In Search of Goldilocks Exercise

The problem with a lot of academics, including academics in the medical field, is that they have to keep researching and writing and publishing in order to keep their jobs, get promoted, or move on to greener pastures. Because of this need, a lot of people are tempted to offer less-than-stellar work for publication.

In recent years, a cluster of researchers, notably Carl Lavie and James O’Keefe, have led the charge in advocating something called the excessive exercise theory. At the heart of their theory lay the idea that vigorous exercise, for example running more than a couple of times a week, could be harmful to health.

As these things tend to go, the studies that allowed these researchers to sound an alarm over excessive exercise have been undercut by other studies that don’t support the theory, causing the writers to backtrack. Lavie shares his current position:

“As first author, while I believe there are risks associated with very high levels of exercise, I wanted to emphasize several points,” he wrote. “First, low exercise is a much more prevalent problem for our society than is excessive exercise. Second, the maximal health benefits of exercise typically occur at quite low levels. More exercise may burn more calories and improve athletic performance, but probably does not lead to better health outcomes.

I’m imagining Lavie describing a search for a Goldilocks level of exercise: something that’s not “too much” or “too little,” but “just right.”

On the off chance that you won’t study up on all the background information, let’s just summarize by saying that there’s, at best, conflicting information on negative health effects from excessive exercise. Some studies suggest that an enormous amount of exercise has mildly negative effects while others say that it is positive.

In reality, most mortals don’t exercise so much that they’d need to worry about those negatives.

The fault I have with research like Lavie’s is that it tries to boil everything down to a single factor, treating human exercise like an algebraic equation. He admits that a great deal of exercise will burn more calories and increase athletic performance but suggests that these positives will come at a cost in “health outcomes.”

I’m the last one to volunteer to die tomorrow, but since when did “health outcomes,” decreases in morbidity and mortality, become the absolute gold standard in human life. I’d be much more interested in talking about “life outcomes.” Who wants to live a very long, very healthy, but very empty life? Such a life amounts to hoarding years, which is surely as unworthy as hoarding money.

I’m all for Goldilocks and a “just right” life, but I don’t believe the excessive exercise crowd have found the way to measure that.