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Rational couch potatoes unite! Or, are you a non responder? Would you want to know?

A few years ago a friend of mine took part in a research study to measure responsiveness to physical training.

Some people, she told me, are rational couch potatoes. Working out doesn’t improve their fitness. They can follow a regular program of exercise without improvements in cardiovascular capacity. At the end of the program they’re just as slow and unfit as when they began.

I think she was hoping to turn out to be a non responder so her friends (okay, me) would quit nagging her to go to the gym.

I was skeptical but it turns out she was right. Not that she was a non responder. She turned out to be a mere low responder but rather she was right that such people exist.

The human population, it turns out, can be divided into the following groups:

  • non-responders (whose fitness levels don’t improve with exercise , making up about 20% of the population)
  • responders (who respond as expected to exercise, comprising about 65% of the population)
  • super-responders (who respond extremely well to exercise, and make up the remaining 15% of the population)

Those figures are from a terrific BBC program on fitness, in which host Michael Mosley found out he’s a non responder.

I think I’d be very sad if I was a non responder. Fitness is such a source of joy in my life. But of course there are other joys and maybe you wouldn’t miss it if you’d never had it. That’s what my low responding friend claimed.

I hadn’t noticed non responders before but while taking various running clinics I did notice that people varied quite a bit. Some people could skip half the work outs and progress just fine while other people doggedly did all the work but made very slow gains. I’ve blogged about that here as one of the things you learn from working out with others.

I also see it every spring on the bike as many of us go from not riding at all to getting fast again. How many weeks, rides, kilometers does that take? No surprise. It varies.

There’s also the vexed question of how much fitness you retain through periods of inactivity. Again, there’s lots of variability.

So I think the one size fits all, x weeks to x km programs can mislead us into thinking that we are all alike. We’re not. Athletes work hard it’s true but most come blessed with bodies that respond very well to training.

But given that most of us are training for fun and for health, how much should it matter if we get faster slowly or not at all? I’ve argued for fitness goals in terms of performance rather than physique but what if the performance goals are beyond your reach too? (You can read some about fitness goals here and here and here.)

It turns out that ‘non responder’ is a bit of a misnomer. The non responders don’t get faster or fitter but they do benefit in other ways.

“In a study carried out at Louisiana State University, researchers found that 10 to 15% of the volunteers they tested experienced no increase in aerobic capacity after a 20-week exercise program that involved gradual increases in exercise intensity over time. On the other hand, the lead researcher in this study emphasized that despite the lack of obvious improvement in aerobic fitness, all of the individuals experienced some physical improvements as a result of working out.” (Exercise Non-Responders: Not Everyone Responds to Exercise the Same Way)

What kind of benefits? Well, they burn calories, for one. On its own that’s not that important but they also experience the metabolic effects of exercise that help protect against diabetes.

Here’s another complication. Some people respond to cardio training but not strength training, and others vice versa. And of course, some people do well at both and others neither.

A Finnish study of 175 adults found that some didn’t improve their strength or fitness level at all after a 5-month exercise program.

“Finnish researchers asked these previously sedentary adults to work out regularly for 21 weeks. Some walk or jogged while others trained with weights. Some did both. At the end of the 21 weeks, they tested their aerobic fitness and strength. What they found was surprising. Some of the volunteers improved their aerobic fitness or strength by as much as 42 percent, while others actually experienced a decline in their strength and aerobic capacity after 21 weeks of exercise. Some showed strength gains, but not an increase in aerobic capacity, while others boosted their aerobic capacity but showed no gains in strength. An unfortunate few had no improvement in either area.” (Exercise Non-Responders: Not Everyone Responds to Exercise the Same Way)

You can now test your responsiveness to physical training with a simple mail in genetic test. Gretchen Reynolds writes about that here.

What’s fascinating are the elite athletes. They’re not all super responders as you might expect. Some are mediocre genetically but work very very hard. So effort can trump bad genetic luck.

I know I’m not a non responder to either cardio or strength training. My body seems to like exercise.

But if I didn’t know, I’m not sure if I’d want to find out.

How about you?

29 thoughts on “Rational couch potatoes unite! Or, are you a non responder? Would you want to know?

  1. A very interesting topic. We are all guilty sometimes of using information to justify whatever we want to justify. Were I genetically tested in a thorough fashion to determine the exercise regime which was best or optimal for me, would I begin that exercise regime tomorrow if it meant giving up alot of what I enjoy doing and doing alot of what I don’t enjoy doing? Or would I find a way to justify what I am now doing? My guess is that like in so many other things in life, I would howl at the moon for at least three days, become very angry and depressed, then I would read all I could get my hands on concerning the exercises I should be doing, then I would commit to doing what I should be doing. The fact that I would probably do what’s best for me is no comment on anything about me, other than the fact that likely, I would just do it. That said, I will not have such thorough testing done as it is too expensive and I’ve already responded so well to the exercise regime to which I am currently committed. That way, I can avoid hearing the bad news until such thorough testing becomes affordable or OHIP covers it. 🙂

  2. Do non-responders still get any benefit out of physical activity? Like, if their cardiovascular capacity, aerobic fitness or physical strength doesn’t increase, then why should they even bother doing anything?

    I don’t think I’m a non-responder – it would be difficult for me to make that argument as someone who has gone from being a smoker to being able to run a 21-minute 5K over the course of six years – but if I were I wouldn’t want to know. This is definitely one of those instances in which ignorance is bliss.

    1. Yeah, it would be tough to be a non responder. You get the health benefits in terms of metabolism and warding off diabetes but little or no cardio improvement. Some people in the study got worse with training! On the other hand, if you knew that going in, maybe you’d beat yourself up a little less when you didn’t make gains. I think it would be better to know why it was happening. And then I’d pick a sport that was all skill and finesse and less about fitness!

      1. That’s a good point. Someone who has a solid head on their shoulders could look at things that way and find motivation to keep going. I’d like to think I’m capable of that, but I also know that could also be me just pretending like I’m a better person than I really am. 🙂

    2. I don’t think it really works that way. At least, not for me. Working out like a mad dog for years to see almost no results makes it incredibly difficult to experience blissful ignorance.

  3. Really interesting post. I wonder if I’m a non-responder in some ways. I know I find it really difficult to see changes with certain things (running, for example), but other things I do see a change quickly (strength training comes to mind). I’d like to learn more, but I think if I find out I’m a non-responder to a certain type of training, then it might give me the excuse to not do it!

    1. I guess for me, if I turned out to be a 30 weeks to 5 km person, I’d like to know it was genetics not my failure to work hard enough!

      The one thing I do worry about but didn’t mention, is people testing their kids for athletic potential. That’s especially alarming given that some Olympic athletes aren’t super responders. They’ve just worked very hard over the years.

  4. That is a whole other kettle of fish – sending our kids down on paths genetically chosen for them. Scares me more than a little, on so many levels.

  5. Wow, how fascincating I had no idea there were actual non-responders. I don’t think it would change what I do however if I found out I was a non responder just because of the way exercise makes me feel….

  6. This is the first time I’ve been tempted by a genetic test!

    In my case, it would be more interest in finding out whether I should focus on athletic goals, or just continue on as a “process athlete.”

    What is NOT in doubt for me is that I’m a serious responder when it comes to health measures. Even though I’m quite overweight, my HDL is mega high and LDL low. The low LDL seems genetic, but you can tell how seriously I’ve been exercising by tracking my HDL–when I’m slacking it’s fine but not great. If I work out with any regularity, it shoots high (and my resting HR drops to the 50s). I love that and it is sufficiently motivating for me to work out (not to mention warding off dysthymia).

  7. That which they say is good for you is actually only good for the majority of people. I have known two people who would be dead inside of a month if they tried to eat raw, unprocessed food.

  8. They have told me that they would enjoy being able to eat raw fruits and vegetables, but if they tried that, not only wouldn’t it be nutritious to them, it would shred them like they’d eaten ground glass instead.

  9. Basically, they have to eat junk food, and they’re not even close to being fat, either. Junk food really gets old fast if the choice is between junk food and nothing at all.

  10. Being a non-responder is absolutely terrible. I am one. Not only is it terrible working out 6x a week, doing brutal exercises that leave you exhausted only to see no results over the years — but the very process is a jarring and unwelcomed reminder of insurmountable limitations beyond our control.

    What’s worse is growing up in a society where we’re judged for underperforming athletically, told we’re “not doing it right” or or “just need to try this trainer or this diet,” or watching physically fit looking people who may not even work out as hard as we do receive commendation while we’re looked upon as lazy.

    I’m glad you’re acknowledging this and writing about it. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge that it’s a thing at all.

  11. I think I’m a low responder based on personal experience. I would definitely want to know, because I dislike most exercise, and being able to give up trying at least some forms of it, without guilt, nagging, or the low self-esteem that ensues, would enhance my life.

    Being a low responder has given me a self-image of someone who is lazy, undisciplined, and weak. Rationally, I don’t think any of this is actually true, but feelings of shame and low self-worth still often come to the fore in group exercise classes or at gyms, where I am usually the slowest and weakest, so I tend to avoid those situations.

    I’d also love to know what forms of exercise *are* good for low responders. What I’ve found on my own is that walking, moderate hiking, gentle swimming, and light weight training are helpful. And that running, aerobics, or pretty much anything “high intensity” sucks. The key is keeping it light to moderate and getting lots of rest.

    1. My findings are similar. Resistance training and diet have been instrumental in keeping me healthy and also within what others consider to be an acceptable degree of appearing physically fit.

      The high intensity cardio, sprinting, HIIT, etc, will gradually allow me to experience marginal improvement before hitting a pronounced plateau, all at the cost of my over all well being: plantar fasciitis from running, knee pain, and a few incidents of nearly being hospitalized after metabolic acidosis experienced by surpassing my V02 max caused me to become completely clammy, dizzy and ill — as well as mental health ramifications stemming from my body feeling constantly taxed and depleted, along with the frustration from the poor effort to results ratio I experience.

  12. I know this is an older post, but it’s a thought I keep coming back to. When I read about people who have never run before, then suddenly can run 5k in about 2 months… or haven’t run in months, then suddenly can run a mile… and I’m sitting here thinking “It’s taken me 2.5 years to build up to running 2.5 miles, at less than 6mph…” I get really depressed and wonder why my body doesn’t work the same way.

    Maybe it’s time for me to accept that cardio isn’t my thing, but I do think I respond better to weight training.

  13. I cried when I first read about aerobic nonresponders. I finally had not just an explanation for nearly half a century of personal experience with exercise, but also permission to not beat myself up for a failure I’d been told all my life was somehow my fault. (One personal trainer, who was baffled by my failure to improve while following his infallible method, assumed I was lying about how much I was working out. So he insisted on supervising every one of my workouts. When he saw for himself that I was doing exactly what I was told to do, as often as I was told to do it, and it still wasn’t working, he self-righteously informed me that his program MUST work, therefore I must be compensating by sitting on the couch the rest of the day with a giant box of cookies on my lap. This is only one of many, many similar examples)

    Lately, though, I’ve been searching for a better understanding of what makes the most sense as a way to stay as healthy as I can given my limitations, and the information remains woefully inadequate. As just one example, I read today in the NYT about yet another study linking aerobic exercise with cognitive benefits in older people. As a person with Alzheimers in my family I’ve always been interested in the general belief that aerobic exercise reliably limits cognitive decline with aging. But I’ve wondered if any of the research accounted for non-responders. And sure enough, it turns out, at least with this most recent example, that there was no relationship between aerobic “exercise” and cognitive improvement, but rather aerobic “fitness” coupled with the usual assumptions that aerobically “fit” seniors must exercise more, ergo, even in the minds of the researchers (who one would hope would know better by now) “fitness” is the same as “exercise” even though the fit may, in fact, exercise very little and the unfit my workout themselves nearly to death.

    So we still know that being aerobically fit is good for you. Wow, who would have guessed. But we still also have no clue whether actual aerobic exercise — the miserable crap we non-responders force ourselves through because we’re told of all these supposed collateral benefits (which, incidentally, I’ve never seen cataloged or supported beyond the weak example of caloric consumption) — is actually good for people who don’t and won’t ever improve their VO2 max. That it “might” or “probably does” is the worst kind of baseless speculation. One not supported, incidentally, by the Longevity Project, which determined that it takes too much exercise to add too little to one’s life expectancy. In other words, you waste more years exercising than you gain, even if you respond. If you’re loving the time you’re exercising, well bully for you and all, but there aren’t words for how much those of us who’ve tortured ourselves all our lives hate it. Those are years we’ll never get back. Time that would have been better spent reading, or maybe fasting, or even just walking in the park enjoying the fresh air and bugger trying to break a sweat or ramp up the heart rate.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Fynella, and to the others as well. For me, exercise did the exact opposite of what I’d hoped it would do: instead of empower me and serve as a testament to my will power, after years of spinning my wheels it ultimately instilled feelings of powerlessness and utter hopelessness. Although perhaps a bit dramatic, I began to dwell even more heavily on the idea of genetic barriers and even free will itself. What I had originally embarked upon as hopefully one of the more empowering experiences of my life became intensely damaging. I’m still coping with the experience and dealing with the aftermath, especially in light of how I’ve been judged and treated my entire life as a non-athlete.

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