In a year filled with Covid-related hopes, setbacks, strides and losses, the most vital exercise science of 2021 has served as a reminder that for many of us, our bodies and minds can grow stronger, endure and thrive, no matter what. If we move our bodies in the right way, a growing body of evidence suggests that we may live with greater stamina, purpose, and cognitive clarity for many years to come.
And it may not take a lot of movement.
In fact, some of the biggest fitness news of the year was about how little exercise we could be doing while maintaining or even improving our health. A study from last January, for example, showed that just five minutes of intensive Swedish gymnastics exercises significantly improved aerobic capacity and leg strength in students. Another series of studies from the University of Texas found that four seconds – yes, seconds – of ferocious pedaling on a bicycle, repeated several times, was enough to increase the strength and endurance of adults, regardless of age or age. their state of health when they started.
Even people whose favorite workout is walking may need less than they think to achieve a sweet spot for exercise, other new research shows. As I wrote in July, the familiar goal of 10,000 daily steps, deeply embedded in our activity trackers and our collective consciousness, has little scientific validity. It’s a myth born out of a marketing mishap, and a study released this summer further debunked it, finding that people who took 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day, or about 3 miles, typically lived longer than those who walked less or accumulated more than 10,000 steps. So keep moving forward, but don’t worry if your total doesn’t reach a five-digit step count.
Of course, the science of exercise has weighed in on other resonant topics in 2021 as well, including weight. And the news there was not all encouraging. Numerous studies in 2021 reinforced an emerging scientific consensus that our bodies compensate for some of the calories we burn during physical activity, by diverting energy from certain cellular processes or by subconsciously prompting us to move and move less.
A July study, for example, that looked at the metabolisms of nearly 2,000 people found that we probably offset, on average, about a quarter of the calories we burn with exercise. As a result, on the days that we exercise we burn much less total calories than we realize, making weight loss even more difficult.
On the other hand, exercise appears essential for weight maintenance, according to other research from 2021. A new scientific analysis of participants of the televised weight loss competition, The Biggest Loser, found that those who did the the more exercise in the years after completing the program were the least likely to have regained any pounds lost during the show.
Exercise also has a disproportionate effect on our chances of a long, healthy life. According to one of the most inspiring studies of 2021, overweight people who started exercising reduced their risk of premature death by about 30% even though they remained overweight, with exercise providing about twice the benefits of weight loss.
Physically active people tend to imagine more inventive ways of using car tires and umbrellas, a standard test of creativity, than people who rarely move around a lot.
Exercise also improves our brain power, according to other memorable experiences from 2021. They have shown that physical activity strengthens immune cells that help protect us against dementia; cause the release of a hormone that improves the health of neurons and the ability to think (in mice); strengthen the white matter tissue of our brain, which connects and protects our functioning brain cells; and probably even adding to our creativity. In a nifty study from last February, physically active people tended to imagine more inventive ways of using car tires and umbrellas, a standard test of creativity, than people who rarely moved around a lot.
Overall, the exercise neuroscience research of 2021 is “a strong case for getting up and moving” if we hope to use our brains with continued clarity and imaginatively in the depths of our golden years, as one of the researchers told me.
Yet the study that struck me the most last year had less to do with the myriad of ways exercise reshapes our bodies and brains and more with how it might shape our sense of what matters. . In the study, which I spoke about in May, active people reported a stronger sense of purpose in their lives than inactive people.
“A sense of purpose is the feeling you have of having goals and plans that give life direction and meaning,” the study’s principal investigator told me. “It’s about being productively engaged in life. “
The study found that exercise boosted people’s resolve over time, while at the same time, a keen sense of purpose boosted people’s willingness to exercise. Indeed, the more people felt that their life had meaning, the more they ended up moving, and the more they moved, the more they found their life meaningful.
This is a result worth remembering as we look to the future with cautious optimism. So stay healthy, active, and connected in 2022, everyone. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.