In praise of stop-and-go traffic
by Al Pastor
A Ph. D. in exercise physiology, if he’ll forgive me, Joe Signorile reminded me a little of a cab driver from the movies. A dynamic and energetic speaker, Dr. Signorile teaches at the University of Miami. In a wide-ranging talk, he deftly mixed aspects of neuorophysiology, and the benefits of what’s known as interval training, with his expertise regarding Miami drivers. A quarter-century of extensive field research into both areas has given the professor in kinesiology and sport sciences firm conclusions. These he recently shared with the likely vigor he brings to battling traffic on the Dolphin Expressway
Part of a panel on “The Rise of Intervals,” his presentation, “Interval Training: A Practical Approach” highlighted a day-long symposium honoring the remarkable octogenarian body builder and author Clarence Bass, an interval devotee. Highlighting “the role of science in exercise prescription,” the event was hosted by the no-less dynamic and energetic H.J. Lutcher Stark Center, the University of Texas museum and research library dedicated to physical culture – a venerable term encompassing fitness, strength training and wellness – and sports.
Dr. Signorile defines intervals as “a series of alternating cycles of work and recovery.” He offered technical asides, referencing studies, into the body’s biochemical machinery during exercise: capillary and mitochondrial densities, enzyme concentration and so forth. Adrift amidst academicians and training experts, an interested innocent bystander, the scientific equivalent of the “98-pound weakling” would necessarily seize upon layman-friendly analogies, which Dr. Signorile thankfully offered, including the one about Miami drivers.
Consider, he said, drivers flooring it when the light turns green, racing on at top speed, only to come to a halt at the next red light. This is a supremely inefficient way to drive a car, extravagantly wasteful, if the goal is to conserve fuel.
If the fuel is calories, however, and not unleaded, he said: “To waste a lot of fuel, that’s good. Interval training is very good. Interval training allows more work to be done per unit time.”
In one of his books, Bending the Aging Curve: The Complete Exercise Guide for Aging Adults (Human Kinetics, 2011), he writes:
If increasing aerobic capacity, reducing high blood pressure, or weight loss (especially around the waistline) is the goal, then interval training is one of the most effective tools you possess to reach that goal.
“The wonderful thing about intervals,” he continued in his talk, “You can do them anywhere. You can do them any way, and you still get positive impact. It’s all about intensity. That is all that it’s about.” As he wrote, an interval is an exceptional way “to get the most fitness bang for your exercise buck.”
For the record, he made of point of mentioning the obligatory but often-neglected proper warm-up and cool-down periods. Questioned about the length of the exertion, he recommended 20 seconds “on” (of work) and 10 seconds “off” (of recovery) for four minutes. It requires – 98-pound weakling chiming in again – a super-human effort. Studies he noted showed mortals generally slow down at about 10-15 seconds. Clarence Bass, in one of his many books describes his one spectacular fitness experiences, accurately and succinctly describes them as “brutal.”
You may have noticed several recent tides of publicity on what-seem-like ridiculously short work-outs. Twelve minutes? Four minutes? However many minutes one has for daily exercise? There is no mystery. The secret, long recommended for everything from running to biking to swimming to cross-country skiing to sprints, is intervals.
“We function all the time in intervals,” Dr. Signorile said, adding, “there’s always an aerobic component. You can’t get away from it.” Anyone who doubts the assertion, he suggested, should note their response crossing the street in the wake of an approaching bus. Obviously, the step quickens to avoid a collision. That, he said, is an example of interval training.
Of many studies, he showed two contrasting slides comparing so-called “steady state” exercise with intervals. The first charted interval training and its effects, the alternate periods of rest and exertion represented by apparent mountains – peaks and valleys. A second slide demonstrated the sort of constant, even, steady rate, that one might see commonly performed on health club treadmills for long periods of moderate steady exertion. What is a ruinous way to drive proves a terrific way to work the body.
Intermittent exercise was part of scientific calculations are far back as the 1930s. So-called “repetition training” dates back even further. There is the amusing Swedish translation: Fartlek, it’s known, Fart for speed, lek – for play. Landmark research was done in Japan, known now as the Tabata protocol, an enhanced speed skating training regimen that produced exceptional results in aerobic capacity.
As Dr. Signorile notes in his writings, the length of the periods takes some personal adjustment. Personal aside: Those who may have found that a three-minute round in the ring may be interminable will find excruciating the mix of starting of stopping.
In Bending the Aging Curve, Dr. Signorile is no less explicit than he was in his talk, though, like many subjects in many fields, one finds there is always debate, loose threads and alternate and even divergent opinion. For those who struggle with finding the time to exercise, or with inconclusive results, your scribe found the presentation, and indeed the symposium, most convincing. It would be easy enough to suggest an inefficiency familiar to anyone who drives in an urban environment, with an towards eliciting results certainly more pleasing than road rage. “As the original research report stated,” Dr. Signorile, writes: [interval training] may be one of the best training protocols…”