Moderate exercise or strenuous exercise – which is more beneficial? The seemingly logical answer might say strenuous exercise, as the harder you work, the more results you should get. However, anyone who has spent any real time in the exercise world knows that “more” doesn’t always mean “better”. At the same time, you have to take into account the trainee, their training history, goals, and more. Could it be that moderate exercise can be just as good for as the hard stuff?
General Workout Considerations
Before diving into any science, it bears mentioning that you need to use your head. If you’re brand new to working out, are grossly overweight, or even just have very lofty goals, you need to train within your limits. Even if you’re in a situation where strenuous exercise could conceivably be “better”, if you’re not capable of it, then don’t think you should jump right in.
At the same time, there are a great number of scenarios where, regardless of what you’re capable of, moderate exercise is all you need. If you’re just the everyday person looking to stay healthy, who is not currently overweight, doesn’t want to compete in bodybuilding, nor cares about bench pressing a truck, then keeping an even keel in the gym can be a better fit for you.
Another general consideration to keep in mind is the proverbial “flip side” of working out – recovery. If you’re in a period where your recovery might not be on point (dealing with insomnia, familial stress, working long hours or rotating shifts, dealing with chronic pain, etc.), then it doesn’t really matter what your general capabilities are or what’s required for your goals. If moderate exercise is all you’d even be able to recover from, then that’s what you should do.
Moderate Exercise vs Strenuous Exercise – the Science
Everyone now knows that exercise helps you live longer and reduces possibilities of long-term health issues. This was “proven” when scientists Paffenbarger et. al released research stating such as far back as the 1970s. The question is whether or not strenuous exercise is needed.
In 2006, the American Journal of Cardiology published work by Swain and Franklin that essentially said that it was. A group of both males and females were studied, with exercise intensity being measure by energy (caloric) expenditure. In other words, the more calories the subjects burned, the more intense the workouts were.
Their studies showed that on average, middle aged, “regular” men and women (i.e. – non athletes) who engaged in roughly the equivalent of 5 cumulative hours walking per week reduced their mortality rate by as much as 35%. Conversely, the mortality rate of middle aged women who got less than 60 minutes of exercise per week went up by as much as 52%.
Is Strenuous Exercise Really “Better”?
After seeing the benefits of what would usually be considered moderate exercise (the 5 hours per week of walking), the next question Swain and Franklin wanted to address was if results improved if the intensity was bumped up.
To do this, they began reviewing several epidemiological studies, finding that for every 1-MET increase in aerobic capacity, there was a corresponding 8-17% decrease in cardiovascular disease, as well as all other forms of mortality. Unfortunately, though, they were unable to concretely prove why.
They postulated that the main reason(s) could be neurological, stemming from improved autonomic nervous system function. This would be because the sympathetic nervous system (the area of the autonomic nervous system that speeds things up) is decreased, while the parasympathetic nervous system (the area of the autonomic nervous system that slows things down) is increased.
It’s a radical oversimplification, but what that basically means is that improved aerobic capacity triggers your nervous system to run your body as a whole on a slower and more deliberate pace. When your lungs expand and contract slower, your heart beats less often, and so on, they’re not only more efficient, but endure less wear and tear in general. And when they endure less wear and tear, they last longer.
So while strenuous exercise might be more difficult in the short term for the everyday gym goer, it can have much better and lasting benefits. Of course, do remember to keep the big picture in mind. Walking 5 hours per week is better than nothing. Jogging a couple hours and sprinting a couple times each week is better than that.
However, that doesn’t mean you should be doing 30, 100-yard sprints 7 days/week or trying to run a marathon every other day. While those are obvious exaggerations, there is a point where doing more won’t equate to better. But as long as you’re always treading that line between moderate exercise and strenuous exercise (within reason, of course), you should be getting the max amount of health benefits you’re looking for.