- Dr Michael Mosley
- BBC, series “Just one thing”
I did something today that I don’t normally do. When I jog I usually run up a hill, but today I walked up it. However, I ran downstairs. And that’s because, as illogical as it sounds, running downhill is probably better for me than running uphill.
What I did is known as the eccentric exercise, and despite the name, there’s nothing strange about it.
What’s fascinating is that even though it may seem easier to go down than up, eccentric exercise is actually important for all sorts of health benefits, including muscle repair and growth, flexibility and bone density.
While it might surprise you (it certainly surprised me), the easy part, the part where you go down, is actually one of the fastest ways to get stronger.
And it’s not just downhill running, it’s any exercise where you lengthen muscles under resistance, like lowering weights after lifting them: when you lift a weight, you contract your arm muscles (that’s is a concentric exercise); lowering them lengthens the muscles.
Stretch your muscles in several ways is the most effective part of the exercise.
Done right, eccentric exercises can confer some truly remarkable benefits, whether it’s keeping you in shape or helping your body continue to burn more calories when you’ve finished a seemingly tougher workout.
Would you like to try?
If you are curious, you can try the “sit and stand challenge”.
All you have to do is sit down on a chair, very slowly: take 3-5 seconds. Then, stand on both legs.
If you’re feeling particularly energetic and have good balance, you can try the seated part on one leg.
Repeat at least 10 times a day.
Eccentric exercises are the flip side of many moves you already do, and they’ve always been hidden away in your exercise program, like a secret.
Just be more aware of them, incorporate them into your routines, and make sure the active muscle is working.
But do they really provide significant benefits to your overall health?
In one of my favorite studies, people were asked to go up or down stairs of a 10-storey building twice a week Yes What they will use the elevator in the other direction.
As expected, both groups saw improvements in many health outcomes, but surprisingly the group that took the elevator and walked down the stairs were fitter: they had significantly greater improvements in resting heart rate, which is a measure of overall health and fitness.
The result is all the more surprising since the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to go down the stairs as it does to go up them.
Those who walked down the stairs also saw greater improvements in their insulin sensitivity and blood fat levels.
Eccentric exercise could also be the key to stronger bones and muscles.
In the stair climbing study, the group that climbed the stairs had greater improvement in muscle function and bone density than the group that climbed the stairs.
And, amazingly, those who descended improved their muscle strength by a 3.4%more than double the group that went up the stairs.
A result similar to a 2019 randomized control study comparing older adults doing traditional exercises with a group doing eccentric exercises found that the eccentric group showed improved 38% in leg strength compared to a 8% in the traditional exercise group.
It also reduces the risk of injury and can improve balance, which is very important for overall well-being.
Other studies have shown that focusing on the eccentric phase of weight lifting can increase the rate at which calories are burned at the end of the exercise.
So, for some reason, the part of the exercise that seems the easiest actually has the most beneficial impact on the whole… But why ?
It’s time to consult an expert on the strange science behind eccentric exercises, one like Tony Kayeprofessor of biomechanics at the University of Northampton, UK.
Why is eccentric exercise so effective?
First, because it’s easier to do. It is much more difficult to go up than to go down, and yet we move the same amount of mass as our body.
The second reason is in the way the muscle works.
It’s a simple calculation that I explain to you with fictitious figures: let’s say we lift 100 kilos in a squat.
When we stand up, we use 100 muscle fibers, so each is stressed by 1 kilo.
Going down we use different muscle fibers that are much, much bigger and more powerful, so we only use 25 muscle fibers.
Each of them has to withstand 4 times the load, which creates much more microscopic damage to the cells of these fibers.
it’s absolutely fascinating What part of the benefits of exercise is the damage causes: cause microphonetearsand it’s recovery that makes you stronger.
It’s correct. While it makes us healthier, fitter, etc., exercise itself creates microscopic damage that stimulates hormonal responses, and with nutrition, rest, and sleep over the next few days, you rebuild those muscles to a new bigger and stronger level.
Eccentric exercise has been consistently shown to create greater microscopic damage than concentric exercise.
And can it also help you burn more calories?
No, while you exercise.
This is because it causes more microscopic damage, so it forces the body to increase its metabolic rate for the next few days while it repairs itself, so the metabolic rate is elevated for an extended period of time.
What are the benefits as we age?
As we age, we get weaker, our arm muscles get smaller, and our bones get weaker as well. And the eccentric exercise has repeatedly shown more positive effects on all three than any other type of contraction.
We looked at the effect of eccentric training on healthy young male soccer players, and it showed dramatic increases in strength.
We then performed the same exercise on older people over the age of 65, some with clinical conditions.
They had very large increases in strength, ranging from 30-50%, and a 10% increase in muscle mass in their quadriceps in just six weeks.
This is a substantial increase much, much higher than what we would expect from normal exercise.
Another study I did showed a 4x increase in ankle range of motion compared to traditional stretching.
Thus, it increases flexibility, muscle mass, bone density, strength.
It is a very effective exercise.
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