In a year of hopes, setbacks, strides, and losses related to Covid, the most important sports science of 2021 has been a reminder that for many of us our bodies and minds can strengthen, endure, and thrive regardless of our circumstances. If we move our bodies in the right way, a growing body of evidence suggests that we could live with greater perseverance, purposefulness, and cognitive clarity for many years to come. And it may not take a lot of exercise.
In fact, some of the biggest fitness news of the year was about how little exercise we can get while maintaining or even improving our health. For example, a January study showed that just five minutes of vigorous exercise significantly improved aerobic fitness and leg strength in college students. Another series of studies from the University of Texas found that four seconds – yes, seconds – of vigorous cycling, repeated multiple times, is enough to increase strength and endurance in adults, regardless of their age or health when they first started.
Even people whose favorite exercise is walking may take less than they think to reach a workout sweet spot, other new research suggests. As I wrote in July The well-known goal of 10,000 daily steps, which is deeply anchored in our activity trackers and our collective consciousness, has little scientific validity. It’s a myth that grew out of a marketing accident, and a study published this summer further debunked it. She found that people who walked between 7,000 and 8,000 steps, or just over three miles, a day generally lived longer than those who walked less or accumulated more than 10,000 steps. So keep moving, but don’t worry if your total doesn’t reach a five-digit step count.
Of course, sports science also dealt with other resonant topics this year, including weight. And the news there wasn’t just cheering. Several studies earlier this year confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that our bodies offset some of the calories we burn off during physical activity by diverting energy away from certain cellular processes or by unconsciously causing us to move and fidget less. For example, a July study that looked at the metabolism of nearly 2,000 people found that, on average, we offset about a quarter of the calories we burn from exercise. As a result, on days we exercise, we burn far fewer total calories than we might think, making weight loss even more difficult.