The Chair is a Killer – The Truth About Exercise

The Truth About Exercise

Michael Mosley

Michael Mosley, the medical researcher and reporter for the BBC, has presented yet another excellent documentary about health and weight loss called The Truth About Exercise. In this latest feature he decided to tackle the issue of exercise, and looked specifically at why some people just do not seem to benefit so much from exercise as others do.

Michael Mosley starts the documentary by telling us, “Exercise, I know I should do it …… but I hate it“. A sentiment echoed by many people. Health advisers tell us we need to exercise for good health, but few people actually listen. Mostly that is because we do not enjoy the experience much!


However, scientists are changing view of exercise. Some extraordinary research shows that we all respond to exercise in very different ways and that we can get many of the healthy benefits of exercise in just 3 minutes a week.

Michael Mosley says the research has altered the way he lives his life already and is convinced that everyone can benefit in the same way. In short, this research shows how we can all live healthier and longer lives without exercise!

During the documentary Michael Mosley spoke with many experts in sports science, nutrition and human biology.

Will Sharman, Loughborough University

The journey started at Loughborough University, the training ground for many Olympic hopefuls.

Will Sharman is a 110m hurdle contender. He explained his motivation for exercise. He does 30 hours a week fitness training to get his body ready to compete on the world state:

“There are some things within my training components that are gruelling and I don’t enjoy them at the time, it’s horrible, such as when you have lactic acid in your legs it is really painful, when you have a difficult running session and it feels like my lungs are on fire because I cannot breathe properly – these things are not nice at the time but I do them because they a vehicle to what I am trying to achieve.”

And this is the first hurdle for everyone – you must have a really good incentive to exercise, because for many people, it really is a gruelling experience.

The First Truth of Exercise

The first truth of exercise, according to Michael Mosley, is that “you can easily hurt yourself if you are not prepared“. He developed this truth after pulling a muscle in a race against Will Sharman!

However, the difference between athletes and the rest of us is not just down to training. On asking Dr. Richard Ferguson if he could achieve the same athletic level as the students at Loughborough, the answer was that “it depends a lot on your parents genes and your genes. The short answer is no“.

Michael then asked the classic question: “If I want a 6 pack, OK, what do I have to do?“. This is one of the most common reasons for non-athletes to exercise – to lose weight and get a flat stomach.

Will Sharman answered, with a smile:

“You’ve got one already, I think you are just hiding it. The first thing you have to do is just reveal it. The amount of exercise you are doing will reflect the amount of body fat you have”.

One of the main reasons to do exercise is because we wish to lose weight to lower fat levels. And most of us focus on exercising the abs to get a flat stomach and six pack, but really the focus should be on losing fat, as we already have abdominal muscles!

Exercise and Weight Loss

Dr. Keith Tolfrey, an Exercise Physiologist at Loughborough Uni, showed Michael how much fat and carbohydrate is used during exercise. Jogging at 6 mph burned 16 calories per minute. So, to burn off a banana, a muffin and a coffee you need to exercise for about 1 hour.

This is why most people fail to lose weight – they underestimate how much exercise is needed to burn off the food they eat. Also, some people subconsciously compensate for exercise by eating more food!

Control What You Eat To Lose Weight

Michael then visited Dr. Jason Gill, University of Glasgow, who examines how dietary fat affects the human body.

Many of the most important benefits of exercise lie hidden deep inside our body. One of the most remarkable effects of even gentle exercise is the effect it has on fat in the blood.

When we eat fat, it enters our gut then the blood stream. This can lead to fatty deposits forming on the walls of blood vessels. Within 4 hours of eating a large fatty meal there is still a lot of fat circulating in the blood stream, around double the fat. This damages blood vessels and also goes into fat stores.

Not all fat stores are equal. Visceral fat is the most unhealthy, along with liver and pancreas fat.

However, not a lot of exercise is needed to regulate the fat levels. A 90 minute walk each day can help keep fat levels down. After exercising, fat is stored in the muscles instead of fat cells and it is then burned off.

So, is there a form of exercise that is as effective as 90 minutes walking but can be done quicker?

Prof. Jamie Timmons

Government guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. But some scientists believe that it is time to radically rethink this approach.

Prof. Jamie Timmons from the University of Birmingham, explains that the problem with the government guidelines is that they are not personalised. He is looking at new ways to get everyone exercising.

“What we have known for quite some time now is that there is a huge variation in how people actually respond and benefit from exercise. And so there is no guarantee that this recipe (the government guidelines) will actually give you the right results”.

In a 4 year study, 1000 people exercised 4 hours a week for 20 weeks. Although on average their fitness improved, people responded very differently from the exactly same amount of training. While some people responded very well, others did not respond to exercise at all. About 20% of the population did not respond from exercise.

11 genes affect how you respond to exercise. A genetic test can show you how well you will respond to 20 weeks of exercise.

Even a fitness no responder will get some benefits from exercise. Also, if you are the type of person who does not respond to long workouts, there may be better approaches to making yourself a healthier and fitter person.

The assumption that the more exercise you do the better may not be true. But you have to know for sure with a genetic test!


Prof. Timmons believes that we are moving into a Personalised Exercise Era – Genetics can show what exercise systems is best for you. In the same way that different medication will be prescribed depending on your genes, health scientists will soon be prescribing different fitness regimes depending on your genetic makeup.

However, the big news is the radical time-saving exercising routine. In just a few minutes a week you can get enough exercise to make your body healthier. Is it too good to be true though? Michael Mosley tried the short sharp exercise regime.

Health Benefits of Exercise

Before performing the short exercise regime the various health benefits of exercise were discussed and demonstrated. Firstly it was explained how insulin sensitivity removes sugar from blood and controls fat. Exercise improves insulin control.

Then VO2 Max was explained. VO2 Max predicts how fit you are and is an important predictor of future health. Why is VO2 important? Scientists do not really understand why it is important for health, but know that it is an important indicator.

VO2 Max and Insulin Sensitivity can be improved with High Intensity Training Protocol. A period of a few minutes a week!

“It goes against absolutely everything that I was taught whilst I was in medical school and everything I have read since” Michael Mosley.

Cycling maximally for about 20 seconds, followed by a short rest, then repeated twice. So, 60 seconds of exercise is done per day, 3 days a week.

Over the last 6-7 years US and UK laboratories have shown that you can get all the health benefits of longer sessions. It has been found that HIT quickly breaks down the glycogen stores in the muscles. Also within 6 weeks your aerobic capacity can be improved.

Michael Mosley tested the theory by doing 12 minutes of intense exercise over a period of one month on an exercise bike – 3 minutes a week, 60 seconds each session.

HIT does not suit everyone and if you have any pre-existing medical condition you should seek professional medical advice before starting. The results come up at the end of the show (and the end of this discussion).

NEAT – Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

As well as the HIT protocol, Michael tested another type of very low intensity exercise. Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is an obesity expert and believes that another way to reduce weight is to increased your NEAT. No sweat and no cost is involved!

What is NEAT? Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – this is simply the calories you burn through everyday living. Many people spend 12 hours a day in a chair, not moving.

Fidget Pants!

Fidget Pants (I do not think this is the official name for them!) monitor all movements you make in a day to determine how many calories you burn. Dr. Levine explains how walking is so good at doubling or even tripling your metabolic rate.

Robert Kelsey, and health author, and Stephanie Ware, a waitress at a cafe, were also enrolled to test to see who burns the most calories, along with Michael Mosley. So, who moved the most? Stephanie does not officially exercise, but is on her feet all day long which suggests she has a high NEAT. Robert is a writer but goes to the gym for 2-3 hours each week. Michael is more sedentary.

The video showed Stephanie cycling to work, Michael sitting on a train (or on the sofa) and Robert in the gym. Stephanie is very active. Robert shows sporadic activity (no movement followed by bursts of activity), and Michael is not very active at all!

Is it better to be relatively sedentary and then go to the gym, or to be active all the time? As most people do not take planned exercise it is most important to just be more active in life.

Michael decided to get more active. Mostly to walk or cycle everywhere, take the stairs instead of the lift and avoid sitting at every opportunity. He burned an extra 500 Calories a day just by keeping on the move more. No sweat.

“There should never be an hour that you are sitting down. You need to be moving every hour. Being chained to the chair is killing millions. For most people going to the gym is not enough! “. Dr. James Levine.

Emma Ross, University of Brighton

Why do we slow down and stop? Dr. Emma Ross explains that when we become fatigued it is not just that the muscles become tired, but the brain actually plays a large role in slowing us down.

Michael was set a task to cycle in a low oxygen environment. Within a few minutes his oxygen saturation was down to 80% and he really wanted to stop. He was then strapped to a chair and his leg muscles were tested. The idea was to test how much his brain stopped him from exerting himself.

The results showed that his brain was actually holding him back. Muscles send signals to the brain to slow down and the brain subconsciously sends signals to slow the muscles, even though they are still capable of doing more. This is known as a safety margin and with training. i.e. more exercise, you can literally teach yourself to work harder and prevent your brain from slowing you down so soon.

This is fascinating research and shows how important mental attitude is to exercise, and also explains why we get fitter as we do more exercise – we learn to force our bodies to work harder and re-program the brain to allow us to exercise more!

Did 12 Minutes of Exercise in a Month help Michael Mosley?

At the end of the 4 week HIT regime, Michael Mosley’s insulin function was improved by around 23%. This was in line with their previous clinical studies. They believe that the key is in breaking down the glycogen reserves. However, the regime did not improve his aerobic capacity. Michael’s genetic test had predicted him as a non-responder to exercise.

A new £5 million study is being carried out by Prof. Jamie Timmons. He believes that while people respond differently to different types of exercise. Some people simply do not respond to exercise, and for these people then, a combination of HIT and NEAT may be the best approach.

But, is HIT better than a sprint or a 30 minute cardio session? Also, if you can be more active in general (higher NEAT) and do a daily 30 minutes workout with a few 20 second sprint at the end, surely this will help you to lose more weight, control insulin better and make you fitter?

While this documentary did reveal some interesting developments in exercise, it did come across as a little defeatist in the end. Michael was labelled an exercise non-responder – however, it is still my belief that more regular exercise will eventually rid him of his belly fat and ensure that he does not develop diabetes as his father did. Just because you do not respond as well as an athlete, this should not stop you from working a little harder. Besides, exercise can be fun.

The conclusion is that the chair is a killer, and on that note, I had better stop writing and do something else instead!

More like this in the Fitness section

  15 comments for “The Chair is a Killer – The Truth About Exercise

  1. Pat Menzies
    April 25, 2013 at 12:28 am

    I am 73 year old male and have a moderate case of atrial fibrillation which is now well-controlled by medication. Theoretically, could I benefit from HIT or is it a no-no from anyone like me?

    Can you suggest any web-sites where my doctor and I can learn more of the pros and cons of this form of exercise for a subject like me?

  2. MotleyHealth
    April 25, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Hi Pat, HIT is not recommended for people with known health problems.

    There is actually quite a bit of advice online on this topic, and for this reason I shall write up a quick review for you and your doctor to use. I shall drop you an email once it is online later today.

  3. MotleyHealth
    April 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Hi, I have posted a new page here: http://www.motleyhealth.com/fitness/exercising-with-atrial-fibrillation-a-fib

    It is not actually complete at the moment, just a first draft really. But in short, it would seem that HIT / HIIT is not recommended for anyone suffering A-Fib due to the increase risk of stroke or heart problems.

    Moderate, steady exercise, such as cycling, jogging, would appear to be the safest option.

    I am hoping to find some more research specific to exercise and A-Fib patients with more extensive study groups. When I do I will update the article.

  4. Katie Soerries
    November 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    In the PBS show me Mosley had some test done re to genetic and how his body burns s and how some people respond diff to exercise over other and u could get test to see if u were!! Some people could exercise all day and see no results where someone else could do same thing and have amazing results!! Trying to remember the show and how to explain it!!! There are test not sure if blood test but to see how your body responds!!! There were a couple test likes these but can’t remember names??? Please help!!! Also u want in some kind of pod pod too what was that for

  5. MotleyHealth
    November 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I think I know what you mean Katie, but it has been a while since I watched it and I cannot remember what those tests were called either. I shall investigate and report back if I find something.

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