Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beware: The New No Pain No Gain Trend

Dr. Phil Maffetone

As much as it pains me to restate the obvious, "no pain no gain" is an outdated, unhealthy obsession that is regrettably back in the news. Online forums, articles and even books now percolate with the mistaken belief that aerobic training is bad and harmful. It's like saying the world is flat or the sky is falling. Perhaps someone should add, throw away your heart monitor and brain, and just do it!

Is aerobic exercise really bad for us? Does it shrink our heart and lungs, and cause muscle wasting, like proponents say? No. The magic of marketing misinformation is a monster that’s replaced logic in the new world order of high tech. It’s an extension of the misleading advertising styles that began in the early days of television, where doctors told us cigarettes were healthy and Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 12 ways (both are examples of ads forced off the air by the Federal Trade Commission because they were false).

Unfortunately, when it comes to exercise, anyone can say anything, not matter how absurd or cultish.

It was just a matter of time when the harder-is-better folks would usher in a new, but not improved, era of the no pain no gain philosophy. This time they’re fighting back hard. They are doing it by trashing the other side, a common marketing and political ploy. And they even succeeded in turning it into quite a debate. But I’m not jumping on this bandwagon, there are too many other intelligent things to read and write about. But I will make a few comments.

“Should I train slow or fast?” I’m asked. “Aerobic or anaerobic?” “Lift weights or walk?” The correct answer, of course, is easy—do it all! But don’t just do it, do it right. Balance and individualization are two key items.

What’s even more laughable is that the no pain no gainers claim there’s no evidence that aerobic exercise is healthy. Really? There are tens of thousands of published studies that clearly demonstrate that aerobic training offers untold numbers of benefits, and without harmful side effects. Is the sky blue?

There will always be unscrupulous people who twist information to get something they want. Take the tobacco companies—they still don’t believe there’s enough research showing that cigarette smoking is harmful. Guess we need to spend millions more on additional studies (which is actually still being done).

Eat more vegetables and fruits for added health? More research is needed—and millions of dollars are being spent to do just that too.

Oh, by the way, many of those millions come from our tax dollars. And much of it is wasted. A recent British Medical Journal reports that the information from many drug studies, for example, are being suppressed by researchers because the outcome is not what they wanted. In fact, less than half of the studies paid for by the U.S. National Institutes for Health were not published. (The NIH spends about $3.5 billion annually for research.)

Among the problems with the new, modern no pain no gain approach is that the key words being discussing and debating are never defined. Terms such as ‘aerobic’ and ‘anaerobic’ are just two examples.

Nor do they consider the ‘health’ of an individual, or differentiate this from ‘fitness.’ One email I received about the anti-aerobic approach said that endurance training shrinks your heart and lungs. Hum, doesn’t the endurance heart get larger? (Yes, it’s referred to as an athletic heart.)

Yet another new study (in The Physician and Sports Medicine), which included triathletes, runners and swimmers, demonstrated how long-term endurance training builds and maintains muscle mass and strength very effectively later in life, and prevents excess fat accumulation. (Ho hum, this was shown decades ago.)

When do we stop trying to prove common sense? Two new expensive studies from Harvard were published this week, showing that running in flat shoes and forefoot strikes are less injurious to runners than thick shoes and heel striking. I often receive emails on the debate about whether barefoot running is healthy or not. Debate? Haven’t humans been doing this successfully for millions of years?

There are also many exercise physiology textbooks, from McGardle & Katch to Wilmore & Costill, that for decades, have described the many benefits of aerobic exercise—from the 30-minute-a-day walker to those training for long endurance events. (These also contain tens of thousands of peer-reviewed indexed studies on the subject.)

Despite this, articles such as the one Dan Butterfield wrote, state emphatically that, endurance exercise shrinks muscle mass, increases body fat production and stress hormones, weakens immunity, decreases heart reserve, and increases triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Well, the fact is, training the aerobic system properly does just the opposite!

Perhaps the new no pain no gain crowd is confused because, as is well known, overtraining can cause the problems they talk about. But I’ve not read anywhere that it’s the caveat they warn people about. Instead, it’s aerobic exercise itself that’s evil.

If you look at the outcome of even a single bout of easy aerobic versus hard anaerobic activity, it brings the issue into better perspective. Easy aerobic workouts train the body to increase fat burning over the next twenty-four hours, while anaerobic exercise reduces it, instead promoting sugar burning. Aerobic muscle fibers, unlike the anaerobic types are much more extensive in the human body, uniquely support our structure, helping to prevent muscle, joint, ligament, tendon and bone injuries. And a single, short hard workout can significantly increase the stress hormone cortisol, and cause significant protein loss through the kidneys (proteinuria)—not so with aerobic training.

In addition, as other research clearly shows, unhealthy people who exercise—both during aerobic and anaerobic training, and while competing—can die of heart attacks, just like having sex. I wonder when we’ll see a book about avoiding sex because it’s dangerous to our health?

Want more scientific information on this topic? See
The Science of Running website

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