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“[Muscles have the] ability to communicate with the rest of the body and encourage healing, slow aging of the arteries/aging in general, reduce morbidity and mortality, and promote better health.”
 Mark C. Houston, MD, MS, Heart Disease (Grand Central Life & Style, 2012)

Muscle Talk: The Metabolic Benefits of High Intensity Exercise

I’ve written about many studies which lay out the fitness and health benefits of high-intensity exercise, and I don’t believe anyone has done a better job of painting the big picture than Dr. Mark C. Houston, a professor of clinical cardiology at the prestigious Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In his book Heart Disease, Houston explains how exercise can alter the way many genes function and interact with your cells. Unfortunately, many people are doing the wrong kind of exercise.

“Doing a thousand sit-ups, jogging 10 miles, or practicing yoga every day won’t do the trick,” Houston writes. “Most doctors and trainers recommend the exact opposite [of the desired] approach to movement and exercise, one that may actually accelerate deterioration of the arteries and encouraging overall aging,” Houston adds. The problem is that the focus is on exercising the heart and burning calories, when it should be on challenging the muscles. When muscles move, Houston tells us, “they release powerful messenger molecules that ‘speak’ to every organ in the body and determine whether oxidation and inflammation are encouraged or discouraged, fat is burned or stored, new tissue is created, and much more.”

The kind of exercise you do is important, because not all exercise has the same effect on genetic signaling. The contrast between sprinters and marathon runners speaks volumes. “While the short, intense activity of sprinting does not burn many calories, it triggers the release of adrenaline, human growth hormone, cortisol, and testosterone,” Houston writes. “This hormonal mix elevates calorie consumption for hours and even days after the sprinter has stopped running,” he continues. Long-distance running does not have the same effect. “Instead, it leads to the production of a different hormonal mix that causes muscle wasting, inefficient metabolic processing, and physical decay.”

You can see the difference in the bodies of the two types of athletes. Sprinters are lean and muscular, while marathon runners are wiry and gaunt. Sprinters exercise in short, all-out bursts, while marathon runners exercise for hours at a slower, steadier pace. Dr. Houston says the sprinters come out ahead metabolically.

I’ve read (and written) about this before—I encouraged high-intensity muscular effort in aerobic exercise sessions in Ripped 3—but not from a clinical professor of cardiology at a highly rated medical school. (U S News ranked Vanderbilt Medical Center as one of the best in the nation.) Hopefully, Vanderbilt and other medical schools are graduating doctors with a firm grounding in the benefits of high-intensity exercise.

Your muscles are always talking, says Dr. Houston. What they’re saying depends on what you’re doing. “High-intensity exercise gets the muscles talking the most,” he writes. “Exercise using full body movements, incorporating great amounts of muscle, requiring a combination of strength and endurance, and forcing the muscles to do lots of work in a little bit of time cause the muscles to shout out a unique message that sets in motion a powerful muscle-building, fat-burning, anti-inflammatory, and brain-stimulating effect,” he tells readers.

Dr. Houston lists some of the key molecules of “Muscle Talk” and describes the messages they send.

Interleukin-6 (IL-6) promotes fat burning and controls inflammation. IL-6 informs the body about the muscle’s current and future energy needs. “The most powerful metabolic signaling agent released from muscle, it is sent out as soon as muscle starts to contract and move. It’s released in even greater amounts as the activity becomes more intense,” Houston writes. “IL-6’s actions help dampen inflammation, raise testosterone and growth hormone, increase fat burn, regulate glucose, reduce weight, increase muscle mass, fine-tune fuel metabolism, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

It’s easy see to why IL-6 is called the most powerful muscle signaling agent. But there are several others almost as potent. The combined messages they send make intense exercise a godsend and well worth the effort required.

Interleukin-15 (IL-15), released primarily through weight training, encourages muscle sparing and fat burning. It is a major factor in determining the body’s muscle-to-fat ratio, which is an important contributor to coronary heart disease and one of the first things to change for the worse with age. “Unfortunately, most modern exercise regimens do not trigger the release of adequate amounts of IL-15, for they avoid the short bursts of intense energy expenditure needed to produce it in sufficient amounts,” Houston warns.

Interleukin-8 (IL-8) triggers the formation of new blood vessels. It is formed in the muscle whenever the muscle is forced to produce energy without oxygen. When this happens, the muscle releases IL-8, which calls for new blood vessels to grow so the muscle can get enough fresh oxygen the next time around. “This is a remarkable example of exercise’s ability to mold metabolism,” Houston tells us. “As the muscle talks to the rest of the body, it sets in motion a set of instructions that make [the body] more efficient, leaner, and younger,” he continues. 

Finally, lactic acid promotes growth and supplies energy. Once considered a waste product to be avoided, lactic acid is now believed to have several beneficial effects. First, it buffers the effects of toxic metabolic waste produces, such as ammonia and hydrogen, allowing the body to perform better for longer periods of time. (The burn you feel during intense exercise comes from these waste products, not lactic acid. Lactic acid actually moderates the burn.)

Even more important and surprising, Houston tells us that new research shows that lactic acid circulating through the blood acts like a hormone, stimulating the release of testosterone and growth hormone, the two powerful growth promoters that make the body stronger, leaner, and more functional. In addition, lactic acid signals the muscle cells to increase the number of mitochondria (energy factories) within the cells, meaning the body can burn more fat to produce more energy to support bodily functions.

“Unfortunately,” Dr. Houston writes, “most people avoid lactic acid like the plague, opting for slower and lower-intensity forms of exercise, like jogging or peddling a bike. But only intense bursts of activity that trigger ‘the burn’ can get the muscles talking to the rest of the body and forcing it to adapt and grow.”

*  *  *

We’ll close with a look at a new study showing that two-and-a-half minutes of high-intensity exercise produced three times the benefits of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.  

Published March 12, 2012 in the journal Clinical Science, a study led by Dr. Stuart R. Gray (University of Aberdeen’s Musculoskeletal Research Program) had participants do five all-out 30 second sprints with 4 minutes of rest between each sprint. On the following day they were fed a high-fat meal for breakfast and again three hours later for lunch. Fat content in their blood was measured at various times before and after the meals.

The subjects were also put through the same sequence with 30 minutes of brisk walking substituted for the high-intensity intervals. In addition, they repeated sequence without exercise.

Gray and his colleagues found that the fat content in the blood of the participants doing the interval sprints was reduced by 33% after the high-fat meals, compared to when they ate the meals without exercising beforehand. Importantly, the fat content was reduced by only 11% when the participants did moderate intensity exercise—30 minutes of brisk walking—the day before eating the high-fat meals.

“Although moderate intensity, longer sessions of exercise can help protect the body against cardiovascular disease (CVD), the findings of our study showed that high-intensity shorter intervals might be a more effective method to improve health and reduce the time commitment to exercise,” said Dr. Gray.

“We are now investigating how long the benefits of a short high-intensity exercise session last on the body to analyze how frequently a person should exercise at that level to help protect the body against CVD,” he related. “Our initial findings suggest that this type of exercise session would need to be undertaken on most days of the week to maintain the associated health benefits for the body.”

*  *  *

Dr. Gray’s last comment is a real show stopper. It would be more practical—and realistic—to avoid high-fat meals (except for special occasions) and do high-intensity intervals once or twice as week, along with strength training and walking. That’s what I have been doing—and enjoying—for a long time. It makes more sense than encouraging patients/people to do hard intervals every day. Few—very few—people are willing or able to follow that advice. For those willing to give it a try, burn out or injury will soon follow.

That said, the findings of Drs. Gray and Houston are very encouraging. They give us powerful reasons for exercising and tell us the kind that’s best. We don’t have to do high intensity exercise every day; my bet is that Gray himself doesn’t do high-intensity intervals every day—not for long anyway. Most elite athletes limit hard intervals to once or twice a week. 

I’ve long been a proponent of high-intensity exercise, strength and endurance—and now (at 75) I’m more enthused than ever. What’s more, I have the perfect vehicles to fill the doctors’ prescription: the Concept 2 rower and the Concept 2 Ski Erg. (High-intensity weight training is also part of my plan, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Combined, the Concept 2 rower and Ski Erg train the whole body for strength and endurance; the only body parts bypassed are the pushing muscles of the chest. Most people are familiar with the rowing motion; it targets the hips, quads, lower back, traps, and the pulling muscles of the upper back and arms. The Ski Erg works just about everything else. It’s a very long ski pole motion, starting in an upright position with the arms overhead and ending in a partial squat with the arms extended behind the body. It works the upper back, chest, shoulders, triceps, abs, and to a lesser extent the lower body. As Concept 2 says, “The core, legs, and arms.”

I favor short, hard bouts on both machines. (Those who prefer longer, slower workouts--apparently most people--can go as long and hard as they like; see Postscript below.)

I do distances from 250 meters to 1000 meters on both machines, switching the order from workout to workout. I do the rower first one week and the Ski Erg first the next.

I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing recently. Many will say it’s not enough, but it is working marvelously well for me.

Last week (as I write this) I did 600 meters on both machines; that was the heart of the workout. I started on the rower, warmed up for about 3 minutes, rested a few minutes, and then did an all-out 600 meters; I ended with a few minutes of cooldown. After a short break—about 10 minutes—I moved on to the Ski Erg and did the same thing. I made 600m PRs on both units (for that sequence). Counting warm-up, cooldown, and rest periods, the whole workout took less than an hour, with about five minutes at full tilt. Again, that was it. I can assure you that I did not want to do more. I felt the effects of workout for the rest of the day. And it felt good, very satisfying.

I’ll do the same thing at 800m next week, starting with the Ski Erg. Then I’ll go to 1000m, and back to shorter distances. Mixing up the distances make it more interesting and produce better results over time. Done properly, it never gets old and times improve.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know of anyone else doing workouts like this. My sense is that it’s the ultimate combination of all-out strength and endurance exercise for the whole body. It’s my adaptation of what Drs. Gray and Houston recommend (especially Houston); it forces the muscles of the whole body to do lots of work in a little bit of time.

It is sure as heck not easy. Six hundred meters is like doing the five intervals in the Gray study, without the rest periods—twice. But it doesn’t dig your hole so deep that you can’t get up for the next workout. I’m making good progress on both the rower and Ski Erg. I’m far from the best on either machine, but my 500m and 1000m times are improving. I’m winning in the competition with myself. 

As always, I’m willing to listen to arguments to the contrary.

(For those not familiar with the Ski Erg—most people I would guess—here’s a link to a demo video on Concept2.com: http://www.concept2.com/skierg/training/technique-video )

WARNING: If you are not used to exercising or have health concerns of any type, don’t try this without discussing it with your doctor.

Postscript: As I was putting the final touches on this piece, the Wall Street Journal (10/30/12) reported a rapid rise in people over 50 running marathons. "Runners 50 years and older represent the fastest-growing age group participating in the increasingly popular event," the WSJ reported in the "Health & Wellness" section. With the possible exception of naturally gifted long distance runners, Dr. Houston would probably call that trend unfortunate.

The WSJ devoted several paragraphs to the "greater risks for marathoners in the 50-plus age groups." With that in mind, those determined to try the marathon distance might want to consider the smoother and less traumatic action of the C2 rower and Ski Erg. My friend Dr. Wade Smith, 54, recently rowed the half marathon distance in personal record time. Wade called it "fun and pretty successful."

You'll find rankings for half marathon and marathon times on both machines on Concept2.com .   

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