The First 20 Minutes

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Author: Gretchen Reynolds
Publisher: Plume: Penguin Group
Book Publication: 2013

Evolutionarily speaking, we humans are born to move. When we don’t, bad things start to happen. New York Times columnist (Phys Ed), Gretchen Reynolds tells us why we need to be moving and how we can do it well and effectively in the smart and highly entertaining book, The First 20 Minutes.

A must-read for both the seasoned fitness buff and devoted couch potato, The First 20 Minutes breaks down and makes sense of the most recent exercise science. It also provides practical and immensely helpful guidelines and advice on how much and what kind of exercise you need, be it for health, fitness, or improved athletic performance.

There is a great deal of research data featured in The First 20 Minutes, but with her wry, self-deprecating humour, Reynolds succeeds in making it educational, interesting, and often funny. If you are short on time, Reynolds very helpfully includes condensed versions of bottom-line specifics at the end of each chapter.

For example, a Belgian study researching the effects of exercise and high-fat diets illustrates Reynolds’ keen ability to make science-speak both educational and engaging. A group of young, active, male recruits were directed to eat a high-fat, high-calorie diet, as well as to exercise strenuously each day. At the end of the experiment most of the volunteers gained weight and many had developed insulin resistance and unhealthily fat-marbled muscles, except those who had been assigned to exercise first thing in the morning, before they had eaten. The authors of the study wrote, “Our current data indicate that exercise training in the fasted state is more effective than exercise in the carbohydrate-fed state to stimulate glucose tolerance, despite a hyper caloric high-fat diet.” Reynolds offers a more succinct (and droll) explanation, “If you’re going to eat badly, exercise can be a palliative, although … it requires that you drag yourself from bed early and eat no doughnuts first.”

According to Reynolds, every week brings new discoveries that often challenge entrenched (and beloved) exercise practices. One such practice is stretching. It has been gospel for decades that before any kind of physical activity you should stretch for improved performance and injury prevention. But science, says Reynolds, has moved on, with studies revealing that stretching does not significantly affect either.

Contrary to the widely held belief that you need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, a 2010 review of scientific knowledge about hydration pointed out that most healthy people replenish the fluids that they lose over the course of a day without the need for guidelines. It would seem that thirst is actually a reliable physiological marker of your fluid needs, so if you’re thirsty, drink.

In addition to exercise myth-busting, Reynolds also includes some significant and encouraging revelations. Strength training redoubles the benefits of endurance exercises like running, as well as improves cognitive function. And we now know that many of the physical effects once thought to be caused by aging are actually the result of inactivity. It has been clearly demonstrated that exercise can actually change your age at the molecular level (it’s all about the telomeres). “If you’re active, aging will not be a slow march to frailty… but a conga dance to a far-off finish line.”

Even if you are already familiar with much of the information in The First 20 Minutes, a refresher will not go amiss, especially the reminder that inactivity is the greatest threat to the health of your mind and body. So get up and move it.

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