose is the feeling you get from having goals
and plans that give direction and meaning to life,” the study’s lead researcher
told me. “It is about being engaged with life in productive ways.” The study
found that exercise amplified people’s purposefulness over time, while simultaneously,
a sturdy sense of purpose fortified people’s willingness to exercise. In
effect, the more people felt their lives had meaning, the more they wound up
moving, and the more they moved, the more meaningful they found their lives.

It’s a result worth remembering as we look ahead with wary
optimism. So stay healthy, active and in touch in 2022, everyone. Here’s to a
happy new year!

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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