PUMPING IRONY: Live Long and Pedal

New research suggests that more exercise will add more years to your life — but who’s counting?

Lake Nokomis
Pedaling around Lake Nokomis on a Saturday afternoon can make you forget all about your final destination.

Last Saturday, as we do most Saturdays, My Lovely Wife and I climbed on our ancient two-wheelers and set out on a relatively unambitious urban bicycle excursion. This one took us a couple of miles west to check out an estate sale (a grocery bag full of old books for only $5!!), then to a favorite coffee shop on the eastern shore of Lake Nokomis, followed by a lap around the lake, a quick stop at Longfellow Gardens and Minnehaha Falls, before landing back home on the patio. Altogether, we might have traveled 10 miles, neither of us working up a sweat in the 70-degree wonderfulness of early spring.

Can something so enjoyable count as exercise? And can it help you live a longer, more satisfying life?

I wonder about this, because I’ve always believed that the only meaningful exercise has to involve serious exertion — sweat-soaked, heart-pumping, can’t-quite-catch-my-breath rigor. That’s why I like to start my day by swinging my kettlebell around for 15 minutes before breakfast. It makes me feel like I’m building muscle mass, fighting off sarcopenia, strengthening my cardiovascular system, yadda, yadda, yadda.

MLW, on the other hand, is not big on the weightlifting thing. She enjoys a nice walk in the morning, a little yoga, and daily bicycle trips to any of a variety of local coffee shops. It works for her in much the same way that my routine works for me. Everyone’s different.

But in scientific circles there’s been a long-running debate about the long-term efficacy of moderate versus intense exercise regimens. And the most recent research suggests that the benefits of the latter over the former may not be as noteworthy as we might think — at least as it concerns longevity.

As Gretchen Reynolds reports in the New York Times, the results of two major new studies show that mortality risks diminish among those who devoted more time to exercise — but only to a point.

General health guidelines call for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week — about 20 minutes a day — a threshold both MLW and I seem to be exceeding. And, according to a National Cancer Institute/Harvard University study of 661,000 middle-aged adults, those who adhered to that guideline decreased their chance of death in the next 14 years by 31 percent more than those who never exercised. The more devoted gym rats — those who worked out three times as much — cheated death by 39 percent more than the couch potatoes. That was the “sweet spot,” Reynolds notes; folks who worked out more than 450 minutes a week didn’t see any more of a death-defying benefit.

A similar study, surveying more than 200,000 Australians, reported similar results, but noted that those who worked out more intensely for a similar period of time as the moderate exercisers were 9 percent less likely to die during the survey period.

I brought this up with some enthusiasm to MLW over lunch on Sunday — not specifically in a manner that might suggest that my morning workouts might be percentage points superior to hers — and she wondered how many people go to the gym in order to live longer. “Isn’t quality of life more important than quantity?” she asked.

She was correct, of course. As we roll through advanced middle age, it’s sometimes tempting to look at — and worry about — the relative proximity of our final destination rather than the path in front of us. So, don’t worry too much about the odds that you’re going to arrive there too soon. Like pedaling around the lake on a beautiful spring afternoon, just go ahead and enjoy the ride.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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