This week a recent report on exercise caught my eye. As the days shorten and darken, as the weather closes in, those long walks we all took in the magnificently sunny lockdown #1 don’t seem quite so appealing. For those of us in the UK, lockdown #2 has been subject to repeated deluges of rain, often appearing without a minute’s warning.
What to do? In a bid to break up my sedentary days I’ve taken to dashing out for very short yomps whenever the rain stops. Hence I was delighted to read a study from Massachusetts General Hospital confirming the remarkable power of a short dash or a quick yomp. This study found that 12 minute bursts of exercise dramatically changed our body’s circulating metabolites. Metabolites are small molecules in our blood that indicate how well (or not) our bodies are functioning and how effectively we’re repairing ourselves. Doctors use metabolites as biological markers to gauge what’s going on inside us, and to check our metabolic health.
Our metabolites can reveal the proficiency of our insulin resistance, our levels of inflammation, how healthy our heart is, how well our bodies are dealing with oxidative stress, and our likely longevity, amongst other things. For this study, researchers measured the levels of 588 circulating metabolites in 411 middle-aged men and women, before and after short bouts of exercise.
And here’s the good news. Apparently 12 minutes of brisk exercise is enough to improve over 80% of these extraordinarily revealing biomarkers.
I’ll give you an example of a circulating metabolite that changes after exercise: glutamate. We all have glutamate lurking inside us. It’s pumped out by our brains when we’re exposed to stress and toxins. Too much circulating glutamate is a biomarker for heart disease, diabetes and a shorter life span. Over-production of glutamate is also thought to kill off healthy brain cells.
The researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that after 12 minutes of exercise, glutamate levels were typically 29% lower than before exercise. That’s quite a difference.
Another metabolite, DMGV, associated with liver disease and diabetes, dropped by 18% after 12 minutes of exercise.
In other words, short bursts of exercise can significantly and immediately change what’s happening in our bodies, more dramatically than we might have thought. But before you go for a gleeful 12-minute stroll, I have to tell you that these short burst of exercise need to be ‘vigorous’ or ‘intense’, bona fide dashes rather than dawdles. Ideally a run, or a brisk or uphill walk (or anything else that properly increases your heart rate, making you breathless and a little sweaty).
Which brings me to the subject of brisk walking. Two weeks’ ago I took a course in how to walk. Of course I know how to walk. But with my days spent in front of a laptop, I’m acutely aware that my posture has changed, my shoulders feel more slumped and rounded. My spine feels stiffer. I feel a touch crumpled. Given that I often walk (and love walking and am currently writing not one but two books about walking), I wanted to be sure that every step was improving my skeleton rather than exacerbating the bad habits acquired during lockdown.
By a stroke of serendipity I discovered Joanna Hall and the WalkActive programme she founded. After a week’s online course (in which she asks you to practise for ten minutes three times a day) I now walk with better posture and I feel lighter and springier. More akin to a catwalk model than a penguin with rigor mortis.
Joanna, a sports scientist who’s been helping people improve their gait, stride and posture for over a decade, shows us how to walk using the full length of our feet, including our toes. I loved knowing that my feet were walking as they were supposed to. I bought new trainers to get the full benefit and this too was a revelation (more to come in a future post). You can watch Joanna’s YouTube tutorials on how to choose the right footwear. She also pays close attention to pushing off properly, so that we activate the right muscles. Her arsenal of clever techniques for keeping our abdominal muscles in place and our shoulders aligned make it very easy to recall what we’ve been taught.
But the best thing about Joanna’s course (for me, at any rate) is this: she teaches us how to walk briskly so that it feels elegant and effortless. And when this happens, we enhance many of the biological processes taking place inside us (back to those metabolites circulating in our blood).
At the Age-Well Project we look for hard evidence that something works before we write about it. Joanna agreed to share an unpublished research paper (produced by a London university) investigating the effects of her walking programme. Interestingly, it confirmed some of my own anecdotal findings: after a month of walking using Joanna’s techniques, participants walked more quickly (an average increase of 24%) and with better alignment. The research also found reduced joint strain at knee and ankle.
At the Age-Well Project, we also only recommend things we really like (we make no commission from our recommendations). I liked Joanna’s course so I asked if she would provide a discount code for our Age-Well readers. And she’s kindly agreed. Readers of our blog qualify for a 28% discount for a limited period. The course is normally £35, but Age-Well subscribers can buy it for £25 and the code lasts two weeks.
Details and code are at the end of this post. Personally, I think it could make an ideal Christmas gift for anyone wanting to perfect their walking, or for anyone needing to unfold their bodies after too much screen gazing. Just in time for those long walks we’ll be taking during the Christmas holidays…
Back to metabolites. Susan and I have brisk 12-minute routes from our doorstep (six minutes there and six minutes back), but you could just as well spend 12 minutes going up and down your stairs. Either way, find a route that’s convenient (no need to get in the car, no route planning or thinking required) and build it into your day. Even the most time-pressed of us should be able to squeeze in a bracing heart-pumping 12-minute walk.
More information on Joanna Hall’s WalkActive course is available at www.getwalkactive.thinkific.com.
This is an exclusive introductory offer to Joanna Hall’s Get Started with WalkActive 7 Day programme. To book your place simply select your start date and enter coupon AGEWELL10 at the checkout to get the special introductory price of £25 (the course is normally £35).This promo code is valid until December 23rd 2020
Joanna’s next programme dates are:
Please address any questions directly to Joanna via her website.