Review of Horizon: The Truth About Exercise presented by Michael Mosley (BBC2 28th Feb 2012)


I have just watched a really interesting programme.  It had claimed that it was going to radically alter what we have believed for decades about exercising.  In fact, 3 minutes exercise a week is enough to achieve significant health benefits.   A strong claim,   I had to give it a watch.

It started off by pointing out something that is pretty widely known, but which still surprises some people when you suggest it to them. Exercise is a rubbish way of losing weight. There are two problems. The first is that most forms of exercise, jogging or cycling for example, don’t actually burn that many calories more than you burn just sitting down. For example it would take about an hour of circuit training to burn the calories in a coffee with sugar, a cake and a banana. But even then, having burnt off only the equivalent of a light snack it has depleted your blood sugar significantly so you feel hungry. In addition, psychologically you feel you have earned a reward. So you allow yourself a light snack, say a coffee, a cake and a banana. You have spent an hour and achieved nothing towards reducing your weight.

Oh dear.

But it turns out that while all of us have no trouble understanding that we are looking a bit more comfortable around the waist than we would like to, it isn’t the fat that we can see that is most dangerous to our health. The fat deeper in our bodies isn’t unsightly, but it is the fat that makes us more prone to heart attacks and diabetes. It is also possible to have dangerous levels of internal fat without significant levels of the more visible type. The presenter, Michael Mosley was a good example. He looked sprightly enough, but was particularly laden with internal fat. On being tested for his insulin response, he was just on the healthy side of the level for being classed as a diabetic.

But like most of us, he was not keen on exercise and found the idea of spending time in the gym highly unappealing. As 80% of the population take no exercise at all, he is obviously in good company. But it turns out that going to the gym might not be required after all. There are two new techniques that enable you to get a lot of the benefit of a work out without spending anything like the amount of time that would take.

The first is to do 1 minute of intense exercise three times a week. Just one minute, but that minute is extremely intense and flat out. Amazingly enough, this is enough to stimulate enzymes to be created that transfer glucose from the fat reserves to the muscles. It does sound a bit too good to be true on the one hand. And on the other, 1 minute is actually quite a long time. Although hours can vanish from your day if you go on Twitter ( or mine can anyway) a minute of intense exercise would be enough to trigger a heart attack if you are prone to one, so it was good that they gave out a warning to take medical advice if you have any health issue before trying it.

The other technique is to simply be more active while going about your normal day. They monitored the presenter, a barmaid and a fitness enthusiast office worker. The presenter was by far the most sedentary. The monitors attached to him were not troubled to record a huge amound of movement. The barmaid by contrast was continually on the go and clocked up a huge amount of energy usage. The office worker’s chart was mixed. He managed to get a lot of activity in the short bursts that his job allowed him, and topped up in the evening with running and jumping and stuff, but he still didn’t match the barmaid. So can people with sedentary life styles increase the amount of exercise they get? The presenter managed to get an extra 500 calories burnt in a day when he just tried to move around more, so the answer would seem to be yes.

An expert from the Mayo Clinic was clear that increasing your level of general activity could do a better job of increasing your general levels of fitness than going to a gym regularly would. He wasn’t knocking the gym, just saying that it was only one way to keep in trim and not necessarily the best one. He said that ideally you should take some exercise every hour. The chair, he said, was the real killer.

The programme seems to have been a bit hurried, because the research had been based on a six week plan but for they only did it for four weeks. They started by measuring his insulin response and his cardiovascular fitness. The presenter duly did the 3 minutes of exercise every week for 4 weeks. On retesting it turned out that his insulin resistance had declined by 23%, a remarkable achievement.  He had actually pulled back from becoming diabetic in only month, and with the expenditure of only 12 minutes of his time in that month.

There was no really significant improvement in his cardiovascular score.  But this, it turned out, could be explained as well.  It turns out that not everybody responds to exercise in the same way.  For some  people, it is hugely beneficial.  Others get much less out of it, and a small proportion don’t respond at all.  And the genetic basis for this has been determined.  They had done a genetic test on Mosley beforehand, and had already marked him out as a non-responder.  But even with this, the insulin benefits were enough for him to vow to keep going with the regime.  He has also resolved to have a more active approach to his life as well, with the intention of reducing the internal fat deposits that potentially might lead him into an earlier grave.

All in all, a fascinating programme.  I will certainly mull it over.

I would love to hear your comments on the idea.

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Postscript:  Here is the BBC’s synopsis of the Truth about Exercise

Further Postscript: I am doing an experiment to see what effect this exercise regime has on me.


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