Health Notes: Best glute exercises, energy cost of running, stay active to stave off dementia

You, our readers, have asked for it, so SNEWS® is delivering it: This is the third in an occasional series of Health Notes reports that will take a look at a one or more recent pieces of research studies or reports about health, fitness, physical activity and wellness.

You, our readers, have asked for it, so SNEWS® is delivering it: This is the third in an occasional series of Health Notes reports that will take a look at a one or more recent pieces of research studies or reports about health, fitness, physical activity and wellness. We'll focus on news you can use and present results in plain English, without all the techno-garble that can make many research studies seem overwhelming to read, let alone understand and explain to somebody else. We hope you will gain nuggets of information and condensed insights that will help you serve your customers better and conduct your business with more confidence. Let us know what you think, what you would like to see, and how you'd like to see it!

What is the "best" exercise for glutes?
Everybody wants a great behind it seems, so the American Council on Exercise decided to look into the effects on the tush muscles from eight different and commonly used exercises. The exercises analyzed in a study funded by ACE and conducted by researchers at the La Cross Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, were: traditional squats, single-leg squats, vertical leg press, quadruped hip extensions (i.e. on all fours), horizontal leg press, step-ups, lunges and four-way hip extensions.

Reported in the ACE Fitness Matters January/February publication, researchers measured muscle activity in 12 volunteers using electromyographic (EMG) analysis, which basically measures the electrical activity in muscles. The more activity, i.e. muscle "firing," the more the muscle is being used. Exercise volunteers went through three days of testing that evaluated what was happening in the muscles during the selected eight movements.

Researchers found that several exercises worked quite well, with some variance based which part of the glutes got the biggest workout: the maximus (the largest of the muscles), the medius (a slightly smaller muscle) and the hamstrings (the lengthy muscle up the back of the upper leg). The all-around winners were five of the eight: single-leg squats, quadruped hip extensions, step-ups, lunges and four-way hip extensions.

"Our study showed that there are several exercises that work equally as well as the traditional squat at targeting the gluteal muscles," said researcher Blake Ristvedt.

However, researchers suggested focusing on the largest gluteus maximus results since it is the most important in strength development. Considering that, the best was the hip extension on all fours (quadruped), following in order by four-way hip extensions, traditional squats, lunges, step-ups and single-leg squats, with the horizontal and vertical leg presses activating significantly fewer muscle than even the traditional squat.

Most surprising to the researchers was the muscle activity from the hip extension on all fours -- basically one slighted by many since it is usually done without weight and in many women's classes. You start on hands and knees, and then lift one leg up while keeping the knee bent at 90 degrees. You then try to lift the sole of your flat foot toward the ceiling while keeping your abdominals contracted. (Have you ever seen a guy on all fours with one leg up in the air? No, didn't think so. He'd be laughed off the gym floor, but researchers suggested this was really the best one, and could be even more challenging if ankle or leg weights were added.)

Take away: Traditional squats may not be the "best" strengthener and toner for the glutes, despite popular belief, and both horizontal and vertical leg presses on machines do far less than some other very basic movements such as hip extensions on all fours, lunges and step-ups.

For the scientifically minded: Go to to read more detail about the study's results.

Energy cost nearly identical whether running fast or slow
Common belief is that if you run fast, you are working harder, breathing harder and just simply using more calories over a distance. On the other hand, science has always said, same distance, same calories, period. This study in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal by the highly reputable American College of Sports Medicine found some truth in both.

Researchers in Germany had volunteers who were only moderately endurance trained mostly from non-running activity do two five-mile (8,000-meter) runs -- one at a high intensity (95 percent of anaerobic threshold) and one at a moderate intensity (70 percent).

Although energy expenditure was slightly greater at higher intensity, researchers had set 10 percent more energy use as the threshold to be able to say it was enough higher to make enough difference for exercisers to run faster. The difference in the study was less than 4 percent on average (or 633 calories on average for the high-intensity run and 610 for the lower-intensity run). In addition, the fat used (or "burned," as it is commonly called) was the same.

Take away: Run fast, run slow, it doesn't make enough difference if your goal is calorie use or weight loss. Of course, if you run slower for the same distance, it will take longer to use those calories, but you also may simply be more comfortable and have less chance of injury.

For the scientifically minded: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 37, Issue 10. View an abstract of the study (available to non-ACSM members) by clicking here.

Stay active, keep dementia at bay
Perhaps not something younger people think about is how exercise and its effects can make older age healthier and happier. A recent study has added yet more coals to that fire.

The study -- the most definitive yet on the topic -- in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that older adults who exercise three or more times a week reduced their risk of dementia by 30 percent to 40 percent compared to those who exercise fewer than three times a week. Who doesn't want to retain a sharp mind when they're older?

"We learned that a modest amount of exercise would reduce a person's risk of dementia by about 40 percent. That's a significant reduction," said Eric B. Larson, lead study author and director of the Center for Health Studies at Group Health Cooperative.

Researchers at the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle followed for six years 1,750 adults 65 or older who had perfectly normal mental functioning. Over the six years, 158 developed dementia, defined as a loss or impairment of mental powers. Of those 158, 107 were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In looking at those who exercised and those who did not, researchers then found that the rate of mental impairment with age was about 50 percent more among those who did not (13 per 1,000 person-years compared with 19.7 per 1,000 person-years).

What did participants do? A mix of activities including walking, hiking, aerobics, calisthenics, swimming, water aerobics, weight training and stretching. Researchers also found that those who began some regular activity once they were older still benefited, so it's never too late, as the saying goes.

Take away: For older exercisers, a benefit to point out may be that regular activity isn't just about looking good, but also about keeping the mind in shape and sharp as you age. And exercise doesn't have to mean more than three times a week for 30 minutes to make a big difference.

For the scientifically minded: Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 144, Issue 2. The entire article is available by clicking here.