The Paradox of Exercise

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Exercise and Ultradian Rhythms

Boomers, Aging and the Paradox of Exercise

Exercise will reduce stress, right? It will help you lose weight, keep your heart in shape, relieve depression, all of those things. We’ve all heard them all.

Is it all true? Well, yes and no.

Wouldin’t it be nice if things were just simple?

I walk every day. Almost every day. I thought that was enough. That’s not all there  is to it, not by a long shot.

Exercise is Beneficial

There’s little doubt about that. We have to do more than work out once a day, though.

Maybe you do what I’ve did for a long time. I would do my walk or my workout. My goal is always to do one, the other, or both, 7 days a week for at least an hour.  So, in my tiny mind, I am doing great. Most weeks I get in at least 5 days a week. If I go below that, I start to worry and know it’s time to reset.

I figure I’m doing good.

A study at the Arnold Shool of Public Health (University of South Carolina) says I may be wrong..

Three hundred and seventy-seven CVD deaths occurred during 21 yr of follow-up. After age adjustment, time riding in a car and combined time spent in these two sedentary behaviors were positively (P(trend) < 0.001) associated with CVD death. Men who reported >10 h x wk(-1) riding in a car or >23 h x wk(-1) of combined sedentary behavior had 82% and 64% greater risk of dying from CVD than those who reported <4 or <11 h x wk(-1), respectively. The pattern of the association did not materially change after multivariate adjustment. Regardless of the amount of sedentary activity reported by these men, being older, having normal weight, being normotensive, and being physically active were associated with a reduced risk of CVD death.

English, Please.

The translation from science talk is that even when we exercise regularly (and, of course, this was one of those studies done only with men) if we spend too much time being sedentary, our risk of health problems – like dying – go up between 64 and 82%. Youch!

The time many of our generation spend doing little or nothing has gone up exponentially in the last couple of decades. Between watching television, riding (or driving, it doesn’t matter) in cars, sitting in front of a computer or in a desk at the office, we spend a lot of times in what caries the unfortunate moniker sedentary activities1. It’s more commonly known as sitting on our butts.

All Is Not Lost

If you are a baby boomer, even if you used to do it, chances are you aren’t going to spend the whole day at the gym, or go work out three times a day. At least I’m not. But there is another way to counteract this sedentary effect of our lifestyles.

A number of years ago, I had a pinched nerve in my neck. It was incredibly painful and I started seeing a neurologist, having a bunch of tests done. Exercise was part of the recommendation, but so was a new way to look at the mental aspect of the pain. My doctor recommended an author that wrote on the psychobiology of pain. Almost in passing, he mention that the author had also written a book on a better way to work. I’ve referred to that book often ever since those times.

Ernest Rossi, Ph.D. proposed this solution years ago in a book called the 20-Minute Break (affiliate link – It’s an older book, you should be able to get it used). In it, he shows the effect of ultradian rhythms. If you ever notice that after working for a certain period of time – Rossi says it is usually about every 90 minutes – you hit a wall. It may be that you go into a lull. I go into a fugue. My brain simply quits working. If I am writing, it’s when I see my ideas going flat, my fingers making typo after typo, and I may even start yawning.

The Prescription

First, don’t count on this ultradian rhythm to be obviously noticable. My scenario mentioned above has gone on forever, but I would have never noticed it until I learned about these rhythms. Instead, when I got tired and started getting discouraged (and making mistakes) it was likely I would start beating myself up, accuse myself of falling prey to resistance.

Second, set up your day in segments. It has worked better since I actually added these rhythms to my work on purpose. Intermix the sedentary activities with the 20 minute break. Get up, walk around for 10 to 20 minutes. Shake the kinks out. I sometimes walk up and down the stairs a couple of times.

Of course, I first interpreted it as taking a 20 minute nap. Not the thing to do unless the goal is to simply add in some more sedentary activities.

As long as you break the routine of sitting, whether it is in front of the television, the monitor, or long stretches in the driver or passenger seat, the idea is to move.

If you are one, like I was at one time, that thinks the only way to get work done is to do it in one long slog, this may interest you. I find it helpful as I age and my attention sometimes wavers. Rossi’s research had demonstrated that the 20 minute break actually increases productivity, creativity, and the flow of work. It decreases the effects of stress, and also helps keep the day on a more even keel.

In relation to exercise, the process of geting up and moving helps to extend the benefits of that workout you did this morning!

Your turn to join the conversation. What tips can you add that will help to extend the effects of exercise and decrease the sedentary lifestyle?



  1. New York Times Magazine; Men Who Stare at Screens
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  • Patti

    Very interesting! I, too, believed that if I did my exercise every day (walking, riding my bike, lifting weights, etc.) that I was done and could sit at my computer all day confident knowing that I was fit and healthy.

    What an eye opener. I have been doing a 10 minute twice daily exercise program to break up my day at my desk. That has helped tremendously, but now that I read your post, I see I have to set my timer throughout the day to remind me to get off my butt and walk around.

    About 6 years ago, I worked at customer service in a large department store. We couldn’t sit down, at all, during our time behind the counter. I stood, walking back and forth, waiting on people, for 6 to 7 hours a day. Boy, was my waist little! No belly fat (albeit that was 6 years younger) but still… I have a feeling if I stood and walked back and forth for 6 to 7 hours today my belly and waist would shrink considerably. And, a smaller belly and waist means a healthier body.

    So, I see the wisdom in your words and will be sure to set my timer on my computer to go off every 90 minutes. I’ll stop work and do some sort of exercise or just walk around, stay on my feet, do laundry, whatever!

    Thank you for tweeting this post. It has to be one of the most valuable things I saw today on Twitter. :D

    Patti´s last blog ..Scared Fit New Study Scares Us Into Whittling Our WaistlineMy ComLuv Profile

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