Physical Exercise for EAs – Why and How

post by severintroesch · 2020-01-12T15:37:40.195Z · EA · GW · 16 comments


        Why exercise? 
        How to exercise?
  Why exercise?
  How to exercise?
      Cardio exercise (i.e. cardiorespiratory or “aerobic” exercise):
      Resistance exercise:
    remarks and caveats
    practical examples of a sufficient exercise routine


This post aims to give evidence-based recommendations on physical exercise for EAs.

Why exercise?

Exercise can enhance productivity (and thus impact) of EAs in two ways:

How to exercise?


I am an exercise scientist. My research focuses on the systemic physiology in endurance athletes and I am the exercise physiologist of the Swiss Olympic team. In this role, I have gotten in touch with spectacularly many and wildly different answers to the question “what is the best training strategy for maximal performance benefit?” Even in the elite sports domain (or maybe especially in the elite sports domain) there is much quackery going on when it comes to prescribing exercise. It is, for example, far more common for athletes and coaches to simply copy the fancy-looking training regimen from successful athletes’ blogs than to look at the scientific evidence for these interventions. The actual evidence on training for high performance, regrettably, is much less fancy (and also much less specific) than the average blog post may suggest…

I think the same might apply for the facet of exercise that is interesting for EAs - namely exercise to enhance productivity and thus impact. Although there has been some discussion on exercise in the community (e.g. here [EA · GW]), I think it is fair to say that sports and exercise are not the most thoroughly researched topics within EA.

Let me, therefore, lay out in this post what I think are uncontroversial and evidence-based pieces of advice about the effect of exercise on health and productivity. Or: Why and how should EAs exercise?

Why exercise?

The scientific evidence is indisputable: Engaging in regular physical exercise and reducing sedentary behavior is vital for the health of adults. The most important findings associated with exercise include:

In fact, it is hard to think of a health-related variable that is not affected by physical exercise in a positive way. Exercise really is medicine…

I think this is also relevant to us EAs. More specifically, I see two ways in which exercise can help us enhance our productivity and thereby our impact:

So the case seems clear: We need to exercise regularly. But how much is enough to get the health benefits? And how is exercise done right?

How to exercise?


The available evidence supports a dose–response relationship between physical activity and health variables, such that greater benefits are associated with higher volumes of exercise. Even if the exact shape of the dose–response curve is not clear, it is reasonable to say ‘‘some exercise is good; more is better.’’ However, as the dose-response curve most likely reaches a plateau or even reverses at some point, we want to know the exercise dose that is high enough to get most of the health benefits and low enough not to be risky or very inefficient.

So here they are, the recommendations on physical exercise for health:

Cardio exercise (i.e. cardiorespiratory or “aerobic” exercise):



Volume (= Time)




Resistance exercise:



Volume (= Repetitions / Sets)




Further remarks and caveats

Two practical examples of a sufficient exercise routine


I have presented arguments as to the necessity of physical exercise for health and productivity. Moreover, I have listed the evidence-based recommendations on exercise for health and I have provided specific examples.

I am confident that EAs can rely on these recommendations and do not themselves have to screen the jungle of often not well-founded advice on the internet.

Please let me know what you think in the comments - and where you might need more advice.

With all this in mind: Have a good workout!


[1] The cardio intensity recommendations that I use are expressed as subjective ratings of perceived exertion: On a scale of 0 to 10 (where sitting is 0 and the highest level of effort possible is 10) low-intensity is below 5, moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6, vigorous-intensity is a 7 or 8 and high-intensity is above 8.

[2] Intensities for resistance exercise are expressed as percent of the “1RM” (one repetition maximum) – the maximum weight a person can lift in one single repetition of the respective movement.


The arguments and recommendations presented are based on these articles:


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Derek · 2020-01-12T19:39:25.313Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is very good, but I think busy (or unmotivated) EAs without much exercise experience would benefit from even more specific recommendations, especially for resistance exercises (i.e. strength training).

I found the Start Bodyweight program useful when beginning resistance training at home with no equipment other than a pull-up bar. An EA recommended the book Overcoming Gravity for more detailed information on bodyweight exercises.

I now I prefer to use the gym. At a glance, the following (which I just found with a quick Google search) seem like sensible gym-based* options for beginners, but maybe you have better ideas. [I'd add some core exercises to this, like situps and planks]

When I'm too busy to do the full range of strength and cardio (or when I'm travelling), I sometimes do moderate/high-intensity interval classes at home using YouTube videos. The Body Coach is pretty good - he has a videos with a range of difficulty (beginner to advanced), duration (10 min+), and muscle focus (legs, upper body, abs, full-body, etc). There are also videos meeting specific needs, e.g. low-impact routines so you don't disturb your neighbours or hurt your knees, and ones designed for small spaces. This kind of thing is perhaps the most efficient form of exercise: you can do it anywhere, it doesn't require any equipment, it's free, it covers both cardio and strength, and it doesn't take much time.

When travelling, I also take a resistance band. If you choose the weight carefully, a single band (which folds up to the size of a cigarette packet) can arguably substitute for any dumbbell that you'd use in the gym, and some of the machines as well. (The main thing you're lacking is the ability to do deadlifts, but there are ways around that too.)

I've heard some EAs recommend GymPass, especially if you travel a lot and don't like to exercise alone.

Feel free to correct me on any of this – I don't have any relevant expertise.

*They could obviously be done at home if you buy the equipment. The last one just needs dumbbells or resistance bands, which are pretty cheap.

comment by severintroesch · 2020-01-19T10:25:35.555Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your input Derek. I think you are right: The recommendations in my post are sometimes a bit unspecific. This is because I wanted to present a generic overview of the existing evidence – one that gives the necessary knowledge-basics but can (and must) be used according to personal taste. However, your links and hints are definitely valuable and I encourage everybody to check them out!

comment by M_Allcock · 2020-01-13T12:11:58.966Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I can also vouch for the Stronglifts 5x5 programme.

Training with a team and focusing on improvement (e.g. weight lifted, running time for a given distance, rock climbing grade), where improved health and well-being is the secondary benefit, has helped with my motivation a lot.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-01-13T20:21:03.312Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is great advice, but also I suspect many people will read it and go "yep, sounds like a thing I should do" and then not exercise, taking the outside view that EAs are not too different from most affluent people who continually choose not to exercise despite it being readily available.

So my advice is to forget about all of this at first and just do something physical and fun. What is fun differs between people. I didn't make a habit of exercising until I lived somewhere where I could do a fun physical activity (indoor rock climbing) whenever I liked. Some people really like running or riding a bike, others like rowing, others like team sports (baseball, basketball, gridiron football, football/soccer, cricket, rugby, etc.), others like "solo" or 1-on-1 sports (tennis, racquetball, squash, golf, etc.), and some people really get into dance or acrobatics or yoga or something else. The point is to first find a physical activity that is fun.

Then let exercise come after. In order to be good at a physical activity, you will be better if you are in good general shape, so good endurance and good strength. This will make exercise instrumentally useful to having more fun, so you'll want to do it because you like having fun, right?

This might not work for everyone (maybe you can't find a physical activity you think is fun after trying lots), but it was a powerful change in mindset for me that got me to go from basically never exercising to spending ~4/hours a week at the gym climbing and training to climb.

comment by Denkenberger · 2020-01-18T01:30:15.540Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The fun bucket is a good one, and I think another good bucket for many EAs is the multitasking bucket, e.g. treadmill desk, stationary bicycle (desk or video gaming), resistance exercising while on the phone, etc.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2020-01-18T19:10:56.617Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


Running while listening to podcasts/audiobooks is so great.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2020-01-17T19:31:28.955Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

fwiw I've found martial arts to be easier to stick with than the other exercise types I've tried, because they're very fun / I actually look forward to upcoming sessions.

comment by severintroesch · 2020-01-19T10:53:23.078Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment, Gordon. You are certainly right when you say that it is very important to find an exercise program that fits your taste. This is also what the evidence suggests: Exercise that is enjoyable can enhance the affective responses to exercise and may improve adherence. Also, it’s definitely better to do something – even if it’s under the recommended exercise dose – rather than nothing at all.

However, I think that EAs should nontheless aim for the recommended amount of exercise! Because thinking that "every little bit counts" could make one not even try the optimum (I'm unsure about thath, though). I am convinced that it is possible (albeit difficult) to change one's habits regarding exercise…

comment by Khorton · 2020-01-19T10:50:38.889Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Question: Imagine I go to the gym for whole-body strength training workout Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One week I'm busy on Monday and Tuesday. Is it useful to go Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday? Or is leaving that rest day really important?

comment by severintroesch · 2020-01-19T15:56:58.695Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it would certainly also be useful to go Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. The importance of the restday-position is secondary to the workout-frequency. Hope that helps.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2020-01-17T19:29:31.516Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've gotten a lot (physically & psychologically) from training Muay Thai.

I'll probably switch over entirely to Brazilian jiu-jitsu within a few years as it's a bit easier on the body (no striking) & can be practiced until late middle age.

comment by Kim Ebel · 2020-01-13T17:43:34.104Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the information, examples, and progression suggestions. And also for the reference links!

I'm curious what your stance is on 1 set to failure type resistance training protocols? I find that one of my issues when I restart strength training is that I end up sacrificing form in an attempt to minimize the time impact of the new activity. The slower training method tends to help me remain mindful (thus reducing injury incidents and helping with adherence). That said, if there are serious concerns (or if it's just generally less effective), I'd want to know that, too!

comment by severintroesch · 2020-01-19T15:34:37.302Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the question Kim. There really often is a tradeoff between form (i.e. technique) and intensity of the exercise. And you are right: When you sacrifice the form, then the injury risk is higher. Besides the fact that it takes longer, I don't see any great disadvantage of “slower training”, as you say. But if the time you spend on the exercises is a big factor for you, I suggest that you try high intensity using “easy” movements (so that the form is not a factor at all). Maybe this example can help?

comment by acrlr · 2020-05-06T15:45:29.591Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks very much for writing this! I'm glad to see more advice of this kind for the EA community.

I recently came across some advice from John Ratey which I haven't been able to verify despite some effort. Quoting from his book Spark:

This extends what we know from the neurogenesis research: that aerobic exercise and complex activity have different beneficial effects on the brain...The evidence isn’t perfect, but really, your regimen has to include skill acquisition and aerobic exercisechoose a sport that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain — tennis is a good example — or do a ten-minute aerobic warm-up before something nonaerobic and skill-based, such as rock climbing or balance drills. While aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks.

Is it correct that skill acquisition is an important component of an exercise regimen? I thought this was a weird thing for him to assert given that he later says that there is little “research into the effect of rhythm, balance, and skill-based activites on the brain.” It also seems like there is an inherent tradeoff between complex movement and exercise intensity: you can't play tennis as intensely as you can do intervals when swimming/running/cycling.

comment by markus_over · 2020-01-17T18:52:29.286Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this! Very useful.

One tiny nitpick:

Marie commutes daily by bicycle to the chemistry lab where she works.

Sorry for taking things a little too literal here, but most people (that I know of) work 5 days a week, have 2-6 weeks off per year, and call in sick something like 5-15 days per year, plus there may be some nationwide holidays on top. That leaves us with a range of around 210 - 245 actual commuting days or 57-67% of all days of the year. There are also likely days where rain/snow/wind cause Marie to get to work some other way, so effectively, even somebody who pretty much always takes the bike to work, will still end up at something like 50% of all days, but would probably tend to describe it as "everyday".

I'm not so much intending to criticize the example here, just point to the fact that such simplification makes it rather easy to delude oneself. I thought of myself as someone who takes the bike to work "almost always", yet when I actually tracked it, only got to around 100 days per year which was somewhat surprising.

Maybe the recommendations already take this into account however, and exceptions (even a lot of them, as naturally tend to happen) are tolerable as long as "the typical week" goes according to plan?

comment by severintroesch · 2020-01-19T15:52:21.601Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a very thoughtful point, Markus. And frankly, my example did not take this into account… I guess that it actually can help to track one’s exercise habits (as you did) and – in case these don’t meet the recommendations – adapt the strategy. For example: If you observe that on average you take the bicycle only on four out of five workdays, then plan one additional session on the weekend.