Physical Exercise for EAs – Why and How

Key-points

This post aims to give ev­i­dence-based recom­men­da­tions on phys­i­cal ex­er­cise for EAs.

Why ex­er­cise?

Ex­er­cise can en­hance pro­duc­tivity (and thus im­pact) of EAs in two ways:

  • Acute en­hance­ment of cog­ni­tive perfor­mance.
  • Medium and long-term im­prove­ment of phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

How to ex­er­cise?

  • Moder­ate and/​or vi­gor­ous in­ten­sity “car­dio” ex­er­cise for at least 20 min­utes per day on at least 3 days per week is recom­mended.

  • Ad­di­tion­ally, re­sis­tance ex­er­cise (~ 3 x 10 rep­e­ti­tions with high in­ten­sity) for each of the ma­jor mus­cle groups should be performed on 2-3 days per week (can be com­bined with car­dio).

  • Im­ple­men­ta­tion ex­am­ple: Daily ac­tive com­mut­ing (fast walk­ing or rid­ing bi­cy­cle for a to­tal of ~ 30 min per day) and a twice-per-week visit to the gym (re­sis­tance ex­er­cise with ini­tial su­per­vi­sion by a fit­ness-pro­fes­sional).


Introduction

I am an ex­er­cise sci­en­tist. My re­search fo­cuses on the sys­temic phys­iol­ogy in en­durance ath­letes and I am the ex­er­cise phys­iol­o­gist of the Swiss Olympic team. In this role, I have got­ten in touch with spec­tac­u­larly many and wildly differ­ent an­swers to the ques­tion “what is the best train­ing strat­egy for max­i­mal perfor­mance benefit?” Even in the elite sports do­main (or maybe es­pe­cially in the elite sports do­main) there is much quack­ery go­ing on when it comes to pre­scribing ex­er­cise. It is, for ex­am­ple, far more com­mon for ath­letes and coaches to sim­ply copy the fancy-look­ing train­ing reg­i­men from suc­cess­ful ath­letes’ blogs than to look at the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for these in­ter­ven­tions. The ac­tual ev­i­dence on train­ing for high perfor­mance, re­gret­tably, is much less fancy (and also much less spe­cific) than the av­er­age blog post may sug­gest…

I think the same might ap­ply for the facet of ex­er­cise that is in­ter­est­ing for EAs—namely ex­er­cise to en­hance pro­duc­tivity and thus im­pact. Although there has been some dis­cus­sion on ex­er­cise in the com­mu­nity (e.g. here), I think it is fair to say that sports and ex­er­cise are not the most thor­oughly re­searched top­ics within EA.

Let me, there­fore, lay out in this post what I think are un­con­tro­ver­sial and ev­i­dence-based pieces of ad­vice about the effect of ex­er­cise on health and pro­duc­tivity. Or: Why and how should EAs ex­er­cise?


Why ex­er­cise?

The sci­en­tific ev­i­dence is in­dis­putable: En­gag­ing in reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ex­er­cise and re­duc­ing seden­tary be­hav­ior is vi­tal for the health of adults. The most im­por­tant find­ings as­so­ci­ated with ex­er­cise in­clude:

  • De­creased risk of coro­nary heart dis­ease, stroke and type 2 diabetes

  • De­creased risk of colon and breast cancer

  • Preven­tion of and im­prove­ment in de­pres­sive di­s­or­ders and anxiety

  • Im­prove­ments in body com­po­si­tion and strength

  • En­hance­ment in feel­ing of “en­ergy” and qual­ity of life as well as de­creased fa­tigue.

  • En­hance­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tion as well as lower risk of cog­ni­tive de­cline and dementia

In fact, it is hard to think of a health-re­lated vari­able that is not af­fected by phys­i­cal ex­er­cise in a pos­i­tive way. Ex­er­cise re­ally is medicine…

I think this is also rele­vant to us EAs. More speci­fi­cally, I see two ways in which ex­er­cise can help us en­hance our pro­duc­tivity and thereby our im­pact:

  • First, im­me­di­ately af­ter and also dur­ing light- to mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise, cog­ni­tive perfor­mance is (slightly) en­hanced. Con­se­quently, one can ex­pect bet­ter cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing not only af­ter an ex­er­cise ses­sion or af­ter an ac­tive break but also dur­ing light ex­er­cise as for ex­am­ple a stroll.

  • Se­cond, and more im­por­tantly, medium- and long-term men­tal and phys­i­cal health very clearly benefit from phys­i­cal ex­er­cise. This means, one can ex­pect bet­ter long-term pro­duc­tivity and im­pact when ex­er­cis­ing reg­u­larly be­cause one will sim­ply be healthier.

So the case seems clear: We need to ex­er­cise reg­u­larly. But how much is enough to get the health benefits? And how is ex­er­cise done right?


How to ex­er­cise?

Recommendations

The available ev­i­dence sup­ports a dose–re­sponse re­la­tion­ship be­tween phys­i­cal ac­tivity and health vari­ables, such that greater benefits are as­so­ci­ated with higher vol­umes of ex­er­cise. Even if the ex­act shape of the dose–re­sponse curve is not clear, it is rea­son­able to say ‘‘some ex­er­cise is good; more is bet­ter.’’ How­ever, as the dose-re­sponse curve most likely reaches a plateau or even re­verses at some point, we want to know the ex­er­cise dose that is high enough to get most of the health benefits and low enough not to be risky or very in­effi­cient.

So here they are, the recom­men­da­tions on phys­i­cal ex­er­cise for health:


Car­dio ex­er­cise (i.e. car­diores­pi­ra­tory or “aer­o­bic” ex­er­cise):

Type

  • Reg­u­lar, pur­pose­ful (i.e. be­yond ac­tivi­ties of daily liv­ing) ex­er­cise that in­volves ma­jor mus­cle groups and is con­tin­u­ous and rhyth­mic in na­ture is recom­mended.
    This can in­volve run­ning, cy­cling, swim­ming, row­ing, ball sports (e.g. foot­ball or ten­nis), group fit­ness (e.g. step aer­o­bics), etc. and should be cho­sen ac­cord­ing to per­sonal taste.

Intensity

  • Moder­ate and/​or vi­gor­ous in­ten­sity [1] is recom­mended.

  • Lower in­ten­si­ties may be benefi­cial in de­con­di­tioned per­sons.

  • High in­ten­sity ex­er­cise (in­ter­val or cir­cuit train­ing, e.g. like this) can yield larger phys­iolog­i­cal adap­ta­tions per train­ing ses­sion. How­ever, high in­ten­sity ex­er­cise is men­tally more de­mand­ing and may com­pro­mise ex­er­cise ad­her­ence in the long-term.

Vol­ume (= Time)

  • 30 – 60 min per day of mod­er­ate ex­er­cise, or 20 – 60 min per day of vi­gor­ous ex­er­cise (or a com­bi­na­tion of both) are recom­mended.

  • Smaller vol­umes can also be benefi­cial, es­pe­cially in pre­vi­ously seden­tary per­sons.

Frequency

  • ≥ 5 days per week of mod­er­ate ex­er­cise, or

  • ≥ 3 days per week of vi­gor­ous ex­er­cise, or

  • a com­bi­na­tion of mod­er­ate and vi­gor­ous ex­er­cise on ≥ 3–5 days per week

Pattern

  • Ex­er­cise may be performed in one (con­tin­u­ous) ses­sion per day or in mul­ti­ple ses­sions of ≥ 10 min to ac­cu­mu­late the de­sired du­ra­tion and vol­ume of ex­er­cise per day.

  • Ex­er­cise bouts of < 10 min may yield fa­vor­able adap­ta­tions in very de­con­di­tioned in­di­vi­d­u­als.

Progression

  • A grad­ual in­crease (i.e. over weeks to months) of ex­er­cise dose by ad­just­ing ex­er­cise du­ra­tion, fre­quency, and/​or in­ten­sity is rea­son­able un­til the de­sired ex­er­cise goal is at­tained.

  • This ap­proach may en­hance ad­her­ence and re­duce risks of mus­cu­loskele­tal in­jury and ad­verse coro­nary heart dis­ease events.


Re­sis­tance ex­er­cise:

Type

  • Re­sis­tance ex­er­cises in­volv­ing each ma­jor mus­cle group (i.e. chest, shoulders, back, hips/​glutes, legs, trunk and arms) are recom­mended.

  • A va­ri­ety of ex­er­cise equip­ment and/​or body weight can be used to perform these ex­er­cises. For ex­am­ple: Fixed re­sis­tance ma­chines, free weights or re­sis­tance (rub­ber) bands.

Intensity

  • 60%–70% of the 1RM (i.e. “one rep­e­ti­tion max­i­mum” [2]) (mod­er­ate to hard) for novice to in­ter­me­di­ate ex­er­cisers.

  • ≥ 80% of the 1RM (hard to very hard) for ex­pe­rienced strength train­ers.

  • 40%–50% of the 1RM (very light to light) for older and seden­tary per­sons.

Vol­ume (= Rep­e­ti­tions /​ Sets)

  • 8–12 rep­e­ti­tions are recom­mended to im­prove strength and power.

  • 10–15 rep­e­ti­tions are effec­tive in im­prov­ing strength in per­sons start­ing ex­er­cise.

  • Two to four sets (i.e. cy­cles of rep­e­ti­tions) are recom­mended to im­prove strength and power.

  • A sin­gle set of re­sis­tance ex­er­cise can be effec­tive es­pe­cially among older and novice ex­er­cisers.

Frequency

  • Each ma­jor mus­cle group should be trained on 2–3 days per week.

Pattern

  • Rest in­ter­vals of 2–3 min be­tween each set of rep­e­ti­tions are effec­tive.

  • A rest of ≥ 48 h be­tween ses­sions for any sin­gle mus­cle group is recom­mended.

Progression

  • A grad­ual pro­gres­sion (i.e. over weeks to months) of greater re­sis­tance, and/​or more rep­e­ti­tions per set, and/​or in­creas­ing fre­quency is recom­mended.


Fur­ther re­marks and caveats

  • Be aware that there is con­sid­er­able vari­abil­ity in in­di­vi­d­ual re­sponses to a stan­dard dose of ex­er­cise. How­ever, it is still rea­son­able to take the recom­men­da­tions given above as a start­ing point and, if nec­es­sary, adapt the ex­er­cise to one’s own prefer­ences and needs.

  • Ex­er­cise is im­por­tant for health – but it’s not the whole pic­ture. Ad­e­quate nu­tri­tion and sleep are also im­por­tant as well as pro­fes­sional med­i­cal at­ten­tion where needed.

  • There seem to be rele­vant sex differ­ences in some re­sponses to ex­er­cise. The recom­men­da­tions pre­sented above, how­ever, should be ap­pro­pri­ate for men and women.

  • Warm-up, cool down, flex­i­bil­ity ex­er­cise, and grad­ual pro­gres­sion of ex­er­cise vol­ume and in­ten­sity may re­duce the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease events and mus­cu­loskele­tal in­jury dur­ing ex­er­cise.

  • Su­per­vi­sion by an ex­pe­rienced health and fit­ness pro­fes­sional can re­duce risk and en­hance ex­er­cise ad­her­ence.

  • Moder­ate-in­ten­sity (in­stead of high in­ten­sity) ex­er­cise that is en­joy­able can en­hance the af­fec­tive re­sponses to ex­er­cise and may im­prove ad­her­ence.


Two prac­ti­cal ex­am­ples of a suffi­cient ex­er­cise routine

  • Marie com­mutes daily by bi­cy­cle to the chem­istry lab where she works. One way takes her ~15 min­utes. On top of that, on Tues­day evening and on Satur­day morn­ing, Marie vis­its the “Body­pump” group fit­ness class in her lo­cal gym with her friend Ros­al­ind.

  • Albert goes to the gym twice a week. There he does a 10 min warm-up on the row­ing ma­chine fol­lowed by a strength train­ing ses­sion (to which he was ini­tially in­tro­duced by a fit­ness pro­fes­sional) that in­volves all ma­jor mus­cle groups (3 hard sets of 8 reps each). He walks to the gym, which takes him 20 min per way. Ad­di­tion­ally, he jogs for 60 min with his friend Charles ev­ery Sun­day.


Conclusion

I have pre­sented ar­gu­ments as to the ne­ces­sity of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise for health and pro­duc­tivity. More­over, I have listed the ev­i­dence-based recom­men­da­tions on ex­er­cise for health and I have pro­vided spe­cific ex­am­ples.

I am con­fi­dent that EAs can rely on these recom­men­da­tions and do not them­selves have to screen the jun­gle of of­ten not well-founded ad­vice on the in­ter­net.

Please let me know what you think in the com­ments—and where you might need more ad­vice.

With all this in mind: Have a good work­out!



Footnotes

[1] The car­dio in­ten­sity recom­men­da­tions that I use are ex­pressed as sub­jec­tive rat­ings of per­ceived ex­er­tion: On a scale of 0 to 10 (where sit­ting is 0 and the high­est level of effort pos­si­ble is 10) low-in­ten­sity is be­low 5, mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ac­tivity is a 5 or 6, vi­gor­ous-in­ten­sity is a 7 or 8 and high-in­ten­sity is above 8.

[2] In­ten­si­ties for re­sis­tance ex­er­cise are ex­pressed as per­cent of the “1RM” (one rep­e­ti­tion max­i­mum) – the max­i­mum weight a per­son can lift in one sin­gle rep­e­ti­tion of the re­spec­tive move­ment.


References

The ar­gu­ments and recom­men­da­tions pre­sented are based on these ar­ti­cles:

  • Chang, Y. K., Lab­ban, J. D., Gapin, J. I., & Et­nier, J. L. (2012). The effects of acute ex­er­cise on cog­ni­tive perfor­mance: a meta-anal­y­sis. Brain re­search, 1453, 87-101.

  • Gar­ber, C. E., Bliss­mer, B., Desch­enes, M. R., Fran­klin, B. A., La­monte, M. J., Lee, I. M., … & Swain, D. P. (2011). Quan­tity and qual­ity of ex­er­cise for de­vel­op­ing and main­tain­ing car­diores­pi­ra­tory, mus­cu­loskele­tal, and neu­ro­mo­tor fit­ness in ap­par­ently healthy adults: guidance for pre­scribing ex­er­cise.

  • Klika, B., & Jor­dan, C. (2013). High-in­ten­sity cir­cuit train­ing us­ing body weight: Max­i­mum re­sults with min­i­mal in­vest­ment. ACSM’s Health & Fit­ness Jour­nal, 17(3), 8-13.

  • Piercy, K. L., Troiano, R. P., Bal­lard, R. M., Car­l­son, S. A., Ful­ton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., … & Ol­son, R. D. (2018). The phys­i­cal ac­tivity guidelines for Amer­i­cans. Jama, 320(19), 2020-2028.

  • Sjø­gaard, G., Christensen, J. R., Juste­sen, J. B., Mur­ray, M., Dalager, T., Fred­slund, G. H., & Sø­gaard, K. (2016). Ex­er­cise is more than medicine: The work­ing age pop­u­la­tion’s well-be­ing and pro­duc­tivity. Jour­nal of Sport and Health Science, 5(2), 159-165.

  • World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. (2010). Global recom­men­da­tions on phys­i­cal ac­tivity for health. World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.