Feb 162014

Freakonomics: What’s the “Best” Exercise? Exercise is always on a lot of people’s minds around this time of year, what with all those resolutions just waiting to be broken …

By “best,” we really mean “most efficient,” since people who don’t exercise — and that’s roughly 80 percent of us – often blame lack of time. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week; here are its guidelines.)

We solicit advise from three wise souls in the exercise realm: Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed” columnist for The New York Times and author of The First 20 Minutes; David Meltzer, a physician/economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of “The Economics of Intense Exercise”; and Peter Attia, a physician, co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative, and a fitness freak whose workout includes flipping a 450-pound tractor tire “and other fun things you can do without carbs”:


During the podcast, we discuss exercise commitment devices and cost-effectiveness; and we come up with a three-point checklist to help you out. We call it “The Three I’s”: Intensity, Individualization, and “I Like to Do It.” If you’re searching for activities that you might like but haven’t thought about before, check out the CDC’s rather extensive list.

This episode features the introduction of a new friend, Jasmine (brought to life by Cepstral), and was inspired by a question from a listener named Scott Hechinger – thanks, Scott!


Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. We love it when you send us your questions — like, “Hey Freakonomics, what’s the best way to do this or that,” or “Hey Freakonomics, what’s the story with such-and-such.” Some of you are so smart … I’m not even sure you’re real.

JASMINE: Hey Freakonomics. This is Jasmine.

DUBNER: All right, Jasmine, and what would you like to know today?

JASMINE: I want to know what is the best and most efficient form of exercise. I want to get the most benefit for the least amount of time invested. I don’t have that much money either. Also, I am kind of lazy. Thanks, Freakonomics!

DUBNER: All right, Jasmine. Let’s see if we can answer your question — the best, most efficient form of exercise. But let’s start by examining the premise. Maybe you don’t even need to exercise? Is exercise really as worthwhile as we think? We put this question to David Meltzer. He’s our kind of guy — a doctor and an economist, at the University of Chicago.

David MELTZER: I think there’s a lot of good evidence both observational as well as experimental that exercise really helps. The numbers I often cite are that even something as simple as walking for half an hour a day five days a week raises your life expectancy by a year and a half. And exercising more intensively than that on a daily basis can produce gains that are double that.

JASMINE: No offense, Freakonomics, but I could have told you that exercise is good for me!

DUBNER: Okay, I just wanted to make sure you’re not wasting what little time you have. As it turns out, Jasmine, your situation is pretty typical. Here’s Gretchen Reynolds; she writes the “Phys Ed” column for the New York Times:

Gretchen REYNOLDS: The most common reason that people give for not exercising is that they don’t have time.

DUBNER: And here’s what that means:

REYNOLDS: Most Americans are not exercising. The best statistics suggest that at least 80 percent of Americans are not meeting the most commonly used guidelines for exercise, which are those from the American College of Sports Medicine. And they suggest 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. The vast majority of Americans are not doing that.


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