Dr. Michael Mosley: How exotic exercise can change your fitness

One of the best ways to get the most out of any exercise is to make it “eccentric.” You might think that running up a hill is better for you than running up it, or that walking up stairs will challenge your muscles more than walking, but in fact, the opposite is true. It sounds crazy, but that’s the new science of the “eccentric exercise.”

The name comes from the fact that stretching your muscles (to climb stairs or lift weights) is called a “central exercise,” but any work that goes into those muscles while they’re stretching and elongating (as you go downstairs or lowering weights) is known as an “eccentric exercise” (pronounced ” ee-centric”).

Tony Kay He is Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Northampton. He explains that all forms of exercise cause microscopic muscle damage. This stimulates the release of hormones that stimulate the cells to rebuild those muscles stronger than before. Concentric exercises (such as biceps curls or squats) recruit and strain many different muscle fibers.

Although the eccentric part of the exercise (when we lower the weight, or sink into a squat) recruits fewer fibers, it does so with a load up to four times higher. This, Kay says, causes much more microscopic damage to those cells and fibers.

“The greater the damage, the more calories the body burns in the process of repairing and recovering after performing the exercise,” he says. “This raises the metabolic rate and increases strength in a much more effective way than traditional forms of exercise.”

More like that

Illustration of people walking up and down stairs

© Joe Waldron

In one study, volunteers were randomly assigned to walk either up or down a flight of stairs in a 10-story building twice a week, and take the elevator the other way. Both groups saw health improvements, however The group that went down stairs rather than up them ended up with greater improvements in their resting heart rate (a reliable general measure of fitness). They also noticed a greater improvement in insulin sensitivity and blood lipid levels.

In addition, the walking group experienced greater improvement in muscle function and bone density than the walking group. In fact, the group doing what I consider to be the easiest task improved their muscle strength by 34 percent—twice as much as those who had to take the stairs each time!

In addition, the group that fell off the track showed greater improvements in balance testing, which may lead to a reduced risk of falls and injury.

Another study comparing older adults doing traditional versus exotic exercises found that The eccentric group had a 38 percent improvement in leg strengthcompared to just an 8 percent improvement in the traditional exercise group.

Other studies have shown that Benefits of eccentric exercise in healthy young soccer players (those who have experienced significant increases in strength), as well as in people over 65 years of age (who showed an increase in strength of 30 to 50 percent and a 10% increase in muscle mass in just six weeks). “The effects are much greater than what we would expect from regular exercise,” Kaye concludes.

This is really impressive – and completely counterintuitive. And it turns out that any exercise that requires you to lengthen your muscles under resistance will have the same beneficial effect, whether it’s running on an incline or slowly lowering down into a squat or push-up.

The way it works is that as you descend, the muscles in your legs or arms lengthen to slow the pace of descent. Likewise, when you lower a set of weights, the muscles lengthen and have to work harder to protect your body from damage.

Kay points out that both yoga and Pilates feature poses that require you to lower yourself slowly, causing an eccentric contraction, which, he says, “increases flexibility, muscle mass, and bone density and strength.”

Done correctly, eccentric exercises will not only keep you in great shape, but they’ll also help your body burn calories after you’re done—more than an apparently “harder” workout. This might be the metabolism secret that’s been hiding in exercise all along!

This excerpt is from Dr. Michael Moseley’s new book, Just one thing (£16.99, starting at Amazon UK And Water stones), which is based on BBC Radio 4 podcast of the same name.

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Just One Thing cover by Michael Mosley

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