Vigorous Exercise Associated With Additional Health Benefits

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

vigorous exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Even short bursts of exercise trigger metabolic changes including reducing glutamate and dimethylguanidino valeric acid associated with chronic disease, and raising nitric oxide linked to mitochondrial health
  • When compared, people who had a higher proportion of vigorous exercise than moderate activity during the week had a lower risk of all-cause mortality
  • Some may find they are less active during the pandemic, which can increase the risk of depression and anxiety and can increase the risk of lower back pain
  • Staying or working at home can contribute to poor movement routines; consider including activity snacks, strengthening activities without equipment, indoor exercise and the Nitric Oxide Dump into your daily routine

There are lifestyle choices you make each day that are foundational to your overall health and wellness. Exercise is one of those choices. Data from two recent studies showed even short bursts of exercise can affect your metabolism,1 and vigorous exercise could reduce your risk of all-cause mortality.2

Our ancestors naturally stayed fit as they engaged in physical labor each day. However, as society moved through the industrial revolution and now is in the middle of the digital revolution, more people find less time to move and exercise. Yet, if you’ve read my newsletter, you know I’m a strong proponent of including movement throughout the day to help protect your physical and mental health.

This is especially important as we are entering flu season and dealing with other viral infections, namely SARS-CoV-2. A recent paper in Clinical and Experimental Medicine points out that most communicable diseases the world faces are acute viral respiratory infections,3 of which COVID-19 is only one.

The scientists concluded that regular exercise of adequate intensity could be “an auxiliary tool in strengthening and preparing the immune system for COVID-19.” They write:4

“During and after physical exercise, pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines are released, lymphocyte circulation increases, as well as cell recruitment. Such practice has an effect on the lower incidence, intensity of symptoms and mortality in viral infections observed in people who practice physical activity regularly, and its correct execution must be considered to avoid damage.”

While exercise strongly supports your immune system, lockdowns and fear have created an environment in which more people are ignoring a strategy that protects their health. For many, the recent months have contributed to an expanding waistline or raised their level of anxiety and stress. This simple approach can make a difference in your everyday health.

Even Short Bursts of Exercise Positively Affect Metabolism

Despite eating the same food you did before March 2020, you may find your waistline expanding and the numbers on the scale growing. That’s because while you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, eating the same amount and moving less will slowly pack on the pounds.

Additionally, some people are emotional eaters and others have changed their eating habits5 as the pandemic raises their stress level.6 Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital used data from the Framingham Heart Study participants to evaluate how short bursts of exercise may lower cardiovascular risk and mediate health benefits.7

They measured 588 metabolites in the participants at rest and after approximately 12 minutes of exercise. They found there were changes in 502 of those metabolites, some of which were involved in insulin resistance, fat metabolism, the availability of nitric oxide, and the development of brown fat.

In a separate sample, they evaluated 177 metabolites and observed some of the same changes in 164 of them. Interestingly, they found the changes to the metabolites were different and dependent on the amount of exercise the individual performed, their gender and body mass index. The higher the body mass index the greater the changes in cardioprotective metabolites.

The researchers identified four separate signatures in metabolite responses to exercise. They concluded that in this sample of 411 participants, short acute bursts of exercise could elicit metabolic changes associated with cardiovascular health and long-term outcome. Dr. Gregory Lewis, from Massachusetts General Hospital and lead researcher, commented:8

"Much is known about the effects of exercise on cardiac, vascular and inflammatory systems of the body, but our study provides a comprehensive look at the metabolic impact of exercise by linking specific metabolic pathways to exercise response variables and long-term health outcomes.

What was striking to us was the effects a brief bout of exercise can have on the circulating levels of metabolites that govern such key bodily functions as insulin resistance, oxidative stress, vascular reactivity, inflammation and longevity."

Examples of the change in metabolites included glutamate, which is linked to heart disease and a shorter life span, which fell by 29%.9 Another metabolite, dimethylguanidino valeric acid (DMGV), also associated with diabetes and increased risk of liver disease, dropped by 18%. Nitric oxide, associated with mitochondrial health, rose by 29%. A study scientist commented on how the results may be integrated into fitness evaluations, saying:10

"Intriguingly, our study found that different metabolites tracked with different physiologic responses to exercise, and might therefore provide unique signatures in the bloodstream that reveal if a person is physically fit, much the way current blood tests determine how well the kidney and liver are functioning. Lower levels of DMGV, for example, could signify higher levels of fitness."

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How to Gauge Moderate and Vigorous Physical Activity

The link between physical exercise and better health has been known for a long time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates for consistent physical activity each day, saying:11

“Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Everyone can experience the health benefits of physical activity — age, abilities, ethnicity, shape, or size do not matter.”

In 2018 the Department of Health and Human Services released the second edition of their Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.12 In it, they recommend adults should have at least 150 minutes and up to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.

Alternatively, they recommend including 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity. Muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week are also recommended.

The measurement of intensity uses a metabolic equivalent of task (MET), in which 1 MET is how much energy is spent while you're at rest. Comparatively, moderate activities range up to 5.9 MET. Walking 3 miles per hour is equivalent to 3.5 METs, which falls under moderate-intensity activity. Vigorous activities are over 6 MET. For example, running a 10-minute mile measures 10 MET.

Vigorous Exercise Lowers Your Risk of All-Cause Mortality

The second study was released in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine in which researchers sought to find out if there is a difference in all-cause mortality between people who engage in vigorous activity compared to those who are moderately active.13

The researchers gathered information from 403,681 participants and compared their level of activity against all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. Participants were from the National Health Interview Survey ending in 2013, in which researchers gathered self-reported data on physical activity that was then linked to the National Death Index through December 31, 2015.

After analyzing the data, they concluded people who had a higher proportion of vigorous activity during the week as compared to moderate activity had lower all-cause mortality. They suggested public health interventions should include recommendations for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, but also advised officials to include guidance on the benefits linked to vigorous activity.

The study was only one of several published in the past two years that has demonstrated the significant health benefits for people who remain active. One paper published in August 2019 reported data presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress, which found that living a sedentary lifestyle for 20 years was associated with double the risk of mortality compared to those who were active.14

A second study published in the BMJ during the same month found people who were more physically active, regardless of intensity, had a lower risk of dying prematurely.15 The World Health Organization also recently updated its recommendations for physical activity.

They noted the significant contribution exercise makes to managing noncommunicable diseases, reducing depression and anxiety and enhancing learning and judgment.16 According to the WHO, up to 5 million deaths every year could be prevented if people were more active and, importantly, more than 80% of adolescents worldwide do not get enough exercise.

Most recently, a large retrospective study was done on 6.1 million people in South Korea17 in which the researchers measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity against the risks of a major cardiovascular event or all-cause mortality in people with metabolic syndrome. The data showed people who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity had significantly lower risks of both.

A Second Health Risk From the Pandemic: Inactivity

One of the potential long-term health impacts of the coronavirus lockdown in 2020 that was recognized early in the pandemic was the rising number of mental health conditions reported. Ongoing unemployment, loss of income and the fear of the unknown all contribute to depression, stress and anxiety.18

Another long-term health risk from the pandemic is the impact that stay-at-home measures may have had on your exercise habits. These in turn have a significant impact on your mental health.19 A paper published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science cautioned that the recommendation to restrict your movements does not mean reducing the amount of physical activity you get.20

Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor at McMaster University in the department of kinesiology, is concerned that the prolonged stay in place orders may lead to unanticipated health issues from inactivity.21 He led a team that published a paper in the Journals of Gerontology in which they evaluated the effect of just two weeks of inactivity on insulin sensitivity.22

The participants were prediabetic and limited their activity to 1,000 steps each day to mimic the level of activity a person who is hospitalized or housebound may experience. They found just two weeks of the limited activity led to a lower rate of protein synthesis and a deterioration of blood sugar control.

Other health risks that are associated with inactivity include the risk of high blood pressure, rising inflammation, bone loss and potential hormonal imbalances.23 Added to this, inactivity increases your risk of lower back pain, which is one of the most common health complaints and a major cause of disability.24

In older adults with arthritis, lower levels of physical activity are associated with a measurable decline in their ability to perform activities of daily living, such as grocery shopping, meal preparation and managing money.25 In other words, lack of activity can affect the health of everyone across the age span.

Tips for Staying Active and Exercising at Home

Staying or working at home can create poor movement routines. People who previously had the habit of getting out of their chair at the office every 20 to 30 minutes, or those who had a job that required movement throughout the day, may find binge-watching television or working all day at the computer throws a wrench in those habits.

Even just a little bit of exercise is better than nothing and sitting all day can increase your risk of heart disease. There are a variety of ways to simply and easily exercise at home that can reduce your potential exposure to viral infections and can help prevent mental and physical health problems. Here are several suggestions to help you move throughout the day.

Activity snacks — Phillips suggests "Prolonged periods of sitting should be broken up with “activity snacks” like a little walk or going up and down a flight of stairs. A short daily walk has amazing properties from not just a physical, but a psychological perspective. We don’t have to run a marathon.”26

In other words, small movements may have big benefits. Consider taking a walk in the morning and another in the afternoon as the weather permits. Getting outdoors has additional benefits for your immune system, specifically from your exposure to the sun that may boost your vitamin D production.

Nonexercise Movement — This type of activity may be as important as exercise. Make it a point to get up from your chair at least every 30 minutes to stretch and move around. If you are working from home or spending more time in front of a computer or television screen than what is considered healthy, opt for using a Swiss ball. These large, inflatable balls can be ordered online and most come with a pump. Sitting on one at your desk or while watching television encourages movement and helps strengthen your core muscles. 

Strengthening — With inactivity, you can lose muscle mass and strength. You don't need a gym or fancy equipment to get a workout. You don't even have to leave home. For more on how to get a strength training workout at home, see "No Time for the Gym Today? Try This at Home."

Indoor Exercise — Getting some aerobic activity and exercise at home is not nearly as challenging as you might imagine. If you don’t have a favorite aerobic workout video, consider climbing the stairs or purchasing a stationary bike, which can be delivered straight to your door.