Will it do a body good?
February 1, 2006 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Will using a mini-cycle under my desk for 40 minutes a day in 5 minute increments do me any good?

I've hit a plateau in my weight loss, and I know I shouldn't reduce my calories any more, since I only eat 1200 a day already.

I've recently increased my workout schedule to a combo of cardio and strength training 5 times a week (30 to 45 minutes), a half hour of yoga 5 times a week, and walking for a half hour 3 times a week.

I'd be using the mini-cycle at a leisurely pace and at a moderate resistence. I can't really be working up a sweat at work, and I already go for walks during working hours when things are slow, so I don't think I'd be able to pedal for more than 5 minutes at a time.
posted by amarynth to Health & Fitness (25 answers total)
How long have you been at the plateau? It is normal and healthy for it to level off for a week or two. If it hasn't been that long, just be patient and keep up the good work!
posted by knave at 12:09 PM on February 1, 2006

How long have you plateued? It might be worth holding off, because there is a chance that you hit the point where muscle mass is increasing at the same rate your fat is decreasing.

A good way to determine this is to start measuring yourself with a tape measure (the sewing kind) and keeping track that way, in addition to your weight.
posted by Loto at 12:11 PM on February 1, 2006

I asked my trainer this same question when another AskMe prompted a similar strain of thought for me. She said any calorie burning done in such short bursts, without a heartrate increase (e.g. sweating) would do next to nothing.
posted by MeetMegan at 12:21 PM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: It's been about 6 weeks.

I did just buy a tape measure and started tracking my measurements.

I was also told that using the mini-cycle might help my Chondromalacia Patellae by strengthening my quads. My knee started hurting again when I increased my workouts, but the last time I tried taking a break from workouts until it improved, the break lasted 6 months, so I'm just avoiding doing anything high-impact right now.

On preview:

That's what I was afraid of, MeetMegan. I knew I should have AskedMe before I bought the damn thing!
posted by amarynth at 12:24 PM on February 1, 2006

I don't mean to be a hater (genuinely I don't), but is walking for a half hour 3 times a week actually considered exercise? I thought that walking for around an hour a day in total was normal. Whatever normal is.

Also this: and I know I shouldn't reduce my calories any more, since I only eat 1200 a day already.

As far as I'm aware, if you ingest 1,200 calories a day, and burn off (for example) 200 calories in exercise, then you're effectively left with 1,000 calories. I can't see the difference, in terms of sheer calorie intake between ingesting 1,200 calories with exercise, and 1,000 without. In terms of cardio, maybe you'd be doing yourself some good, but it can't be much.
posted by mad judge pickles at 12:31 PM on February 1, 2006

Do you live/work in a highrise?

Stairs are there for your personal use.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:35 PM on February 1, 2006

Maybe you've reached the weight your body wants to be at.
posted by kimdog at 12:38 PM on February 1, 2006

I don't mean to be a hater (genuinely I don't), but is walking for a half hour 3 times a week actually considered exercise? I thought that walking for around an hour a day in total was normal. Whatever normal is.

I think it's understood that that is in addition to normal getting-around walking. I doubt amarynth is bedridden for all of the hours she didn't account for in her post.

Anyway... about the plateau, since MeetMegan's answer kinda squashed your cycling hopes - have you tried varying the amount of calories you eat per day? You say you eat around 1200 calories per day. Think of it as eating 8400 calories per week instead. One day, go crazy and eat 2000 calories. Eat a super-lean 800 another day. It'll keep your body guessing and lull it out of complacency. Google "The Wendie Plan" for info on how one Weight Watcher plays the game. I've found it to be pretty effective to get past those plateaus.
posted by ferociouskitty at 12:40 PM on February 1, 2006

Ditto MeetMegan. Everything I've ever read has said that anything under 15-20 minutes is worthless. You've gotta increase your heart rate for a sustained period to do any good. Basically, if you're not sweating, you're not excercising.
posted by team lowkey at 12:42 PM on February 1, 2006

Basically, if you're not sweating, you're not excercising.
I'm not so sure about that. I lost 100 pounds, and the only exercise I did was walking with my daughter. We did make quite long walks, but I never sweated or was even tired afterwards. When I stopped walking (brrr, winter), I stopped losing weight.
(Of course, that does not mean that walking is good as an only form of exercise, it's not, from a health benefits point of view. But I am sure I burned quite a lot of calories during those walks).
posted by davar at 12:52 PM on February 1, 2006

"She said any calorie burning done in such short bursts, without a heartrate increase (e.g. sweating) would do next to nothing."

If the goal is weightloss, than this is certainly an oversimplification. In the end weightloss is going to depend on the difference between calories consumed, and calories burned. You can burn calories without sweating. You just tend to burn more when you are sweating more.

The only downside I can see to adding these mini-workouts is if it somehow cuts into your real workouts, either by making you feel like you can slack off a bit, or by depleting glycogen levels and reducing your endurance during the main workout as a result.
posted by Good Brain at 1:07 PM on February 1, 2006

Don't listen to the naysayers (even the second hadn trainer info), you will burn calories this way. There have been several studies which suggest that fidgeting alone may account for enough increased calorie burning to make the difference between fat and lean. Here is a link to one such study, you can search for more. People seem to be confusing promoting aerobic health (which you will not really be doing) with burning calories, which you will be doing. Calories get burned whenever you move, in whatever increments you move, continuous time means nothing.

If you've really reached a plateau I would change your exercise up rather than just add more of the same. I would speed up, do intervals, start running instead of walking. More speed = more calories burned, the notion of a "fat burning zone" is only applicable to the percentage of calories burned, not to total calories. In other words, you may burn a greater percentage of fat calories when you go slowly, but you will burn not only more overall calories when you go fast, but more fat calories, since the smaller percentage is for a larger overall number. Here's an article about this very topic from Runner's World, and here's another about how running burns more calories (over both time and distance) than does walking.
posted by OmieWise at 1:10 PM on February 1, 2006

Recent research has put to bed the idea that short exercise is useless.

It simply ain't so. A recent study showed that three 10 minute bits of exercise is just as good as one 30 minute session. One 7 minute, heart-pounding exertion can provide some of the same benefits as a 30 minute session at a more leisurely pace.

The less intense your work out, the more likely you'll actually burn fat calories (up to a point). Beyond about 40% exertion, muscles can not get blood supply, so all activity is powered by stored energy in the muscle -- which means you're not burning any fat.

I'd say try it. There's not a chance it will hurt, and it may very well help. At the very least, it will make your office days better -- the human body is actually not at all well adapted to just sitting around, in spite of the human desire to do that a lot. We are evolved to move.

(And yes, walking is great exercise: it's easy, if done at a brisk pace it burns almost as many calories as running, and it's very easy on the body. I used to park a mile from my office -- I'd walk it twice a day in about 12-15 minutes. This was enough to keep me in pretty good cardio shape, and it let me eat whatever the hell I wanted).
posted by teece at 1:27 PM on February 1, 2006

Walking fast is harder than running slow, up to a point. An extended quote from my last link above:

I didn't come here to bash walking, however. Walking is an excellent form of exercise that builds aerobic fitness, strengthens bones, and burns lots of calories. A study released in early 2004 showed that the Amish take about six times as many steps per day as adults in most American communities, and have about 87-percent lower rates of obesity.

In fact, I had read years ago that fast walking burns more calories than running at the same speed. Now was the time to test this hypothesis. Wearing a heart-rate monitor, I ran on a treadmill for two minutes at 3.0 mph (20 minutes per mile), and at 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, and 5.5 mph (10:55 per mile). After a 10-minute rest to allow my heart rate to return to normal, I repeated the same thing walking. Here's my running vs. walking heart rate at the end of each two-minute stint: 3.0 (99/81), 3.5 (104/85), 4.0 (109/94), 4.5 (114/107), 5.0 (120/126), 5.5 (122/145). My conclusion: Running is harder than walking at paces slower than 12-minutes-per-mile. At faster paces, walking is harder than running.

How to explain this? It's not easy, except to say that walking at very fast speeds forces your body to move in ways it wasn't designed to move. This creates a great deal of internal "friction" and inefficiency, which boosts heart rate, oxygen consumption, and calorie burn. So, as Jon Stewart might say, "Walking fast...good. Walking slow...uh, not so much."

The bottom line: Running is a phenomenal calorie-burning exercise. In public-health terms--that is, in the fight against obesity--it's even more important that running is a low-cost, easy-to-do, year-round activity. Walking doesn't burn as many calories, but it remains a terrific exercise. As David Swain says, "The new research doesn't mean that walking burns any fewer calories than it used to. It just means that walkers might have to walk a little more, or eat a little less, to hit their weight goal."
posted by OmieWise at 1:38 PM on February 1, 2006

You'll certainly burn calories with the mini-cycle, but it might not make a big difference. It doesn't sound like lack of exercise or excessive calorie intake is your issue.

I would ramp up your walking. Longer, faster, switch in the pace. Get your muscles out of their rut by switching things up. Are you steadily increasing weight with your weight-training or has that also plateaued? It's a big warning sign if you're plateauing--you're either not pushing yourself hard enough or you're not eating enough protein to sustain your muscle growth.

And maybe it sounds counter-productive, but I'd calculate your daily calorie needs (maybe with something like FitDay and eat no less than a thousand calories less than your daily calorie requirement (e.g. 1500 if you require 2500), even if this is more than 1200. Especially if it's more than 1200. That would put you at about a 2 lbs/week weight loss, a healthy rate.

If you intake too few calories, your body goes into starvation mode and your metabolism slows down. Or basically, you get a lot worse at burning calories and what would've helped you drop 10 lbs before will only drop you 5 lbs now. That example's a pretty dramatic oversimplification, but the general idea's there. You may need to slightly increase your caloric intake so your body has something to work off to build muscle mass and run itself.

And yeah, if you're at a healthy weight as determined by your doctor, it's possible you've simply hit the weight your body wants to be. I know there's a weight my body likes to be--somewhere between 140 and 150--and the only time I've gone under it was when I was bulimic. Which, um, is not a good weight-loss program to adopt.
posted by schroedinger at 1:40 PM on February 1, 2006

It won't make a difference. If your heart rate doesn't increase then you might as well be doing nothing. You are still burning calories at your resting heart rate. If you cycle heard enough to increase your heart rate then it will help but you'll be burning so few calories that I suspect there would be no measurable change (increase or decrease of the change rate) in your long term weight trend. If you actually read the study linked above you'll see it doesn't contradict this at all. Your best bet is to drop the strength training and focus on the aerobic training. Also, of course, run. Running, even slowly, for half an hour is a lot better than walking. Also, as you become more fit you'll be able to run faster and farther which'll give you another metric to measure your progress.
posted by nixerman at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2006

One of my colleagues is putting together a pedometer study. He says 10,000 steps a day is what you gotta do.
posted by mecran01 at 2:06 PM on February 1, 2006

If you do more work, you burn more calories. You need the increase in heart rate to optimize cardio fitness. Since you already have walking time built into your schedule, try increasing your walking pace. You'll burn more calories and get more cardio benefits if you walk faster. Carrying weight will help a bit, as well. Good luck & congratulations; sounds like you're well on your way.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on February 1, 2006

Note: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist.

Eat a couple hundred calories more a day for one week and then return to normal dieting caloric intake. It's worked for every plateau I've ever hit.

I have an eating disorder, so feel completely free to ignore me because I'm doing exactly what you're doing to get over thyroid cancer related weight gain, but 1200 calories is probably a bit too low. Low caloric intake can mess with your metabolism and put you into starvation mode, where your body tries to conserve energy and store fat. This is why you can often get past plateaus by increasing how much you eat or by fluctuating your caloric intake, as was suggested above. You're basically tricking your body. Lowering your calorie intake further, as you've surmised, is only more likely to trigger more plateau time.

Having said all that, I eat 1000-1400 calories a day (varied deliberately) and follow a similar exercise routine: 35-45 minutes of intense cardio 6 days a week, 45-60 mins yoga 3 days a week, 20-30 minutes strength training 3 days a week, one day of complete exercise rest. I just got over a mini-plateau with one week at 12-1400 calories a day. Don't let yourself go crazy with cream, margarine, etc. It's easy to "fudge" condiments and additives, adding a couple extra hundred hidden calories a day.

All of the advice about increasing your exercise intensity is good. If anything you do feels too easy, up the intensity/pace for a couple sessions to see how it feels. Don't injure yourself.

And yes, walking is exercise.
posted by xyzzy at 3:09 PM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: Well, I'm more confused than ever now, but I am grateful for everyone's responses.

I can't use the stairs or jog due to the aforementioned knee problem.

ferociouskitty, thanks for the suggestion about varying my calories per day, I'm going to try that. That suits me because some days, I feel like I'm forcing myself to eat in order to make 1200 calories and others I want to eat all day.

schroedinger, I already use Fitday to track my calories, and it says that I burn 2349 calories a day without any of my exercise added in. I've been eating 1200 calories a day since last March, though, so if I try to eat more now, won't I just gain weight?

And, yes, I meant that I walk for 30 consecutive (uphill sometimes, even!) minutes 3 times a week, not that I walk 30 minutes total throughout the day (although I do enjoy the image of me timing myself when walking from the kitchen to the bathroom or from my desk to my filing cabinet).
posted by amarynth at 3:14 PM on February 1, 2006

Sorry for the delay in responding to other posts...I never said that amarynth wouldn't burn any calories by doing the mini cycle, simply that it wouldn't do much good (meaning that the amount would be negligible). Yes, I did oversimplify things, but we were after an answer, and that was the same answer I got from my trainer - it won't do diddly, especially in such short bursts without any intensity. Exercising for short periods of time is great, and it has heart-healthy benefits, but you must get your heart rate up to garner those benefits. Pedaling a cycle at a slow/moderate pace for five minutes won't do much. Seated exercise (at any intensity) = lower heart rate (than same time of exercise at same intensity standing). Seriously, check it out - do 10 minutes at a fast pace on a recombinant bike, and then do the same pace on an elliptical or a stairmaster. Your heart rate will be much higher on the standing exercises.
posted by MeetMegan at 3:27 PM on February 1, 2006

I can't see the difference, in terms of sheer calorie intake between ingesting 1,200 calories with exercise, and 1,000 without.

The difference is that it's very hard to get all the nutrients you need from 1,000 calories a day. Harder for most people to stick to as well.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:15 PM on February 1, 2006

Is it possible you have reached some kind of plateau in your exercise too? By that, I mean that as your fitness level has increased, you haven't sufficiently increased the difficulty (not time) of your exercise to match. It is easy to slip into a routine with exercises (especially weights) where you do the same thing every time, and don't have to work as hard since you are now stronger. Consider your workout, and how hard it is now, compared to how hard it was 6 months ago, in terms of your level of exhaustion. If you think it might be easier, then try setting harder goals.
posted by Joh at 9:56 PM on February 1, 2006

MeetMegan: Exercising for short periods of time is great, and it has heart-healthy benefits, but you must get your heart rate up to garner those benefits.
You are right, but as I and others have said: heart-health and burning calories are two different things. Doing the short bicycle thing is not especially good for the heart (but amarynth already does lots of hearth healthy exercise, so that's not really a problem), but it will burn extra calories.

Sometimes, you just have to wait out a plateau, but I know how frustrating that can be. Be careful not to fall into the dieters trap of eating less and less, exercising more and more, so that your body goes into starvation mode (as schroedinger said), so that the moment you start eating more again, you gain everything back.
posted by davar at 1:19 AM on February 2, 2006

Listen, I'm sorry, but the people who are suggesting that it won't change anything appear to be wrong. First, there are now multiple studies (from as far back as 1999) suggesting that even moderate increases in movement = significant additional calories burned (Science Daily 1999, NPR 2005, a cite from the Journal of Cardiology 2005 that you can follow up), none of these talk about intense drops in weight, but instead measure the positive calorie-burning effect of movements previously overlooked as insignificant. Second, while the minicycle is not going to make you more fit, it is incorrect to suggest that it will not raise your heartrate. I'm sure that it will, although you would need to wear a HR monitor to track it. It won't raise it much, it isn't going to raise it to anything that will make you more fit, but it will raise it by a few bpm, which equals increased calories burn. I've tracked my heartrate all day using a heart rate monitor, when I've been in exceptionally good cardiac shape (resting HR of 36 lying down and 40 sitting at my desk not moving), and just fidgeting raised my HR by 5-10 points.

You are describing a situation in which the changes and increases will be subtle, perhaps subtle enough to have "common sense" suggest that there will be no change, expecially the common sense of people understandably more interested in measuring large changes. Luckily that's why the studies were done. Best of luck.
posted by OmieWise at 4:37 AM on February 2, 2006

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