I did a TEDx talk on exercise. Here’s the transcript:
This is my brother, and to be honest, after I graduated from college, I think I felt pretty solidly on the not exercising enough side of the equation.
I was busy with my job, busy working on finding where I was going in life and trying to see what I could do and enjoy, and just let the time of exercising or taking care of myself fall on the wayside.
My brother, on the other hand, is somewhat more diligent about making sure that he’s always going to the gym and that he’s taking care of his physical body.
So, in about 2014, the two of us actually went together for a body scan. So this is a scan to find out how much muscle we have, how strong our bones are, how much fat we have, and so the two of us are sitting there.
We have been scanned by the doctor. I was first, and the doctor came out with my results from the test, and he looked at them, and he goes, did you want these results in private? It turns out that ignoring your health isn’t such a good idea, and my brother had done quite a bit better at paying attention to how he was doing.
My last job that I worked at was actually as an AI researcher, so I was a programmer, and specifically, I was trying to figure out how to optimize AI training.
So, I was trying to figure out the best way that I could make a program work as efficiently as possible. What parameters are the correct parameters so that it would train as fast as it could possibly do. So I took that training that attention to trying to find the optimal way of doing something and then used that to try to fix my health afterwards, catch up with my brother maybe.
Spartan Race: Beginning for My Journey Towards Optimal Health
So then three years later, somewhat in better shape, having spent some more time. This is me running in a Spartan Race, which is an obstacle race. It’s about five to seven kilometers, and I was able to place in the top 10 percent of the race.
At this time, honestly, I was probably too far over to the other side. I was probably doing maybe more than what I really needed to do, but I kept on studying and I kept on looking to see, okay, well what is the right amount of exercise to do? Also, I wanted to know if it is okay to exercise where I should start.
I mean, there are other things that you can do if you’re going to persevere in living a long and healthy life, I wanted to make sure I was starting with where I could get the most gain out of it.
The Harvard Study for healthier living and longevity exploration
So I found a study that was written in 2018 by Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health where they looked at all the things you could do to be healthier and to live a longer life, and they looked at kind of the obvious things.
Some of them were things like don’t smoke, okay, maintain healthy body weight, and they also went to two things I had been wondering about for a long time, which is between nutrition and exercise, which one of them can give you the most benefits, which one will help you to live the longest.
Nutrition vs Exercise: Analyzing the Benefits
For nutrition being in the top 20%, the top quintile if you will, of healthy eating, compared to being on the bottom of the worst quintile, the bottom quintile, can give you an additional benefit if you’re on the top of about another four years of life and most of that is healthy life too, free from major disease of other issues, but being in the top quintile of exercise can put you compared to the bottom of the quintile can give another eight years of life so it’s twice as important as the food that you eat.
Okay, all right, so I’m trying to find the best path here, so that was really interesting. I decided to start but first of all looking at exercise, but the problem is that exercise is really broad. I’m not sure like okay so I should do exercise but there’s so many things that count as exercise and what’s exactly the plan then that would give me the most benefit for that
So then I found this study that takes a look; it says what it is, that you get this benefit from running or jogging is pretty reliable exercise, it’s an aerobic exercise, where you can breathe a little heavy, but you’re a little bit out of breath but you can’t sing a song, but you can still put a sentence together, and it’s constant and continuous.
This chart is basically showing how much it reduces premature death, so lower is better and it starts out on the far side. On this side is basically taking a hundred percent and saying that this is the standard and then says as you start doing more and more running and jogging, How much do you reduce premature death?
Now if you look at this you might notice that especially if you look at the top chart but basically there’s like two changes there’s only one change like there’s the people who don’t want it all and then there’s the people who run after that and the first one is thought once or twice a week, the second point is for three times a week four times a week, five time a week etc.
But these people are running in the first group or the second group are running only once or twice a week for under an hour, 151 minutes actually, and they’re getting just as much benefit as people who are running several hours a week, five times a week, at high speeds.
Cardiorespiratory Fitness is Essential
So I didn’t know to understand this because I also knew from another study that basically compares how healthy you are with your cardiorespiratory system. So your cardiorespiratory system is comparing your lung power, how well your heart moves, how well your veins are transporting oxygen, how well your cells are transporting or converting that oxygen into energy. So looking at the health of this whole system I knew that basically the healthier your cardiorespiratory system is, the longer you’re going to live.
Here’s another study that shows this. This has four quintiles of how healthy people are in their cardiorespiratory system, and you can see that again, the premature death drops the better your cardiorespiratory fitness is. So the second quartile is living longer than the first quartile, the third quartile is longer than the four quartiles is even longer still, and they have a different category of variant for the elite, which is the top 2.5%, and they live longer than everyone else.
This really confused me, because if I am saying that you can just have to exercise once or twice a week, do a run for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, that will give you all the benefits of longevity and health, but at the same time you should be super cardiorespiratory fit, it doesn’t feel like 20 to 30 minutes is the same thing.
I spent half a year trying to work out how both of these things could be true: that it’s a good idea all you really need to do is run once or twice a week for a certain amount of period, but yet also you should be as healthy as you possibly could to get as much benefit as you can.
So, after about half a year of reading additional studies and trying to understand, I found a study by three Australian researchers. And as I mentioned, the cardiorespiratory system measures your entire system from the air you breathe into the energy you get to your cells, and they took a specific look at the cells so they looked at the mitochondria that you have in each of your cells and each of your cells, the mitochondria is a little organelle inside the cell that then converts oxygen and sugar into the energy that powers your body,
It powers your brain, it powers your lungs, it powers your muscles, and they looked at basically how doing aerobic exercise affects your mitochondria. They found that basically, if you just measure the total amount of time that you work, the total amount of time that you’ve done aerobic exercise, assuming that you’re exercising at least once every week, that the relationship is just basically linear.
So the more time you put in, whether in one week or over several weeks, the more cardiorespiratory fitness you gain, because your body increases the number of mitochondria that you have.
Continuous Exercise is the Path to Lifelong Health
So the interesting part about it is the unit here is arbitrary units. AU for the training volume along the bottom basically says they made up something, and what they made up is they said this is just basically the total time that you spent exercising up to that point continuous exercise.
So if someone trains, say, seven times a week versus someone who trains, let’s say, one time a week, the difference between their exercise and gain is the person who trains seven times a week gets fitter seven times as fast,
But today, we’re talking about perseverance, and we’re talking about living for as long as you can, so if you’re exercising every week and you’re continuing to get a little bit better every week, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it seven times a week for an hour every time or whether you’re doing it once a week for just 20 to 30 minutes, over the years, you’re going to get as cardiorespiratory healthy and fit as you possibly can.
Okay, so now and now at least I feel that I understand how it can be that eventually you’re going to get there and all you really need to do is just continue the effort over a long period, but make sure that you’re doing a little bit every week so that you continue to move forward. But as I said I’m an optimizer, so I wanted to find out how I could do even better than that.
So the study that I read from three Australians didn’t stop there. It then took a look to say, okay well, that’s from aerobic fitness, where you’re running and you’re a little bit out of breath, but at the very top of exercise when you’re running as fast as you can, your breath the oxygen that you can breathe in is no longer enough because as you’re breathing in, you can’t breathe in you’re running too hard at this point you’re you’re no longer able to sing you’re no longer going to be able to make a sentence you’re lucky to put two words together you’re so <gasp, gasp> so out of breath.
Because at this point, having more mitochondria doesn’t help you anymore; you don’t have enough oxygen to feed the mitochondria you already have, so at this point the body does a very different optimization in changing how you then need to improve your performance. Instead of giving you more mitochondria, it takes the mitochondria you have and it makes them more efficient so it actually takes some of the mitochondria that are king of broken — as I said before you have thousands of them and as we’ve covered earlier you have millions of cells — and it takes them and takes the ones that are not working well and tunes your body so you get more energy out of each mitochondrion that you have improving the efficiency.
Consistent High-Intensity Interval Training Leads to Good health and Longevity
Well, that’s that kind of mechanism kind of thing that I’m not that concerned about mechanisms because I’m concerned about health and longevity, but in 2020, a Norwegian university did a randomized controlled test where they took men and women who were in their 70s and were already doing exercise every week. More than honestly, I did most of my life. They were already doing about an hour and a half of aerobic running or similar kind of exercise every single week.
And they said, okay, take two sessions of your aerobic exercise you’re already doing and replace it with high-intensity interval training. So this is what I was talking about: when you’re really completely out of breath, you’re running at the maximum speed that you can, you might have heard this call as like high-intensity interval training or other things.
I’d heard of it before too, but it wasn’t until I read these studies that I realized that it’s very fundamentally different from just doing a long run, and they found that by having these people add just two sessions of high-intensity interval training, they were able to reduce their premature death by a further 50% over people who are already doing the running.
These are 70-year-old men already, and reducing their premature death by another 50 is a massive increase. So as I said, I’m not sure where at the beginning I am not sure where you feel you fall on your continuum of how much exercise you can do. If you’re not exercising that much yet or not that methodically, you can increase your perseverance, and by adding one exercise — jog or run every week — you can get a significant improvement in the amount of benefit that you have your health and longevity as long as you keep it up every week over a long period of time.
And once you’ve done that once you’ve or if you’re already doing that, then adding in one of two sessions of high-intensity interval training will then further push the benefits to give the longest life that you can have. Because I’m convinced that it’s not about how much time exercising you cram into every week, but it’s about the number of weeks over here the long term that you put in the time.
So, we are back with my brother again. I saw him over the holiday, and I went in and got another scan. I don’t think it’s a surprise to say that it went much better than the first time with my brother, and the doctor was willing to tell me my results without asking my brother to step out of the room this time.