Thursday, August 02, 2007

New ACSM Exercise Guidelines Rundown

Well, it's here at last folks! What we've all been waiting for. No, I'm not talking about the confounded iPhone! Not the '08 election results! Not the answer to those small-minded questions "Are we alone in the Universe?" or "What happens to our souls after we die?" I'm talking about the new exercise parameters for optimal health offered by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association!

This is the kind of thing that fitness writers everywhere love to write about, because it's so easy to take potshots at a group that undertakes an impossible task like prescribing exercise routines for millions of people they've never met. So, without further ado, let the armchair quarterbacking, nitpicking, and utterly uncalled-for snarkiness begin!

For those of you who haven't heard -- and, come on, you've been looking forward to this since the last ones came out in 1995! -- the weekly guidelines are:

20 minutes of vigorous cardio activity, 3 times a week
30 minutes of moderate cardio activity, 5 times a week
2 sessions of 10-12 strength training exercises for 8-12 reps.

So here's what I think. And, just to continue with today's "unoriginal" theme, I'm calling it, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.' And remember, you heard it here 2,345th:


1) Strength Training. Hurrah! The benefits -- for mobility, strength, posture, joints, bones, and countless other health indicators -- have been so clear for so long that the only question is, why has it taken this long to make strength training a compulsory part of healthy living?

If you fed me a couple of beers, I'd offer the theory that it has something to do with the "muscle for muscle's sake" movement that kicked up in the '60's. People saw these muscular, proto-bodybuilders coming off of Muscle Beach and wondered if all that extra bulk could really be good for you. (Never mind that most of those guys were training with gymnastic-type moves that we'd now classify under the "Functional Training" umbrella -- which itself is a corrective to all the aesthetic training that people were doing in an attempt to emulate... the original Muscle Beach crowd! The sweet irony of it all...) The suspicion stuck, and weight training was relegated to the freaky side of the tracks till pumped-up movie stars and chrome-plated health clubs dragged it kicking and screaming, first into the popular mainstream, and eventually into the good graces of the American Heart Association. Hallelujah.

2) More Activity Overall. Ah, at last, the days of "20 minutes of walking three times a week is all you need for optimum health, weight control, and the vim and vigor of an 19-year-old Pep Squad leader" are behind us. Come on, people: a dog who only walked a total of an hour a week would chew its legs off. These new parameters are more realistic. Plus, an additional caveat that people seeking weight control or reduction will probably need MORE activity is also laudable. This further suggestion also implies -- albeit faintly -- that optimal exercise guidelines may be an individual matter.

3) Vigorous Activity. Earlier guidelines drew almost no distinction between the relative benefits of window-shopping and wind-sprinting up the side of a mountain. Now, at the very least, there's a suggestion that vigorous activity is an important part of the equation, even if it's classified as an option and not an absolute requirement. Half a huzzah for that one.


1) Over-Emphasis on Moderate Exercise. If I hear, read, or get an ESP message from one more trainer warning me that I absolutely must be able to carry on a conversation while I'm exercising lest I give myself hives or pleurosis or Anthrax poisoning, I'm seriously going to explode like the 'wafer-thin mint' guy in 'Monty Python and the Meaning of Life.' This is a vestige of the "training zone" breakdown seen on the control panel of every treadmill in history, which suggests that fat is burned only below a certain effort threshold.

But that, my friends, is nonsense. As my colleague (and consummate b.s. detecting-pro) Alan Aragon once said to a roomful of seminar attendees, "Sitting there in your chairs, you are ALL in the fat-burning zone." By this 'fat-burning zone' logic, a completely sedentary TV-watching slug should be the fittest, leanest guy in Red Rock, because he's burning fat all day long.

Moderate exercise, like brisk walking, or a round of golf, should be considered something you do IN ADDITION to formal exercise, not in lieu of it. It's just not strenuous enough to create a training effect. Walk a mile a day with no attention to the time it takes you or the effort involved, and over time you'll just get slower and slower until pretty soon you're cutting it down to a half-mile, then a quarter-mile, then watching people walk around a track on the Wish-I-Could-Still-Do-That Network. I'm not saying NOT to do these activities; just not to fool yourself that they're going to help you make significant improvements in your health.

2) Few Specifics on Strength Training Parameters. Using the new ACSM/AHA guidelines, I could go into the gym and do a single set of eight reps each of bicep curls, concentration curls, dumbbell curls, EZ-bar curls, preacher curls, tricep kickbacks, tricep pushdowns, one-arm dumbbell tricep extensions, crunches and calf raises with weights so light they practically lift themselves, and skip home whistling "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Alternatively, still sticking to their program, I could do three sets of twelve reps each of squats, rows, chins, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, dips, hanging leg raises, and lunges, all with weights that I can barely handle, and need to be airlifted home. One workout will do almost nothing for all but the frailest gym-goers; the other would probably come close to over-training all but the fittest athletes.

So what exactly is meant by "2 sessions of 10-12 exercises of 8-12 reps per week?" Well... not a whole lot.


1) No Mention of Progression. "Strength Training" used to be called "Progressive Strength Training." Essential to the inaugural strength trainer's program was that Milo was shouldering a calf that was growing a little bit each day. No growth in the cow would have meant no growth in Milo's muscles. And it's really the same in the realm of 'cardio' as well. You've got to keep trying to get better: a little stronger or faster, maybe, but perhaps just slightly tighter form, a little more volume... heck, maybe even just ten minutes watering the lawn on an off day, or stretching for a couple of minutes when you get up in the morning. Something new, something different, something just a little harder is enough. And maybe you can't swing it every day. But in the big-picture sense, trying to progress should be part of the equation.

Why is progression so essential? Because 'stasis' is the primrose path to 'backsliding.' Here's a slightly off-topic analogy: there's a debate raging at the moment about the value of working to failure -- i.e., temporary exhaustion -- when training with weights. Prudent trainers are starting to advise against it, and although the science behind the anti-failure argument seems sound, I'd counter that counseling trainees not to work to failure is tantamount to telling them not to push themselves. So few people even approach muscular failure in the gym that warning them against it is like telling a pothead community college dropout not to spend too much time on his homework.

The same applies here: by failing to emphasize progression, the ACSM and AHA are essentially granting permission for exercisers to stop trying -- or even get worse.

2) Vague Language. Great that the word "vigorous" is in there. But what does it mean, exactly? We don't know, because there's no indication, not even so much as a single, measly reference to the Borg RPE scale, as to what constitutes 'vigorous.' It's just not specific enough.

Moving into stickler territory here, the term 'cardio' is fast approaching five-minutes-ago status, as it implies that certain forms of exercise -- or activity, or even complete catatonia -- don't require a boatload of support from the cardiovascular system. The distinction between strength work and cardio work is kind of blurry anyway: as I've said before, I can put a barbell in your hand and get you to huff and puff like you've just been doing wind sprints, or I can run you up a hill with everything you've got and get your thighs burning like you've just been doing squats. For the time being, let's refer to running, biking, swimming and the like as 'energy systems' training until someone comes up with a more elegant term. "Cardio" is misleading.

3) Combining Moderate "Cardio" Activity with Strength Training. This final "ugly" observation probably only applies to people who are serious about training and seeking significant improvements in strength or muscle mass, but it's worth noting that doing these two training methods concurrently usually leads to a compromise in strength training gains. That is to say: if you do intense strength training for an hour 2-3 times a week and a 45-minute jog on three other days of the week, you wouldn't get as strong or build as much muscle as you would if you were only doing exclusively strength training. This "interference effect" has been pretty extensively studied, so it's rather odd that the ASCM would recommend exercising in this less-than efficient manner. The solution is a carefully laid out periodization plan, but I suspect that the ASCM and the AHA just didn't want to go there for fear of the yawns and groans of boredom that would result. Funny, that's never deterred me...

So, to sum up my entirely subjective, unscientific rundown of these new suggestions: some genuine progress, some questionable calls, and a few things I would personally consider missteps in wording that another trainer might well quibble with. Overall, though, I'd have to say that as far as exercise parameters for the every man, woman, and child in the known universe go, these are pretty good, and they're certainly leaps and bounds beyond what we've had in the past.

Most of the criticisms I have for the program are tweaks, anyway: caveats and qualifications that would be more or less lost on an exercise-hater just looking for hard-and-fast rules on how to stave off early heart failure. Which is to say, the target audience for this sort of information: people who are, unaccountably, less fascinated by the minutia of exercise science than I am.

What a bunch of weirdos. Geez.

Your own comments on the ACSM/AHA report are welcome below. What do these suggestions mean to you? Do they seem excessive, overly cautious, confusing, contradictory? Write in and let me know what you think. Everybody's doing it.



fitline said...

can you please elaborate what actually fitness training is?

Andrew said...

This sounds like one of those simple questions designed to make the answerer look like a dolt, but I'll give it a try: fitness training is systematic physical activity designed to improve the health, performance, quality of life, and/or appearance of the participant.

Sound good? Did I leave anything out? Did I inadvertantly expose my true ignorance? Nice question...

Anonymous said...

I have to question the extent to which the interference effect occurs for most people who are relatively untrained or are just starting a program. From my own experience and from watching people working out around me, it seems that most people who are trying to work their way into good health from a state of complete sedentariness should be doing anything and everything. Furthermore, while they might not get 'as strong' if they're doing cardio on alternating days between strength training, I personally made some fairly impressive gains in strength and size lifting twice a week while rowing and running 7-8 times a week in college.

Andrew said...

Agreed, overall...that's why I add the qualification above that my comments about the interference effect are probably only relevant to those seeking maximal strength/size gains--not the average exerciser. As to your own experience--I think most college age guys (I don't know your gender, but speaking for myself) can down a twelve pack at 3 AM and still get up in time for a pickup triathlon before breakfast. Thanks for posting --Andrew

Joey said...

While I COMPLETELY agree with your observations of these guidelines, I have to say this: If even 1/4 of the sedentary nation did even 1/2 of what is recommended, they would be healthier. I suspect the ACSM and AHA is taking the "conservative", albeit WEENIE, road to get some of those butts off the couch. It's a sad approach, and not one I would have taken, but I may get some calls from some couch potatos because of it! Then I'll show them the real way to workout!

Andrew said...

You're right, Joey..people may very well read these guidelines and think they are all they need to look like fitness models, even though they are really minimal requirements for health. Still, it's a big step up from "walk up a flight of stairs twice a day", and let's hope that it does have the desired effect of getting people moving...and employing trainers! Thanks for the comment! Andrew