Healthspan: the massively undervalued upside to training the right way
Think back to your reasons for starting an exercise routine in the past.
For most of us, it was probably some variation of ‘losing weight’, ‘getting stronger’ or ‘looking better naked’. Nothing wrong with these at all — they can be powerful motivators, especially at the start of our journey. However, people tend to undervalue the main benefit of regular exercise: it’ll help you live longer, whilst also improving your quality of life. There are details to this that can profoundly deepen our ‘why’, which is what we all need to do in order to stay consistent in the long term.
In this article, we’re going to dive into this a little bit in the hopes that we’ll all be able to evolve our perspective and take a longer-term view on why this self-care practice we’ve chosen might be the best investment we’ll ever make in ourselves.
Let’s get into it.
The surprising power of cardiorespiratory fitness
To improve your cardiorespiratory fitness (or VO2max), you can consistently run, bike and swim at a moderate pace for a long time, or you can exercise intensively, like with HIIT, for a really short amount of time. Whichever way you go about it, exercising regularly will typically improve your VO2max.
But that’s not all. Cardiorespiratory fitness isn’t just a good predictor of athletic performance—it’s positively correlated with living longer. While this probably isn’t news to you, what might be surprising is how much of a difference it makes.
Consider this study from 2018 that looked at the cardiorespiratory fitness and mortality of 122,007 patients over 24 years. It found that:
- Moving from low cardiorespiratory fitness (bottom 25th percentile) to below average cardiorespiratory fitness (25th to 49th percentile) shows a 50% reduction in mortality over 10 years.
- Moving from low cardiorespiratory fitness (bottom 25th percentile) to above average cardiorespiratory fitness (50th to 74th percentile) shows a 60-70% reduction in mortality.
- Moving from low cardiorespiratory fitness (bottom 25th percentile) to elite (above 97.7th percentile) reduces your 10-year mortality rate by a factor of five.
To put this in context, having diabetes or smoking both increase your mortality risk by about 40%. As the authors of the study put it, “the adjusted mortality risk of reduced cardiorespiratory fitness was greater than or equal to traditional clinical risk factors, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and smoking”.
Think about that for a second. Reducing your level of fitness can actually be worse for you than taking up smoking! In terms of bang for your buck, nothing can give us health benefits like consistent exercise can.
When it comes to improving your cardiorespiratory fitness and enjoying these significant decreases in mortality, the research is clear: you can get it done in chunks of as little as 10 minutes of intensity, if you push yourself to that 85% to 95% of maximal intensity range.
In a world where everyone is short on time, it makes sense to utilise tools like HIIT, that provide the most efficient method available for people to buy themselves more time over the long term.
The key takeaway: if you just work hard for a short period of time, a few times per week, forever, you’ll probably live longer. It’s an incredible deal if you think about it.
The powerful effect of strong muscles and bones on quality of life
It’s no secret that ageing sucks. Once you hit a certain age, you start to find that your body isn’t physically what it once was—things that were effortless in your twenties suddenly aren’t quite so easy.
There are a few reasons for this:
- You lose strength and muscle as you age. There’s a lot of research on the topic of sarcopenia, which is a fancy word for muscle loss. Some studies report that people lose muscle at a rate of 3% to 8% per decade past the age of 30. It gets worse: other studies report that past the age of 50, muscle mass declines at a rate of 1% to 2% per year (in case these numbers seem small to you, losing 2% muscle mass per year means you lose half your muscle mass over 35 years).
- Your bones get weaker. It’s been estimated that amongst adults in the United States aged 50 and over, 10.3% have osteoporosis and 43.9% have low bone mass. Nobody wants weaker bones that get injured easily.
- Your ability to perform declines. To make the story even worse, we also tend to lose fast-twitch fibers at a faster rate, which you can think of like the types of muscle fibers that help you do fast, strong, powerful, athletic movements.
This doesn’t just mean you’ll be a bit slower at climbing stairs or more inclined to make a noise while getting up off the couch as you age. It’s a little harsher than that.
Consider the findings of a group of Brazilian researchers who studied over 2000 people aged 51 to 80. They found that those who are better at getting up off the ground tend to live longer.
- Those in the lowest ability group had a 5 to 6 times greater mortality risk than the highest ability group.
- A 1-point decrease in ability resulted in about a 21% increase in mortality risk (the maximum score on the test was 10).
Gives a whole new meaning to your burpees and sit-throughs, doesn’t it?
The cool part is that we’re not fated to end up in the low ability groups as we age—we can do something about it. By training the right way, you can maintain strong muscles and bones, and even keep or regain your athletic fast-twitch muscle fibers. If you don’t want to lose it, USE IT!
You don’t even need to do that much strength and power training to improve joint health, bone health, muscle health, athletic ability, hormonal responses, metabolic changes and neuromuscular adaptations:
- Even a single set of multi-joint strength work (think deadlifts, squats and push-ups) can yield a significant stimulus if you’re doing it consistently.
- You don’t have to do jump squats if you just move with fast intentions sometimes.
- Doing 3 to 5 sets of strength stuff and explosive stuff a couple of times per week won’t just help you maintain what you have—it’ll help you gradually improve your capacities, kicking you into a virtuous cycle where you get more and more out of each workout.
It’s important to note that it’s not about how hard you can push in one massive workout today, or whether you can keep up an insane workout schedule for the next month.
The key to unlocking all these huge benefits is getting a consistent dose of the right kind of exercise, multiple times per week, forever. Ideally, a mix of strength training, athletic power work, and high-intensity cardio (and lots of low-intensity walking/hiking).
Yes, losing fat and looking better naked are great, but the most important reason to exercise might actually be that doing so will allow us to enjoy more time on this planet, and have a good quality of life during those extra years. This isn’t just about lifespan, it’s about healthspan—the time on this earth we get to spend in an enriching, fulfilling, high-quality way.
If you found this helpful, and you think it can help motivate people around you to start exercising or to keep going, share it. Let’s elevate the conversation beyond burning calories and hot bodies — let’s change the narrative.
Ian Tan is the Co-Founder of Ritual. He’s got an MSc in Strength and Conditioning, a background in psychology, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).