Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race)

The Problem and Promise of an Active Life

When you’ve got something to sell and you know in your heart that it’s really great, you’ve got a problem. The temptation to oversell can be tough to resist. In health promotion, exercise is an obvious example. Over at the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds is a huge fan. She writes the Phys Ed series for the Times. We admire her enthusiasm. But once again she’s making a promise about living an active life that doesn’t line up with research she’s describing. Her headline:

The Secret to Longevity? 4-Minute Bursts of Intense Exercise May Help

She goes on to say, “Including high-intensity training in your workouts provided better protection against premature death than moderate workouts alone.”

The Catch

There’s just one problem. For evidence, she’s citing an RCT that finds “a non-significant 1.7% absolute risk reduction in all cause mortality” between the group getting those four-minute bursts and the control group. This is “the secret to longevity?” Not exactly.

For the second time in less than a month Reynolds is using a non-significant finding to hype the benefits of exercise. Two weeks earlier, she was selling exercise for weight loss. Again, she was hyping non-significant study results.

This is a textbook case of overselling a good product – in this case, physical activity. The effect is to arouse skepticism – the precise opposite of the intention.

Something We Need and Resist

Overselling is a real problem because physical activity is something we both need and resist. Our bodies are built both to expect it and to avoid it. Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman points out:

“Almost no one in the Stone Age, least of all grandparents, managed to avoid hours of walking, running, digging, climbing, and other manual labors.”

But he goes on to say that we evolved to seek out inactivity whenever we could because “physical inactivity is an ancient, fundamental strategy to allocate scarce energy sensibly.”

So let’s get real. We don’t need a guilt trip or the promise of miraculous health and longevity to motivate us to live more active lives. Hype doesn’t help, nor does it last. Truth is more durable. We need honest, practical strategies for building active lives as a matter of routine.

Click here for more from Lieberman, here and here for practical perspectives on building healthy habits for an active life.

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race), painting by Pablo Picasso / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


January 6, 2021

3 Responses to “The Problem and Promise of an Active Life”

  1. January 06, 2021 at 7:01 am, Allen Browne said:

    Hype, promises, insignificant results – real problems with some very deleterious results possible. Thanks, Ted.


  2. January 06, 2021 at 8:10 am, David Brown said:

    We evolved to seek out inactivity due to scarce energy? That is pure speculation. In any population there are those who are naturally more active than others. This applies to animals as well. Excerpt: “This risk of developing obesity and T2D has largely been blamed on the increased consumption of energy dense foods and fat intake, particularly saturated fat, but it is interesting to know that the mean fat intake of the human population has not increased much in the past 50 years. It is true that the vast advancement in technological developments has led to a reduction in physical activity worldwide, but as obesity now involves infants and the populations of developing countries, this obesity pandemic cannot be attributed to this alone. In addition, laboratory and other domesticated animals have also been subject to the increased prevalence of obesity, despite having largely unchanged living conditions for many years.

  3. January 06, 2021 at 11:30 am, John DiTraglia said:

    i always rationalize for myself that the pain and time it takes to exercise is still way easier than constant hunger and the pain clears my mind that helps me solve problems while i’m running….