Book Review: “The First 20 Minutes”

Book Review
The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer
By Gretchen Reynolds
257 pgs., Hudson Street Press, $25.95

How many books have you read that changed the way you live? This one did for me. Gretchen Reynolds, who pens the “Phys Ed” column for the New York Times (online in the Well blog on health and fitness, and in the “Science Times” print section), has synthesized scores of contemporary studies and interviews with researchers and experts in a book that is chock-full of information, advice, and data, and yet is a fast and fascinating read. I’ve returned repeatedly to my own heavily dog-eared copy.

Reynolds, a runner, approaches the subject of exercise from personal experience as well as parsing the science in terms a layperson can easily digest. She explains some fundamental concepts of training—such as “overload,” which simply means that to improve athletic performance, you have to progressively increase the intensity of your training. But she also delves intelligently into newer theories such a HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada had athletes ride a stationary bicycle in intervals of 20 to 30 seconds at the highest intensity they could stand, alternating with resting periods of four minutes, and repeating this cycle four to six times—thus performing only two to three minutes of actual exercise per session. They did this HIIT workout regularly for two weeks. The result? Those athletes showed as much increase in their endurance as people who instead, over that two-week period, regularly bicycled for 90 to 120 minutes at a sustainable pace.

Reynolds is at her best and most surprising when she debunks long-held dogma about exercise. Did you know that stretching before exercise not only doesn’t help, but may hinder performance? (You’re undoubtedly relieved.) That massage doesn’t actually remove lactic acid from muscles? (Bummer, but don’t worry, you can get the massage, anyway.) That carbo-loading is not only a load of hooey, but may actually slow you down? (My pasta-loving family is reeling at this revelation.)

She also offers research-supported, hard tips on everything from how to exercise better—such as a proper warm-up—to how to eat more wisely for participation in sports, and how to measure your aerobic fitness. And she delivers much reassuring news—including what science has learned about how to combat some common, unwanted effects of aging.

I’ve read a lot of exercise books over the years, but never one like this that presents so much information in such an accessible and persuasive way that’s directly applicable to how you work out and live. I’ve actually changed daily personal behaviors based on advice in this book—both how I exercise as well as some habits during working and leisure hours. (Three examples of the latter: I make a point of getting up and moving around every 20 minutes; stand or walk around during phone conversations; and, it feels funny even typing this, brush my teeth with my eyes closed. Read this book to understand why.)

This eminently readable book would be useful and informative to anyone from recreational athletes to active people of any age—and anyone wondering how important it is to be active.

Buy “The First 20 Minutes.”

Read Gretchen Reynolds’ New York Times blog on health and fitness at

Find out more about her work and book at


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