6 Seconds of Exercise can (Apparently) Transform Your Health

stop-watch timing 6 secondsI read an article recently that suggested (based on a study done in Scotland) that 6 seconds of high-intensity exercise can transform the health of older people, who generally lead less active lives.

I have always been sceptical of ideas such as this, and here’s why:

In ancient times humans did not exercise in 6-second bursts, unless they were being chased by a hairy mammal. And in that case the length of their exercise would have been somewhat longer than 6 seconds.

No. Humans in ancient times roamed, hunted, were themselves hunted, ate and slept. Humans were constantly on the move, and that’s how our metabolisms developed.

For proof of how our metabolisms today are little changed from thousands of years ago, look at the stress response – the fight or flee syndrome.

Our bodies today generate the same physiological response to stressful situations as they did centuries ago when faced with acute danger: they secrete large amounts of adrenaline and tense the same muscles as they prepare to fight or flee from the danger (which could be the boss or the bank manager today!).

I’m not a doctor, but simple common sense tells me that to ask elderly people to exercise to their limit for 6 seconds, then rest and repeat the process, will put more strain on their hearts than doing steady exercise, enough to raise the heart rate a bit and generate a small sweat, for 10 minutes.

I do a lot of hiking in the mountains here in Hong Kong. When I first started, and I wasn’t as fit as I am now, I made the mistake of starting long climbs too fast. The result was that I’d have to stop on the way up to rest and catch my breath before resuming my climb.

The problem with that was that my heart rate dropped during my rest breaks and, because of that, resuming my climb was doubly difficult. My heart simply wasn’t circulating enough blood and oxygen, quickly enough, to the parts of my body that needed them, to deal with the climb.

That meant that my second stint was usually shorter than my initial stint and, every time I stopped, the succeeding stint got shorter.

And all the time my heart rate was going from a ‘hell-for-leather’ rate down to near normal resting pace and then back up again.

What I learnt in those days was that if I started my climb at a much slower pace I didn’t need to stop and my heart rate remained constant until I got to the top.

And even though I started the climb at a much slower pace I always made it to the top more quickly and more easily than if I’d started at my normal pace and had to rest on the way up.

I find the same in simple everyday situations: if I’ve been sitting in an office chair and then decide to take the stairs to the next floor to see someone, my heart rate goes from ‘resting’ to ‘frantic’ in a relatively short space of time – and it doesn’t feel good.

No. My own experience tells me that asking old people to push their heart rate from resting to flat out and back to resting again, and then repeat the process a number of times, just doesn’t make sense.

Human beings aren’t made that way.

Anyway – you can make up your own mind. Here’s the link to the article (you’ll need to be patient – it’s the BBC website which takes an age to load): click here.


Martin Malden
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