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Can ‘Minimum Effective Dose’ in training improve your workouts?

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Ever heard of the ‘Minimum Effective Dose’ strategy in training? Here’s how applying the MED method to your workouts can build momentum, motivation and discipline – so you can get stronger in body and mind in the long-term. 

The work I do as a psychologist is about helping clients to build lasting resilience. But, invariably, people arrive at my consulting room wanting overnight results. And I get it; by the time most people start therapy they have been in distress for a long time and just want to feel better, to feel differently, as quickly as possible. On top of that, we’re all seduced by the promise of dramatic change. The appeal of the ‘Before & After’ or ‘Glow Up’ is the radical difference between the two, the illusion of overnight transformation.

What we conveniently forget is that change doesn’t happen like this. We rarely reach our goals through one-off drastic efforts. You don’t achieve a qualification by just rocking up to the final exam and hoping for the best. You earn it by turning up, in a small way, over and over again, building your skills over time.

Think about the Great Pyramid at Giza, which at around 5,000-years-old is one of the oldest manmade structures on the planet. Each of its 2.3 million blocks was carefully manoeuvred into place over many years and, impressively, it’s still in pretty good shape. It’s the definition of playing the long game. 

Now compare that to the wobbly flatpack wardrobe from your first shared house. It might have looked good when it initially went up, but pretty soon any sudden move or gust of wind became an existential threat. Strength – emotional, psychological or physical – is built up over time.

Once you are on board with that idea, the next task is to work out how you can be more pyramid. This is where the Minimum Effective Dose comes in.

The Minimum Effective Dose (MED) is a term borrowed from pharmacology, where it describes the smallest amount of a drug required to have a therapeutic effect. At the other end of the scale, the Maximal Tolerated Dose (MTD), is the maximum amount of a drug that can be given before the drug itself becomes toxic.

Many of us are conditioned with the mantra of ‘no pain, no gain’ – that any kind of success must involve suffering. In fitness, for example, this idea is encapsulated in the notion of exercise as punishment. It leaves people believing that if a workout doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work. I’ve found that most people approach all kinds of change with this MTD mindset. ‘How do I get from A to B as quickly as possible?’ This is flatpack thinking. In the same way that trying to go from nothing to deadlifting 80k overnight will lead to injury. Trying to force a change of mindset or habit in an unrealistically short time will only lead to burnout, frustration and despondency. You’ll be forced to stop, which ironically, increases the distance between where you are now and where you want to be.

While behaviour change of any kind does usually require effort, there’s a big difference between effort and pain. A more sustainable strategy (and sustainable = long-term change) is to apply the MED. Rather than thinking, ‘How fast?’ ask yourself, ‘What is the smallest thing I can do that moves me in the direction of where I want to be?’ The benefit of this approach is that it builds consistency – and consistency is the secret of success because your brain and body get stronger through repetition, not occasional bouts of extreme effort. 

When it comes to health, the research tells us that the MED is surprisingly small. In one study, a 10-minute workout that contained just one minute of intense effort was as effective at improving insulin sensitivity and muscle function as 45 minutes of continuous exercise. 

For heart health, a study published in 2020 found that just 12 minutes of vigorous physical activity (such as jogging, hiking, cycling, fast swimming or strength training) improved around 80% of biomarkers for cardiovascular health. 

This is important because research shows that heart disease is under-diagnosed in women and we have worse treatment outcomes compared to men. Women are also twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. Since dementia is the leading cause of death in England and Wales, protecting our brain health should be considered a priority. One study found that just 40 minutes of walking, three times per week, was enough to reverse age-related brain shrinkage in older people – helping to keep their brains healthy and strong.

In short, short and regular efforts can be incredibly effective, eases psychological pressures, increases confidence and, hopefully, makes the whole process more enjoyable. You can then use that confidence to set new goals to work towards.

The MED strategy can (and should) be applied to any aspect of behaviour change or self-improvement. Want to save money? Start with putting aside £1 per day. Want to move more? Try as little as one minute of activity. Want to start journaling? Commit to writing just one line a day. 

No, it’s not dramatic and perhaps it doesn’t sound as impressive, but it’s effective  because the power is in the repetition. Implementing the MED aids sustainability. Sustainability breeds consistency. Consistency creates progress.

Strength that lasts takes time to build.

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Kimberley Wilson

Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.

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