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BYU research explores potential of ‘prescribed’ exercise

By Ashtyn Asay - | Nov 5, 2022

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo

Eddy Leon, owner of Eddy's Bicycle Barn in Lehi, gets air off a jump along a trail that is a part of the Valley Vista Trail System on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Pleasant Grove.

What if exercise could be prescribed like medicine? New research from Brigham Young University examines the effects of doctor-ordered training.

In a study published last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found a way to determine the intensity at which each person should work out for optimal results, and have outlined a system to create “prescribed” personalized workouts.

“One day we’ll get to prescribe exercise like medicine,” said Jayson Gifford, a BYU exercise science professor and senior author on the study, in a press release. “In order to prescribe medicine, you need to have predictable results for each dosage of medicine. We’ve found the exact same thing applies to exercise.”

While individual exercise is typically prescribed based on a fixed percentage of one’s maximum rate of oxygen consumption, also known as VO2 Max, or their Max Heart Rate, prescribing exercise based on a person’s “critical power,” or the highest level of their comfort zone, can yield greater long-term benefits and improvement in endurance, according to the research.

“It’s the level at which we can perform for a long period of time before things start to get uncomfortable,” said Jessica Collins, a former BYU graduate student and study lead author, in a press release.

For this study, the coauthors examined 22 participants ages 18-35, who were healthy but at low fitness levels, over the course of eight weeks. The participants were randomly assigned to either high-intensity bike training or moderate-intensity continuous bike training, and the exercise was prescribed based on their max heart rate, or VO2 Max.

“Researchers discovered that prescribing exercises based on VO2 Max as a reference point results in alarming variability in results. There were participants who benefited significantly from the training period and others who did not, even though the training was personalized to them,” reads a press release from BYU. “They compared this to each individual’s critical power and found that it accounted for 60% of the variability in their findings.”

In order to calculate the participants’ critical power, researchers had them complete certain distances of exercise as quickly as possible. They then inserted the average speed into a formula that determines the relationship between exercise distance and exercise time to find the critical power number.

“Exercise is so good for you that you’ll see some sort of benefit no matter what you do,” Gifford said. “This research simply informs people that they can more fully optimize their exercise, so they get more out of it. We are excited for when it becomes more accessible for people to know their personal critical power in the near future.”

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