The Art and Science of Fitness | Do magic exercise hacks work?

Oct 09, 2022 03:45 PM IST

Ever so often new research suggests how with the least amount of exercise, we can get the maximum returns. Then why is it that they don’t get adopted by the world? I explain with an example.

Last week, a study was published that claimed to be the elixir of us physically becoming the best specimen that ever walked this planet. Usually, when I read something that seems to be too good to be true, I want to delve deep into it.

The soleus muscle is one of the two muscles that form the calf. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The soleus muscle is one of the two muscles that form the calf. (Shutterstock)

I am a big fan of heel-raising exercises. While doing them, first you place your feet firmly on the ground. Then you raise only your heels, and then bring them back down again. This exercise works the calves — the muscles that are given the least amount of attention by most, but play a very important role in us moving around, be it walking, running or even jumping. I like heel raises because they can be done anywhere, anytime, and by almost anyone. You don’t need to spare time for them, or need special tools. You can do them standing, sitting, both legs or one leg at a time, depending on whether your knee is bent. I believe everyone should be doing heel raises.

This is why the study published last month in the journal iScience, which talks about "magical" results, got me all excited. Marc Hamilton, professor of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston, has figured out that if you do a particular variation of heel raises while sitting — which he calls "soleus push-ups" — it elevates your muscle metabolism for hours. This then supposedly is more effective at regulating blood glucose than any exercise, weight loss programme, or intermittent fasting. Tall claims.

The soleus muscle is one of the two muscles that form the calf. The soleus is covered by the other calf muscle called gastrocnemius, which starts from just above the knee, while the soleus starts from below the knee. After joining to form the calf, both these muscles form the Achilles tendon, which further joins the heel bone, just where the back of our shoes touch our feet.

Since we sit for long hours, averaging more than 10 hours a day, our metabolic rate lowers, leading to all kinds of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, dementia, obesity and a poor quality of life.

Professor Hamilton has figured out a way to get the soleus muscle working, while seated, which doesn’t tire the muscle. “What we showed is that people could lower their blood glucose with a single session of doing soleus muscle contraction by about 50%. And the magnitude rivals what you would see in the hours after exercise or any other type of therapy. What we developed was a way that people can sustain muscle contraction for hours, not minutes. And doing that, they were able to use a special mixture of fuels, instead of using intramuscular glycogen, which is the stored carbohydrate, they were able to use fuels that came from the blood, such as blood glucose and blood lipoproteins.”

A fun fact from the above study was that the tiny soleus muscle alone, which is only 1% of the body weight and one of the 600-plus muscles in the body, is capable of doubling the metabolic rate, and at times even tripling it, while soleus pushups are done.

What I like, though, is that professor Hamilton admits that this is a simple new fitness trick, not a hack. He goes on to add that it is not a simple movement either. He adds, “It’s not as simple as simply doing a heel lift or raising your legs when you are sitting or shaking your leg or fidgeting. It is a very specific movement that’s designed where we use some technology that isn't necessarily available to the public unless you are a scientist and you know how to use it.” During the study, the subjects were supposed to sit down, with wearable technology guiding them to elicit the movement that would lead to the desired result.

Dr Darren James Player, a lecturer in musculoskeletal bioengineering at University College London (UCL) and a qualified personal trainer, with whom I have co-authored the books MoveMint Medicine and La Ultra - cOuch to 5, 11 and 22 km in 100 days, thinks that these studies have a role but aren’t applicable for everyone.

“If you had a clinical population that was unable to go outside and walk or run, or strength train because of a particular clinical condition, then this type of prescription probably is really good. Or if you've got a corporate population, and they're just sitting at a desk all day, and they only have half an hour, an hour each day to go and do some formalised exercise, encourage them to do this type of thing. I can completely understand that. And, to be honest, the author acknowledges that it's not a hack. It's not going to be this kind of fitness fad that's going to solve everything. But from what they've shown, it probably is quite a potent stimulus, but it's a stimulus that is in isolation rather than going to have a global benefit.”

Professor Hamilton got the subjects of the study to do ‘soleus pushups’ every 4 minutes throughout the day. He has figured out a way that they don’t get tired and can do the exercise for long hours. But is it sustainable for months, leave alone years? In 2013, I started mentoring a group of ladies of all ages, from all walks of life, for a "cOuch to 5 km" programme. This was after I had come back from organising the fourth edition of La Ultra - The High, running 333 km in Ladakh in 72 hrs, crossing 3 mountain passes over 17,400 ft. I found that it was a lot more difficult to motivate people who were starting from scratch compared to someone who had previously done 222 km to attempt 333 km. Now, nine years down the line, I have had a few of them reach out to me to help them get started again. The point is, it is a lot more difficult to have the discipline to do the basics consistently for years rather than doing complicated stuff for a few weeks or months.

As Darren also pointed out, as good as soleus pushups could be, that regime isn’t going to last long as it’s not exciting enough and doesn’t cater to all the reasons why people like to be active. There are several reasons why we all exercise and play sports. It might have started for physical benefit, but we tend to carry on because we like doing those activities for what they are, the company we find while doing them, the bragging rights we acquire, the selfies, travel and others.

While reading Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson’s brilliantly researched and written book, I was reminded of the movie Kung Fu Panda and the best-selling book by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

At the end of all the hardships, travelling and in-depth research of the latest technology and scientific know-how – like the protagonists Po, the panda, and Santiago, the shepherd boy in the movie and the book – Alex discovered that the secret recipe – the treasure – lies within us. That journey is necessary and scientific breakthroughs do play a role. But at the end of the day, it is about getting up, going out and doing it.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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