Study suggests possible problem with six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice

This doesn’t apply to me since I’m giving up asana for Lent, but it may be of interest to others.

A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, featured in Exercise & Science in Sports & Medicine (now with more ampersands!), suggests that fewer days of exercise per week might be better than more. And by more they specifically tested six days a week.

Sound kind of familiar?

The study gets into all kinds of tricky medicine and stuff, so thankfully the New York Times’ Well blog is here to help:

By the end of the four-month experiment, all of the women had gained endurance and strength and shed body fat, although weight loss was not the point of the study. The scientists had not asked the women to change their eating habits.

There were, remarkably, almost no differences in fitness gains among the groups. The women working out twice a week had become as powerful and aerobically fit as those who had worked out six times a week. There were no discernible differences in cytokine levels among the groups, either.

However, the women exercising four times per week were now expending far more energy, over all, than the women in either of the other two groups. They were burning about 225 additional calories each day, beyond what they expended while exercising, compared to their calorie burning at the start of the experiment.

The twice-a-week exercisers also were using more energy each day than they had been at first, burning almost 100 calories more daily, in addition to the calories used during workouts.

But the women who had been assigned to exercise six times per week were now expending considerably less daily energy than they had been at the experiment’s start, the equivalent of almost 200 fewer calories each day, even though they were exercising so assiduously.


You read that correctly. All that exercise actually prompted the uber-exercisers to slow down. A possible explanation:

The women working out six times a week, though, reacted very differently. “They complained to us that working out six times a week took too much time,” Dr. Hunter says. They did not report feeling fatigued or physically droopy. Their bodies were not producing excessive levels of cytokines, sending invisible messages to the body to slow down.

Rather, they felt pressed for time and reacted, it seems, by making choices like driving instead of walking and impatiently avoiding the stairs.

We all know about the press of time, don’t we, with those 1:30 to 2 hour practices?

Here’s how the Times sums up the key findings:

But the more fundamental finding of this study, Dr. Hunter says, is that “less may be more,” a message that most likely resonates with far more of us. The women exercising four times a week “had the greatest overall increase in energy expenditure,” he says. But those working out only twice a week “weren’t far behind.”

In more jargony language, that is: “Results indicate that 3+3 training may inhibit NEAT by being too time consuming and does not induce superior training adaptations to 1+1 and 2+2 training.”

OK, some thoughts:

  • The main thing that leaps out is that the women in the study made conscious choices to avoid what is called “nonexercise training.” I’m not sure that’s a concern among the Ashtanga Type A personality crowd, but it still suggests that there is something to a six-day-a-week practice that runs counter to what our bodies want.
  • I suppose this thought will sound ageist and sexist but … I’m not sure that women ages 60 to 74 are necessarily relevant to other groups of people. Perhaps the researchers were trying to figure out a best exercise routine for older people. (That would be a great thing to nail down.) It is hard to tell what the goal was and it could be that the New York Times is the one at fault for extrapolating out from a study of older women to this headline: “Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better than Six.” (There seems to be some similar thinking in the comments to the NYT piece.) And then I’m, like, sub-at-fault, and perhaps one shouldn’t be making this leaping assumption.
  • Here’s a potentially more positive thought: Is there any reason to think that the finding of expending fewer calories  relates to the womens’ being more efficient or, dare I suggest, calmer and more “at ease”? It sounds like the answer is no, and that they women chose to avoid the “nonexercise” activities. But, still, are there other possible explanations?
  • We might want to think there is some difference between a weight/running routine and Ashtanga. In other words, what would a study find if the three groups of women did Ashtanga (or some other asana practice) twice a week, versus four times, versus six?

Despite my thinking that this study doesn’t really generalize out well, the implication remains that there is a right level or balance of intense exercise for humans. Does it mean Ashtanga may demand too much? (I know that when you factor in Moon Days, you start getting closer to its being a five-day-a-week practice.) Has anyone out there found that a certain number of days per week really works best for you? Does this study suggest that practicing five days a week and taking off Moon Days — in other words, pushing the practice toward four days a week — might be beneficial?

OK, off to have my chocolate and whiskey.

Posted by Steve