The First 20 Minutes (review)

The First 20 Minutes
The First 20 Minutes is a decent summary of what we know about exercise, at least for those of us who aren’t preparing for the Olympics and are just trying to avoid dying. It’s worth flipping through for a hour or so.

“Exercise more!” Yeah yeah yeah. What’s best here is the attitude. It’s not motivational or encouraging, really, but it’s practical. The author calls out her own failings and averageness, which helps drive home one of the early points: if you’re looking to not die a stupidly early death, you have to exercise, but maybe not as much or as hard as you think. This book pairs very nicely with Mindless Eating. Moderate changes with a long-term attitude will do you a world of good.

The vast majority of exercise’s benefits come with any movement at all above zero. Think power law relationship or Pareto principle. If you get about 150 minutes of walking each week (or equivalent light activity), or about 75 minutes of jogging each week, you drastically reduce your risk of fairly avoidable things like diabetes and heart disease. When it comes to mortality, the benefit of a small activity change like that is right up there with laying off cigarettes. Anything beyond is icing on the cake.

And with that in mind, if you’re not a driven athlete and don’t particularly care to be one, you don’t need to train like one. Spare yourself the need for exercise paraphernalia that people would love to sell you. You don’t need special shoes, special clothes, performance gels or nutritional supplements. Basically the stuff you’ve got and a reasonable diet and you’re good to go. And exercise is going to make your brain even more awesome, too. Better memory, better mood, etc.

There’s also some good myth-busting in this book:

  • Static stretching before a workout isn’t worthwhile; a simple warm-up is.
  • Massages and ice baths don’t have much benefit for muscles after workouts, though the psychological perks probably still exist.
  • Your basic grocery store chocolate milk is pretty ideal for workout recovery.
  • Carbo-loading before a race isn’t particularly useful if you’ll be replenishing while you run, anyway (via sports drinks, gels, etc.).
  • Eight glasses of water a day is kinda bullshit. Drink when you’re thirsty. Don’t drink when you’re not.
  • There’s no “afterburn”/metabolic ramp-up over the day after moderate exercise–if that’s what you want, you have to do intense workouts.
  • Strength training can be just as beneficial as cardio, especially when it comes to the effects of aging. If you’re not a runner/swimmer/whatever, hit the weight room. And you’re not gonna Hulk out unless you really amp up the protein, too.
  • Simple running shoes are best. Shoes that feature fancy structure for high arch or pronation/supination control do what they advertise, yes, but they don’t seem to have any effect on injury rates.

One last interesting idea here was that inactivity has its own physiology. Sitting and laying about cause their own (often negative) processes in the body, like normal gene activities shutting down or enzymes getting made in the wrong proportions. And that’s gonna happen every time you spend a lot of time on your ass. I don’t claim to understand the science, but the point is, exercise can’t reverse all of it. You gotta stand up more. Walk around. Do some more ironing or cooking or carpentry. Pace while you’re on the phone. Dance. Wiggle. Fidget.

One small complaint: I wish this book had a better index.

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