Updates and Reflections on Optimal Exercise after Nearly a Decade

Previously: https://​​www.lesswrong.com/​​posts/​​bZ2w99pEAeAbKnKqo/​​optimal-exercise

Firstly, do the basic epistemics hold up? As far as I know, yes. The basic idea that lifting twice a week and doing cardio twice a week add up to a calorie expenditure that get you the vast majority of exercise benefits compared to extreme athletes holds up, especially when you take reverse causality adjustments into effect (survivorship bias on the genetic gifts of the extreme). Nothing I’ve encountered since has cast much doubt on this main takeaway.

What updates have I had, then, both in personal experience and in giving training advice to others as well as any research that has come out since then?

  1. A greater emphasis on injury prevention, as the dis-utility from injuries vastly outweighs positive effects from chasing numbers. This one was sadly a foreseeable update with aging, and thus I lose bayes points for it. I did in fact get an injury deadlifting despite a substantial emphasis on good form and not pushing to the limit as many do.

  2. Exercise selection and program optimization likely matter less than I thought, and research that has come out in the meantime has supported this.

  3. One and two combined imply that there is no real downside to picking exercises with lower injury potential for the joints and back.

WRT to cardio, running is a high impact activity and people shouldn’t feel bad about choosing lower impact rowing, swimming, or biking (though biking near cars likely eliminates a lot of the health effects in expectation as it is somewhat dangerous). If you can run, great, I enjoy it quite a lot, but I also don’t particularly like the hedonic gradient of pushing yourself to run at the volume and frequency that seems necessary to really git gud (many runners run 5-6 days a week).

WRT resistance training, I don’t pursue any of the powerlifts (squat, bench, deadlift) anymore, instead focusing on other exercises that don’t load the spine/​knees as much but allow you to load the requisite musculature easily. Weighted step ups instead of squats can be loaded quite heavy. Hyperextensions, one-legged hypers, and reverse hyperextensions can work the posterior chain with 1/​2-1/​3 the load on the spine as deadlifts. Bench doesn’t exactly load the spine but it is the most dangerous lift going by statistics (dropping the weight on yourself is the most common severe gym accident) and can be replaced with incline bench, dumbbell shoulder presses, and/​or dips. These exercises are substantially easier to cue people on in a single session.

  1. Many people IME push too hard, on the intuitive model of suffering being virtuous and health being virtuous and therefore… Or something like that. People are generally surprised that going a rep or two shy of failure is still driving very large benefits. Never pushing your edge isn’t too satisfying either of course, but it’s something that can be felt into over time.

  2. Many people IME find exercise lacks intrinsic motivation because it doesn’t feel like it’s ‘for’ anything else in their life that they care about. WRT this, novelty, community, and skill acquisition winds up being very important relative to more sterile notions of optimal performance. Health is synergistic, and wanting better performance in a sport or activity drives a variety of other motivations from exercise choice, to diet, to sleep. A related thing is that home gyms seem intuitively appealing from an efficiency perspective, but many find they de facto do not exercise as much without the social reinforcement and teleological coherence of the gym environment.

  3. One of the top voted comments on the original post was about training the nervous system, and indeed I’ve spent substantial efforts here over the last several years to enormous positive effect. I now can experientially agree with the literature that indicates that yoga is an under rated intervention not only for physical but for psychological health.

That’s all for now, I’ll add more if I think of anything or in response to questions.