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 one 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.

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.

13 thoughts on “Review of Horizon: The Truth About Exercise presented by Michael Mosley (BBC2 28th Feb 2012)”

  1. Hi Colin,

    I could rant all day about this subject as I have seen a marked change in the way my body (and fat levels) have changed over time (age and baby carrying). I was always ‘slight’ and some may would have called me skinny. I have also always been one to fidget and I never kept still as a child. When I had my first child I lost the baby weight in about a week and then gradually put on more… and then some more – even though I was breastfeeding – they say it helps! But I was sitting around relaxing a lot of the time so that would explain that. I work in a large hosptial and within about 2 months of going back I lost about 1.5 stone – I put this down to rushing to my designated ward which was about 7 minutes brisk walk away and doing this a few times a day. That was the only change I could see that was responsible to the drastic weight loss. The weight loss plataued after that I am glad to say. I have in the past gone to the gym – I went for 6 weeks for over an hour and lost absolutely no weight. I would be inclined to agree that small bursts of energy and small changes may be better than the gym – which is also mind numbingly boring at the best of times!

    Incidently, have you heard of the barker theory – the guy basically says that the lower your birthweight as a child the more likely you are to develop diabetes and heart disease. You can check his theory out It is very interesting. Also, there is the theory of the Fat/thin indian – some scientists in India (following from Barker) identified that many Indians look thin on the outside however they carry a lot more body fat in ratio to muscle and a lot of fat on the smooth muscles like the heart/liver etc. I think they charted some people from birth and found that their European counterpart – of same weight and height had significantly less body fat. Also, when growing up the Indian children in the study had signs of early resistence to insulin which was an indicator of diabetes in later life. The Fat/Thin Indian proved that the barker theory may actually be fact as the Indian children were of a low birth weight and lacked basic macro nutrience in the womb.

    Sorry for rambling.

    1. Rant away Rebecca! The Barker theory looks interesting – thanks for letting me know about it. I hadn’t come across it. It certainly sounds believable enough, though it is a bit depressing for people who are already grown if they discover the damage was done before they were even born.

  2. Hi Colin,

    Exercise certainly isn’t ‘a rubbish way to lose weight’ – incorrect or poorly structured exercise is.

    The problem is that 99% of the gym going public are not aware of how they should be exercising – their exercise programmes are old fashioned and out of date.

    A combination of mobility work, resistance training, cardio (HIT and steady state) and a nutritious diet will facilitate weight loss. A carefully structured resistance training plan will also help alleviate postural issues caused by sitting all day.

    If you’re not enjoying the exercise plan you’re undertaking – you need to change it – exercising should be fun!


    1. Thanks for your comment Liam. I maintain that exercising burns calories, but if you simply eat more to replace those calories you won’t lose any weight at all. I used to vary my amount of exercise considerably, by a couple of thousand calories per week. My weight remained constant. But I am not knocking exercise by any means. I just don’t think it will make you any thinner.

    2. And for anyone who is interested, the review Liam links to in his comment is well worth a look for another perspective on the Horizon programme. It is a straight forward discussion from a trainer’s point of view and very easy to understand.

  3. The key is to be strict with your diet 90% of the time – the other 10% of the time you can eat what you like, within reason!

    The other critical point is to eat nutrient rich food that is low in calories – this way you get all of the good things your body needs while being able to maintain a calorie deficit, and therefore lose weight.

    Your goal, whether it’s weight gain/weight loss/maintenance depends on the balance between calories in vs calories out.

    Stay strong!


    1. I’d love to get into a good argument, but we seem to agree. Being strict with your diet is the key if you want to lose weight. I’d say that being fit, in the sense of being able to move around without losing your breath and having enough energy to enjoy yourself, is more important than being a certain weight or shape.

  4. How many blogs do you have Perry? That is a great video and I recommend everyone to follow the link. I am working up to 30 minutes jogging a day at the moment – I used to cycle to work and regardless of the health benefits, which seem pretty well established, I just feel happier when I have that amount of moderate exercise. I am doing the high intensity experiment on top of that to see if it brings any extra benefits.

  5. Hi Colin,
    I’m very interested to know how you have got on with the high intensity experiment particularly as i used to be a county standard distance-runner who employed a mixture of training methods in order to achieve peak fitness. I have had over 30 years experience of working-out and the first thing to report is that i’m alive and well!
    There were a number of things from the programme which had me vocalising anglo-saxon expletives, but i thought it raised some important points as well-notably the issue of internal “invisible” fat being potentially dangerous.
    Where the programme fell down was in the area of exercise physiology. Firstly, the attraction of the high-intensity workout was one of time-saving. However, there was no clarity about warm-up time, or mention of how long the whole exercise took to complete from stepping on to the bike to getting off.Mention was made,very casually, about “warming-up for a bit.” How long did he advocate exactly? The whole point of a warm-up is to increase blood circulation to PREPARE the muscles for work. Most literature on the subject suggests AT LEAST 5mins of light aerobic activity. Professional track and field athletes will do anything between 20mins-60mins, depending on their event. One of the main reasons for the warm-up is to ensure avoidance of injury which can occur when muscles are asked to perform high-intensity efforts in a “cold”state. Apart from which, doing hard efforts when not warm feels like a shock to the system-not very enjoyable. Some of my best sessions have been when i GRADUALLY increased the pace so that by the end i felt like i was flying with no pain!In the programme there was a graphic example of what happens when you start sprinting with no warm-up, but Michael gave the impression that you could leap on a bike and get stuck in straight away…you can still strain muscles on a bike! So if you do 5mins warmup,followed by the session of 3×20 secs(with recovery in between each repetition-again length not discussed)and finish with a warm-down(not advocated at all)by my calculations you have a total time of about 12mins, give or take. Yes, it’s about 40% of a 30min workout but if you can spare 12mins you can easily spare 30! In terms of calorie burning,it is important to realise that high intensity work will not burn more calories than the equivalent time spent WORKING CONTINOUSLY AT A GOOD PACE. So if you do the 12min session as above you will not burn more than if you do 15mins AT A GOOD PACE.By that i mean a speed which gets your heart-rate to 70-75% of your max. I see too many people putting in next to no effort for 30mins. I repeat,70-75% of your maximum heart-rate.
    In the programme, mention was made of Michael’s lack of aerobic improvement after the tests. This was because he was exercising ANAEROBICALLY in the high intensity workout, not aerobically. If he had worked aerobically(continous even-pace) his aerobic capacity would have improved and hence his cardio-vascular would have as well. EVERYONE can improve their aerobic ability,especially if they start an exercise regime. Anyone who does a little exercise from scratch will see a change-what people find difficult is to maintain a consistent exercise programme…
    This would not be complete without reference to diet…Liam is absolutely right to talk about calorie input v output. The long and short of it is most of us in the western world over-estimate how much we need to eat. Some years ago, Kenyan distance-runners used to stay with British runners before races in Europe. They couldn’t believe the amount of food our boys were putting away…
    I believe the sedentary culture that pervades our society, the calorific content of easy available take-away foods and the lost work ethic of the post world war generation is no help.But the buck stops with us-each and everyone can control how much you eat-unless you have a medical condition which prevents this. Sugar is considerd by some to be a poison-i’m talking about the refined ones not the natural ones. Once you give your body “bad” sugars, your body craves more of the same.
    Finally(!) going back to exercise regimes, the trick is to do BOTH aerobic and anaerobic(high intensity)in about equal amounts, keep challenging the body GRADUALLY and watch what you put in your mouth(and when-but that’s another story which i will gladly ramble on about!)

  6. This is an irresponsible opinion on exercise and permission given to the lazy ones to continue to avoid expending any real energy to better their health.

    1. @Lisa What do you base the idea that expending real energy is the key to better health? (This is a genuine request for information, I am not disagreeing with you.)

  7. Early this year I decide to have bariatric surgery to have the gastric sleeve done so for the last two month I ‘ve been hitting the gym 4- 6 days a week. Working with a fitness trainner 1 day a week. Eating less than 1000 calories a day documenting my food intake of I’m in desperately need of help, I ve done the extreme in having surgery to lose weight but the weight is not come off.
    I have the trainer telling me I’m not eating enough to loss the weight and the doctor tell me to stick with their program to eat 6 small meals every three hours. I do believe that eat small meal will help speed up my metabolism but it is so frustrating to eat less then 900 calories workout in the gym and not lose pounds. In the beginning, when I hit the gym I was losing a pound every other day, that lasted one week, week two I lost 2 pound than week three I gain 8 pounds. I need help please, I willing to do anything to get this weigh off, please help me. I’m at my ends

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