High-intensity workouts get a lot of attention and can be great for health. But moderate physical activity may have metabolic advantages.
It’s a hibernation season like no other: It’s colder and darker, and you’re still inside. Which makes it all the more important (and all the harder) to keep yourself moving. As 2021 begins, here are some ideas to get you out of the house, or at least off the couch for a bit.
Running Audio Guides
A massive running boom began in the spring as many people returned to the simplest exercise: one foot in front of the other until you’ve spent an adequate amount of time away from your seemingly shrinking home.
If you need a new boost to get back outside, or back on the treadmill, try an app like Nike Run Club or Asics Studio that offers free, guided runs. These are usually accompanied by music and a coach supplying instruction and motivation. Both apps have runs for beginners and more advanced runners looking for speed workouts or intervals. A little extra motivation can go a long way.
Indoor Biking Apps
Miss biking outdoors and not looking to buy a stationary bike? You can purchase bike rollers or an indoor bike trainer, allowing you to safely ride your outdoor bike indoors. Add an app to make things more entertaining than starting at your living room wall. Rouvy has virtual routes and challenges like riding the Ironman Australia route, complete with elevation maps and video from the course. You can also join a virtual world and ride with Zwift, with “live” rides in which you can join athletes from across the globe. Rouvy charges $12 per month, while Zwift costs $14.99 per month.
Yoga With Adriene
If you are looking for a no-frills yoga class that feels like it’s tailored to you, look no further than Yoga with Adriene, from Adriene Mishler, who The New York Times Magazine called “the reigning queen of pandemic yoga.” On YouTube, Mishler has created free yoga for writers and yoga for chefs, yoga for runners and yoga for travelers, yoga for equestrians and yoga for surfers, and a recent video titled “Yoga for When You Feel Dead Inside.” She also has 30-day yoga “journeys.”
Peloton — With or Without Equipment
Sure, you’ve heard of Peloton’s bike and treadmill. But the company also has a slate of classes and programs on its app for those looking to stay in shape at home without a big investment in hardware. You can sort through strength programs for those that require specific equipment (classes that use resistance bands, for example) or choose ones that don’t require any equipment whatsoever. The app offers a $12.99 monthly digital membership.
Peloton is one of the largest and most-established players in the at-home fitness industry, and its teachers understand the challenges of working out wherever you can find the space. It’s not uncommon to hear an instructor remind participants to find a spot where they can stretch their arms out safely, without knocking anything (or anyone) over.
Miss being able to sample boutique fitness classes? The Obé Fitness app has numerous classes available on demand, but one of its greatest strengths is the diversity of live classes. The classes, taught by many instructors recognized by devotees of New York City’s boutique fitness scene, are filmed in pastel studios that resemble squares of an Instagram page. On any given day, there’s some combination of Pilates classes and dance classes, cardio boxing, yoga sculpt, barre and strength. There app offers both annual subscriptions ($199) and monthly ones ($29.99).
Have a Workout Type in Mind? Turn to YouTube
If you have an idea of what you are looking for — be it a 10-minute core workout, a 15-minute prenatal stretching routine or a 30 minute body-weight class — many of your best options can be found for free on YouTube. The hard part is sorting through the embarrassment of riches, so be prepared to find thousands of results that could prove effective.
In what is probably the definitive word on how little exercise we can get away with, a new study finds that a mere four seconds of intense intervals, repeated until they amount to about a minute of total exertion, lead to rapid and meaningful improvements in strength, fitness and general physical performance among middle-aged and older adults.
The study relied on a type of specialized stationary bicycle that is not widely available, but, even so, the results suggest that strenuous but super-abbreviated workouts can produce outsize benefits for our health and well-being, a timely message as we plan our New Year’s exercise resolutions.
I have often written about the potential benefits of brief, high-intensity interval training, or H.I.I.T., an approach to exercise that consists of quick spurts of draining physical effort, followed by rest, with the sequence repeated multiple times. In studies, short H.I.I.T. workouts typically produce health gains that are equal to or more pronounced than much longer, gentler workouts.
But the ideal length of the intervals in these workouts has been unsettled. Researchers studying H.I.I.T. agree that the optimal interval span should stress our muscles and other bodily systems enough to jump-start potent physiological changes but not so much that we groan, give up and decline to try that workout ever again. In practice, those dueling goals have led H.I.I.T. scientists to study intervals ranging from a protracted four minutes to a quickie 20 seconds.
But Ed Coyle, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas in Austin, and his graduate assistant Jakob Allen suspected that even 20-second spurts, performed intensely, might exceed some exercisers’ tolerance. So, he decided to start looking for the shortest possible interval that was still effective.
And in the new study, which was published this week in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, he and his colleagues settled on a blink-swift four seconds.
They arrived at that number by first working with competitive athletes at the university’s human performance lab. Muscular and fit, the athletes generated enormous speed and power on specialized stationary bicycles that feature a heavy flywheel and no resistance. During fitness testing on these bikes, most of the athletes would reach their maximum power output and all-out aerobic effort after about two seconds of hard pedaling. (Dr. Coyle has equity in the company that manufactures the bicycles, but says this monetary involvement does not affect research results from his lab.)
The rest of us, Dr. Coyle and his colleagues reasoned, probably would require twice as long — or about four seconds. By that point, the researchers thought, most people should have massively stimulated their muscles and aerobic systems but not yet exhausted them. If the riders then rested for a minute or so before sprinting again, they should be able to repeat the all-out efforts again and again.
To test that idea, the researchers turned initially to eight healthy college students, asking them to sprint on the bikes for four seconds periodically throughout the day, to see if these short, strenuous workouts would counteract some of the undesirable metabolic effects of sitting all day and eating poorly. They did, as I wrote about in April.
But that study focused on robust, young adults and repeated, if diminutive, workouts sprinkled throughout the day. The scientists now wondered if a more practical, single session of four-second sprints would be enough exercise to improve health and fitness in out-of-shape adults well past their college years.
So, they recruited 39 of them, men and women aged 50 to 68 who were sedentary but had no other major health concerns. They tested the volunteers’ current aerobic fitness, muscular power and mass, arterial flexibility, and ability to perform what are called “activities of daily living,” such as getting up out of a chair.
The volunteers began visiting the performance lab three times a week. There, they completed a brief workout of repeated four-second intervals on the lab’s specialized bikes. At first, they sprinted for four seconds, with Dr. Allen calling out a second-by-second countdown, followed by 56 seconds of rest, repeating that sequence 15 times, for a total of 60 seconds of intervals.
Over two months, though, the riders’ rest periods declined to 26 seconds and they increased their total number of sprints to 30 per session.
At the end of eight weeks, the scientists retested everyone and found substantial differences. On average, riders had increased their fitness by about 10 percent, gained considerable muscle mass and strength in their legs, reduced the stiffness of their arteries and outperformed their previous selves in activities of daily living, all from about three to six minutes a week of actual exercise.
A majority of the volunteers also told the researchers during follow-up interviews that they enjoyed the workouts and would continue them, if possible, Dr. Coyle said.
The upshot, he said, is that these intervals, despite being as brief as possible, effectively boosted health and fitness in ordinary adults.
Of course, most of us do not have access to the kind of specialized stationary bicycles used in this study. Nor do we have a researcher helpfully hollering out four-second countdowns for us. To reach similar, all-out efforts in more typical workouts, Dr. Coyle said, we might need to sprint up a hill or staircase as hard as possible or run and jump in place vigorously or furiously pedal our spin bike.
In these situations, the time needed to achieve all-out effort is likely to be more than four seconds, he said. But even if the time commitment is doubled, most of us probably could resolve to exercise in 2021 often and intensely for eight seconds at a time.
As any parent overseeing homeschool knows: Zoom P.E. is hardly a hard-driving Peloton class. It’s more like your kid lying on the floor of the living room doing halfhearted leg-lifts by the light of her laptop.
Many students, particularly tweens and teens, are not moving their bodies as much as they are supposed to be — during a pandemic or otherwise. (60 minutes per day for ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) A March 2020 report in The Lancet offers scientific evidence as to why your kids won’t get off the couch: As children move through adolescence, they indeed become more sedentary, which is associated with greater risk of depression by the age of 18. Being physically active is important for their physical health as well as mental health.
Yet with many organized team sports on hiatus and athletic fields, playgrounds and climbing gyms closed or restricted to smaller groups during shorter hours, what’s an increasingly lazy child to do? More accurately: What’s a mother or father of an increasingly lazy child to do?
Many parents are taking charge, finding informal and creative ways to entice their isolated tweens and teens off their screens and outside — with others, safely. To get your own younger ones moving, here are a few ideas from families around the country, all almost-guaranteed hits, even with winter coming.
A SENSE OF CAMARADERIE
Start a small running club.
In San Francisco, under rain, fog or blue skies (or even the infamous orange one), a group of sixth graders have been gathering in Golden Gate Park two times a week to run two miles. Their unofficial motto: “Safe Distance, Minimal Distance.” Masks are required and photo breaks are frequent, as is post-run ice cream. Started on a whim by local parents in late-August, the club has been such a hit, attracting anywhere from six to 20 kids each run, that some occasionally call for a third afternoon per week, even a 7 a.m. before-school meet-up (in which case they serve doughnuts). But treats are not the ultimate draw.
“I like the experience of being with my peers and actually doing something, all at the same time,” 11-year-old Henry Gersick said. “Instead of just sitting there.”
IT’S COOL ON TIKTOK
Jump! Jump! Jump!
One of the most accessible, inexpensive, socially distanced sports is something you may not even realize is a sport. Since the pandemic began, jump-roping has become “a TikTok craze,” according to Nick Woodard, a 14-time world-champion jump-roper and founder of Learnin’ the Ropes, a program designed to teach kids and adults the joy of jumping. “All you need is time, some space and a $5 jump rope, and you’re good to go,” Mr. Woodard said.
Based in Bowling Green, Ky., Mr. Woodard and his wife, Kaylee (a six-time world champion in her own right), have been leading virtual workshops for children as young as 6, from Malaysia to Germany. A 30-minute class costs $35 for one child, and includes spiderwalk warmups, instruction, and challenges. (How many jumps can you do in 30 seconds?)
“They have so much fun, they don’t even realize they’re getting exercise,” Ms. Woodard said. But a selling point right now is that jumping rope — unlike team sports — is something you can do together, apart.
A DOSE OF ADVENTURE
Take a hike with family and a friend.
“My kids are reluctant to do anything outdoors, unless we’re meeting up with another family, then they’re totally into it!” said Ginny Yurich, founder of 1000 Hours Outside, a family-run Instagram account with over 112,000 followers that challenges youth to spend an average of 2.7 hours a day outdoors per year. “Make sure you have food, a first-aid kit and friends — friends are the linchpin,” she said. (Masks, too.)
Ms. Yurich, a Michigan mother of five, drags her children on day hikes, yes, but also on evening lantern-lit hikes, rainy hikes and snowy walks. She was inspired, she said, by the 2017 book “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” by the Swedish-American author-blogger Linda McGurk, who espouses the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv, or “open-air living.” For Ms. Yurich and Ms. McGurk, experiencing the outdoors is paramount to children’s development and well-being.
If you prefer not to pod during the pandemic, follow the lead of Dave Rubenstein, a father of two in Lawrence, Kan., by enacting “Forced Family Fun Time.”
“We call it F.F.F.T.,” Mr. Rubenstein said of the weekly activity. “It usually involves a hike around the lake in town, but it could be any outdoor activity teenagers typically hate. And if they complain, the punishment is more F.F.F.T.”
EXPERIENCING COMMUNITY — AND FREEDOM
Form a friendly neighborhood bike gang.
“Kids are biking like never before,” said Jon Solomon, a spokeman for the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, the nonprofit’s initiative to help build healthy communities through sports. Over the year, leisure bike sales grew 203 percent year over year, he said.
In one neighborhood in Denver, one neighbor has opened up a half-mile dirt bike track on his property to all the kids on the block. Wyatt Isgrig, 14, and his friends tackle it often by mountain bike, scooter or motorized dirt bike.
Ali Freedman, a mother of two in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, has loved watching children of all ages on her street playing together. “Every day around 3:30 p.m., kids we never knew before Covid come biking by our house asking ‘Can you play?’” Ms. Freedman said.
The young crew all wear masks — “Moms have a text thread going to check on enforcement when masks become chin diapers,” said Ms. Freedman, who peers out the window every so often — and best of all: “They stay out until dinner.”
CREATING SOMETHING NEW, TOGETHER
Invent your own game.
In a September survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University in response to the coronavirus pandemic, 71 percent of parents said “individual games” (like shooting baskets solo) were the form of sport with the highest comfort level for their kids, followed by classic neighborhood pickup games like basketball or tennis.
But inventing your own game has its own rewards. One otherwise boring day in suburban Maryland, Mr. Solomon and his son, 11, came up with something they call hock-ball. It involves a hockey stick and a tennis ball and an empty sidewalk or street.
Mr. Solomon attempted to explain. “You roll the tennis ball like a kickball — it could be smooth, or slow, or bouncy — and the person with the stick tries to hit it past the pitcher, then runs back and forth to home plate.” There are points and innings and it’s apparently fun for all ages. “Only problem is, the ball inevitably rolls under a parked car, ” Mr. Solomon said.
A (COLD) SURGE OF HOMETOWN PRIDE
Bundle up for snow yoga.
In Milwaukee, where daily high temperatures in winter often hover below freezing, Kendra Cheng said her seventh grader will be doing much of the same as she did over the summer, only wearing more clothes: kickball, trampoline tag or even “water-skiing on land” — which calls for two kids, a broken hammer, a rope, and Rollerblades (or cross-country skis).
But the hot new thing in Ms. Cheng’s neighborhood, she said, will be snow yoga, led by a certified yogi friend. Once it starts snowing, 10 to 20 people will gather twice a week at a safe distance in a private backyard with a backdrop of Lake Michigan. “In Wisconsin, we love the cold,” Ms. Cheng said. “We love snowpants. We love barely being able to move because we have five layers on. And we’re all excited to do downward dog outdoors to create our sweat.”
If all else fails, bribe them.
Pay your kid — a dollar, a quarter, a penny — per minute to walk the pandemic puppy you just got.
“It gets them out of the house and out of my hair — and they earn some money,” said Murray Isgrig, parent of Wyatt in Denver. “Even though they don’t have anywhere to spend it.”
Credit Getty Images
In the Tour de France, equipping your bike with a small electric motor is called mechanical doping, and is considered cheating. But for the rest of us, an electrified bicycle might be a way to make exercise both tolerable and practical, according to an encouraging new study of bicycle commuting.
Exercise is necessary in our lives, as we all know by now. People who are physically active are much less likely than sedentary people to develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, depression, disabilities in old age, or to die prematurely.
But statistics show that, despite its benefits, a majority of us never exercise. When researchers ask why, most people offer the same two excuses — they don’t have time to fit exercise into their lives or they aren’t fit enough to undertake exercise.
Potentially, electric bicycles could address those concerns. Their motors shore up your pedaling as needed—or, with some electric bikes, do the pedaling for you—making climbing hills or riding for long distances less taxing and daunting than the same ride on a standard bicycle.
In the process, they could make cycling a palatable alternative to commuting by car, allowing people with jammed daily schedules to work out while getting to work.
But the value of electric bicycles has so far been mostly notional. Few of us have seen, let alone ridden, an electric bike and there is scant scientific evidence supporting—or refuting—the potential health benefits of using the machines.
So for the new experiment, which was published last month in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, decided to see what would happen if they gave a group of out-of-shape men and women zippy electric bikes and suggested that they begin riding to work.
Notably, the researchers only studied motorized bikes that assist the rider rather than doing all the work for them, like a moped. They used electric bikes that require the rider to pedal in order to receive assistance from the motor.
The researchers wanted to determine whether these bikes — even with the added assistance of a motor — would provide a meaningful workout for people who previously had not been exercising much. They also wanted to see whether such bikes were fundamentally safe, given that they enable even novice riders to achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour or higher. (The Boulder city government partially funded the study as part of an assessment of whether to allow electric bikes on municipal bike paths. Additional funding came from local bike shops and Skratch Labs, a sports nutrition company in Boulder.)
The researchers first brought their 20 sedentary volunteers into the lab to check their body composition, aerobic fitness, blood sugar control, blood pressure and cholesterol profiles. Then they provided each with an electric bicycle, heart rate monitor, GPS device, instructions on the use of all of this equipment, and asked each volunteer to don the monitors and ride his or her new bike to and from work at least three times a week for the next month, spending at least 40 minutes in the saddle on those days.
The volunteers were directed to choose whatever speed and effort felt comfortable for them.
Then the researchers loosed the novice riders onto Boulder’s roads and bike paths.
A month later, the volunteers returned to the lab to repeat the original tests and turn over heart rate and GPS data. All of them had ridden at least the prescribed minimum of 40 minutes three times per week and in fact, according to their monitor data, most had ridden more than required, several about 50 percent more.
The riders also had ridden with some intensity. Their heart rates averaged about 75 percent of each person’s maximum, meaning that even with the motor assist, they were getting a moderate workout, comparable to brisk walking or an easy jog.
But thankfully none had crashed and hurt themselves (or anyone else). In fact, “we found that participants rode at a reasonable average speed of about 12 miles per hour,” said James Peterman, a graduate student at U.C. Boulder who led the study.
Perhaps most important, the riders were healthier and more fit now, with significantly greater aerobic fitness, better blood sugar control, and, as a group, a trend toward less body fat.
They also reported finding the riding to “be a blast,” said William Byrnes, the study’s senior author and director of the university’s Applied Exercise Science Laboratory. “It’s exercise that is fun.”
Several participants have bought electric bikes since the study ended, he said. He also rides an electric bike to and from campus.
Electric bikes are unlikely to be a solution for everyone who is pressed for time or reluctant to exercise, though. The bikes are pricey, typically retailing for thousands of dollars.
They also offer less of a workout than non-motorized bicycles. Mr. Peterman, an accomplished bike racer who placed fifth in the time trial at the United States National Cycling Championships last week admits that motorized bicycles are unlikely to goose the fitness of well-trained athletes.
But for the many other people who currently do not exercise or have never considered bike commuting, there is much to be said for knowing that, if needed, you can get a little help pedaling up that next hill.
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