Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: The First 20 Minutes

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer
by Gretchen Reynolds
Published 2012 by Hudson Street Press
266 pages

This book is, at its heart, an explanation of why you should exercise. And that it's only going to take 20 minutes of movement a day to get some real benefits. What kind of benefits?

Chapter by chapter, the author outlines the benefits of exercise. Improved cardiovascular health. Improved brain function. Improved lifespan. Improved weight control. Improved everything physical and some emotional and mental, as well.

The author steadily debunks myths, too, while replacing them with facts. Explanations are thorough - you'll understand leptin and grehlin and their effects on appetite. You'll understand what endurance means and how it's achieved. You'll get a solid understanding of the body's response to exercise.

What it isn't is a workout guide, or a how-to book. It's much more of a "why you should" book and it leaves the details on what your exercise routine or diet should look like out. That might seem to make it less valuable, but in a way it makes it more valuable - it's not focused on getting you to do a specific workout or justifying a specific diet by demonizing others. It's all about the general knowledge you need to succeed.

The author does show a fairly typical general-population target audience bias, though - exercise is basically running, cycling, swimming, and yoga. Possibly weight training, but it's usually mentioned without any real explanation of what's involved. In general, the idea is that fitness is cardiovascular training. It's not a case of ignorance, though - the author clearly states the difference between weight lifting (a sport) and weight training (an exercise mode). It's just that strength training takes a back seat. Even the chapter on proper technique is about running (barefoot and shoed), cycling, and swimming, and not much else.

To a large degree this makes sense, because people need to walk before they run. Getting that first 20 minutes of activity per day, reducing sitting and increasing motion, is the main idea of this book. It's focused on getting started and why it's valuable, not on a balanced routine of strength and endurance training. If people are getting up and moving, and walking or going for a bike ride or swim, it's a good start. But so is getting out to the gym and learning to lift, but it's not really held up as more than a secondary choice.

The author also does an excellent job defining an athlete vs. a recreational trainer - and it's pretty hard to meet the definition of an athlete.

There are a few nits to pick, though. Although many studies are mentioned, none are discussed in specific or end-noted or footnoted. So when the author mentions the results of a study, there is no way to track it down. For example, she mentions that a study showed that the best way to improve strength was with higher reps at a lower weight than lower reps at a higher weight. That flies in the face of a lot of strength training science, on the face of it. But it's hard to find out what it means - what does "high reps" mean? What do they mean by low weight? Or low reps? Or high weight? Or even by strength - is it improving one-rep max, 10-rep max, perceived difficulty of lifting a weight? It's just not clear.

There are also other areas that prompted a "yeah, but" or two, where it was clear that maybe something else was going on. Studies about how fast pickle juice cures cramps or that swishing sugary drinks and then spitting them out improves performance vs. swishing sugar-less drinks or water are mentioned as possible mental prompts to perform better, not actual physiological effects of those substances. But it ignores the fact that digestion starts in the mouth (stick a sugar cube on your tongue and see), so it's possible you're triggering a very reasonable cascade of responses because actual nutrition (even a tiny bit) is being received. Things like that, though, really are nits. The book's information is so solid that it's only on this edge cases that I found things to complain about.

Content: 4 out of 5. Excellent, highly accurate and well-explained content. However, many studies are mentioned but not in enough detail to track them down and study more.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well-written and clearly written. Easy to follow. Finding things later is difficult, and it lacks any illustrations or charts so it's even harder to just flip back to a specific piece of information.

Overall: This is not an exercise guidebook as much as it's a solid explanation of why you should exercise, what the benefits are, and generally how much you need. Well worth reading. If you're a trainer, it's worth reading and then passing on to sedentary clients or those without a basic understanding of why it's worth training.

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