Are you a binge exerciser?


Thanks to a remarkable summer of sport, it seems the unthinkable has happened. Britain has fallen in love with exercise. We are entering marathons and endurance challenges in our droves. Athletics and swimming clubs are dealing with a deluge of newcomers. And gyms are reporting an upturn in attendance —not for namby-pamby stretching classes, but for hardcore workouts that leave members floored. It can only be a good thing, you might think, for a nation with such a predilection for the couch. Yet there is a downside to this fitness freneticism. Our urge to exercise is leaving us crumpled and sidelined.

It’s one thing to be inspired by Olympic athletes, another altogether to dive in and attempt to emulate their exploits. And that, apparently, is where we’re going wrong. Experts are warning that a trend for binge exercising in which people throw themselves into a high-intensity regimen from scratch or who save all of their activity for the weekend burst is beginning to take its toll. Trips to A&E departments for sports injuries rose by 15 per cent in the build-up to the summer of sport.

Dean Locking, a physiotherapist at the Werndale BMI Hospital in Carmarthen, says there has been a huge increase in the number of people requesting physiotherapy treatment. “We get loads of calls on a Monday morning,” Locking says. “People overdo it and wake up with delayed onset muscle soreness and sometimes feel just awful.” Most at risk from injury, claims Jeffrey Spang, an exercise scientist from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who has researched what he calls the “weekend warrior” phenomenon, are the formerly active over-30s who think they can launch themselves straight back into exercise from scratch.

“People hurt themselves when they have been inactive and then suddenly take on a major exercise programme, such as training for a half-marathon,” Dr Spang says. “A better plan is to break your sessions into smaller, more frequent increments and to gradually increase the amount and intensity on a week-to-week basis.” But if you can’t squeeze in much activity during the week, surely fitting it in at the weekend is better than doing nothing at all?

Tim Weeks, a former Olympic triathlete and coach who is now a personal trainer, says: “If it’s the only window of  opportunity you have, then it’s better to fit something when you can, even if that’s over two days.” Indeed, a Harvard University study of about 8,400 men showed that those without major cardiovascular risk factors who burnt 1,000 extra calories a week by doing only one or two weekend sessions of physical activity were less likely to die early than their couch-potato peers. It becomes risky, Weeks says, when you go at it hell for leather with an insufficient level of basic fitness to support your efforts. “Your classic exercise binger is someone who thinks that they need to play catch-up for any missed sessions or a lack of exercise during the week,” Weeks says. “They try to complete a marathon after a few days of training, but may do more harm than good.”

Even if you take part in the current fitness industry trend for high-intensity workouts, such as Relentless, Insanity and P90X, that promote full-on effort with minimal recovery times for rapid increases in fitness, they are far from effective if you are inactive between classes.

Studies have shown that if people fail to exercise for more than three or four days in a row, their fitness will start to deteriorate. “Anyone who goes from Monday to Friday without doing any activity is likely to find themselves less fit at the end of the week than they were at the start,” JohnBrewer, Professor of Sport at the University of Bedfordshire, says. “And that’s true no matter how much exercise they have done over the weekend.” He adds that there are immediate post-exercise benefits, including better blood sugar control for 48 hours afterwards, improved sleep patterns and reduced stress and depression, that you don’t get in full effect if you exercise intermittently.

A binge and starve approach to exercise can have rather more unwelcome side effects. Studies have shown it leaves people more prone to osteoarthritis of the knee and to raised cholesterol levels. And a few years ago, researchers at the University of Ulster’s school of sports studies found that unfit people who engage in sporadic bouts of strenuous exercise can cause serious chemical damage to their bodies. Blood analysis of runners revealed that exhaustive aerobic exercise caused damage to important DNA and lipid molecules, leaving them more prone to chronic disease.The conclusion was that performing tough workouts when your body isn’t used to it are a bad idea.

Last year, findings from a study at Tufts University warned that normally sedentary people are at a 3.5 times higher risk of heart attacks in the hours immediately after a burst of exercise. Although the researchers stressed that the overall risk of a heart attack after exercise remained “very, very small”, they said their results confirmed that couch potatoes who want to get in shape should increase their level of physical activity gradually.

For Weeks, the message is not to drop workouts at weekends altogether, but to spread “exercise consistency” so that the effort they entail is less of a shock to the system. Even walking every day or running up flights of stairs will help to keep your body primed. “Obviously, it’s better to do something that makes you sweat during the week, but if you can’t, then forget it and move on,” he says. “I often see women doing four classes back to back in the gym on a Saturday morning. There is no point. Do one well, rather than four below average. Otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.”




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