Before I get too far into this, let me clarify what I mean by "training". The terms "exercise", "training" and "physical activity" seem to be used almost interchangeably, however for the purpose of this article, by training I simply mean a planned period of physical exertion.
Let us begin then by asking how much we should be training? Well, for those of us just seeking improved health and fitness, the current guidelines are 150 moderate intensity minutes, or 75 vigorous intensity minutes per week. If we dig a little deeper, at least 2 of those sessions should be aimed at building strength, and at least 2 should contain activities aimed at improving balance and stability.
So on the whole, we can categorise training into 3 broad areas; aerobic fitness, strength and muscular endurance, and neurological components - such as balance and coordination. We should aim for a mix of all of these categories to be incorporated on a regular basis, mixing both activities we enjoy, with those we know we need.
So that provides a very brief overview of how (and how often) we should train, but what happens if we don't? Well, that's far too big a question to be answered in a single article, so I've picked a few key headings that cover some of what I consider to be the biggest risks of not training.
Lack of physical ability to perform daily tasks, or survive in an emergency.
Needing someone to carry your shopping bags or your luggage, having to ask someone to come round to help you access the loft, needing help in and out of the bath, or not being able to play with your children are very real consequences of not keeping physically fit. Some people can retain these abilities throughout their working life simply by having a physically demanding job, but these people tend to decline rapidly once they retire. Others, who work in more sedentary jobs, tend to suffer the consequences of a lack of fitness much earlier in life.
Increased risk of multiple chronic diseases
I've deliberately used one heading under which to address a plethora of conditions here, for fear that I would end up writing a 450 page volume! For too long, may chronic diseases have been seen as inevitable side effects of ageing, or genetic time-bombs which are unavoidable. Whilst there's some validity to both arguments, neither paints a very full or a very clear picture. Having the genes to predispose one to type 2 diabetes, and subsequently expressing those genesis very much influenced by a range of lifestyle choices, chief amongst which is physical activity. As for the ageing argument, only in relatively recent times have advances in sanitisation and antibiotics allowed us to live long enough to see these diseases predominate. That doesn't necessarily mean they are directly linked to old age though, far more likely that the results of poor diet and lifestyle choices take a while to be fully realised, and that previously, many people died before developing symptoms.
Decreased cognition and mental health
The link between training and improved mental health is well established. Training can help us manage our emotions, enjoy time alone or with others, act as a stress release, and contribute to longer term mental stability. What is becoming increasingly accepted though, is that if we are less physically fit, we are also less mentally fit. This means not just in the short term, shown as ability to concentrate and retain information, but also in the longer term, with increased risk of dementia and general cognitive decline.
Lowered metabolism and hormone sensitivity
Training builds and maintains lean muscle mass, which in turn burns more calories both at rest, and during exercise. This is, by and large, a good thing. It makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. In addition, hormones (which are basically messengers) are positively impacted by regular exercise. Some of these messengers tell us when to be happy, when we are full or hungry, and when we are tired. The systemic balance between them all, when held at healthy levels, is known as homeostasis: a regulatory happy place that is made easier to find through regular physical exertion.
All told, there is a lot to lose when we don't train. As with anything else, this isn't an all or nothing scenario, much more a sliding scale. If you can't meet your 150 minutes, 2.5 hours, per week, then 2 hours is much better than 0. Remember these are minimum targets, and exceeding them to a point, can be even more beneficial.
So what is the real cost of not training? An increased risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, muscular atrophy, slips trips and falls, joint pain, cognitive decline and disease, lower quality of life, less well equipped for emergency situations, burdening friends, family and the care system earlier in life and for longer, lower levels of social engagement, sub-optimal cognition, increased susceptibility to many illnesses and diseases, more frequent injuries, with longer recovery times, and ultimately, an earlier death. This is probably the most compelling list of reasons possible for me to train regularly, but also it helps me see training for what it really is, and allows me to separate a bad day in the gym from a real problem I need to be concerned about
Has starting a structured training programme helped you? If so, what are the changes you have noticed? Please share your own expeience and opinion in the comments.