Actress Helen Mirren attends HBO's Post 2014 Golden Globe Awards Party. Photo: Mike Windle
Twelve minutes. It’s not a long time, is it? Long enough to boil bronze-extruded spaghetti, send a few emails – or ensure that, like the Mounties, you will always get your man.
A now-obsolete Canadian military fitness plan, which takes just 12 minutes daily, has been credited by Dame Helen Mirren as the elixir of her youth and the reason why she can still rock a coral bikini in her sixties.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) programme, developed in the late Fifties and published in booklet form, was once an international best seller. Around 23 million copies in 13 translations were sold across the globe and the simple (yet effective) exercises were hugely popular in Britain.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fitness program.
The regime, tailored to improve fitness in RAF pilots posted to remote air bases without gym facilities, is called 5BX for men and XBX for women. The men’s routine consists of five simple activities: stretching, sit-ups, back extensions, push-ups and running on the spot. The women’s version has 10 exercises, and includes side leg raising and arm circling.
As fitness increases, so too does the difficulty of every exercise; but, crucially, the length of time stays the same. If this is starting to sound rather familiar, you’re not wrong; RCAF was the original high-intensity work-out, which was largely forgotten, then reinvented, repackaged as “Interval Training” and sold as a brand new innovation.
Older generations swore by it; the actor and comedian George Burns, who died in 1996 at the age of 100, was a fan. The regime fell out of vogue and was confined to die-hard adherents, but it doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict a fresh flurry of interest once the Mirren-effect kicks in.
Unlike the soignée yet ascetic Joan Collins, 80, who has famously been on a diet since the Sixties, sensuous Dame Helen is an unapologetic hedonist, known to smoke, drink and eat proper food, which chimes rather more with real women. Her figure-of-eight physique is testimony to the fundamental allure of old-fashioned curves rather than the androgynous bodies demanded of catwalk models and airbrushed celebrities. Not that Dame Helen is a late convert to fitness, far from it; in 2010 she was the poster girl for the Wii Fit Plus, spearheading a campaign to promote a self-tailored work-out that can be executed in your own home.
In recent years there has been extensive research into just how much and what sort of exercise our sedentary society needs to stay healthy. A joint study last year by several universities, including Loughborough, Nottingham and Bath, revealed that three short bursts of highly intense exercise for 30 seconds each, with short rests in between, amounting to only three (yes, three) minutes a week, could deliver the health and weight-loss benefits of the equivalent to hours spent in the gym. The researchers have dubbed the phenomenon High-Intensity Impact Training (HIIT). And it looks very much as though it will indeed be a hit.
“The term HIIT encompasses a whole range of activities, including pedalling like fury for 20 seconds then resting for five minutes and repeating 10 times, or running for two minutes then resting for one, or doing what Helen Mirren does over a 12-minute period,” says Professor Myra Nimmo of Loughborough University.
Prof Nimmo, who is spearheading the research, which monitored hundreds of unfit, middle-aged volunteers over the past eight years, adds: “Sports coaches have known about this sort of training for a long time, but it has got huge potential for non-professionals.”
This short-burst exercise regime effectively boosts volunteers’ stamina and the fitness of their lungs, heart and blood vessels. More crucially, there are major unseen health benefits as well. High intensity work-outs target so-called visceral fat, found internally, which is more harmful than outer body, subcutaneous fat. Largely located in the abdomen, visceral fat is linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders and, in women, breast cancer.
And that’s not the only area in which high-intensity training can help. “After a fortnight of doing HIIT, three times a week, a person’s insulin sensitivity will be improved,” says Prof Nimmo. “This means their blood glucose levels go down, reducing their risk of type 2 diabetes.”
There is also evidence that the training itself suppresses appetite. The idea that Britain could fight its war against obesity in short, manageable bursts must surely be worth further investigation. But Prof Nimmo cautions against a one-programme-fits-all approach. The future of fitness lies in refining the regime for each one of us.
“This sort of exercise won’t deliver the same outcomes in everyone; there are responders and non-responders,” she says. “Just as the emphasis is on personalised medicine, so, in the future will we be looking at individualised exercise programmes.”
There’s certainly an attraction to exercising smarter rather than longer; in our time-starved society, the quicker-harder-shorter solution seems eminently more appealing than the prospect of pounding the streets for miles in running gear or sweating it out in a gym.
But the outcome won’t necessarily be the same, points out Prof Nimmo, disappointingly. “I think we also have to accept the fact that Helen Mirren just has the genes to look the way she does.”
True. If unhelpful. But let’s remember again that Dame Helen is very nearly 70 yet glows with a vitality that she conveys both on and off stage and screen. After her infamous bikini shot – taken on a beach in Italy when she was 63, and which proved, incontrovertibly, that there really ain’t nothing like a Dame – the award-winning actress was ambivalent about once again being feted as a sex symbol.
“I think the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life is that bloody photograph of myself in a bikini,” she said, with her trademark forthrightness. “In and of itself, it is a lie because I don’t actually look like that.”
Perhaps. But the vision will not haunt her half as much as it haunts every woman pushing 45 and wondering whether they’ll still be in a two-piece two years, much less two decades, hence.
On the other hand, if just a dozen minutes a day makes such a difference (inside and out), investing in those 12 minutes could ultimately prove to be even more life-enhancing than a coral bikini.
Fast fitness: we put Helen Mirren’s fitness plan to the test
1. Leg lifting x 2 The lady in the RCAF booklet seems to be achieving a vertical leg with great ease, though it might be a trick of the strange leotard she is wearing. Performing two of these is not too difficult, but you’d definitely get hip burn after doing 15, which is my target number.
2. Lateral bending x 5 The “I’m a little teapot” dance, as some like to call it, is said to bring “profound release to the diaphragm”. It loosens my limbs and leaves me energised.
3. Arm circling x 24 This is surprisingly tiring for such a ridiculous-looking gesture. It gets worse as the levels increase and you switch circling for “windmilling” — one arm following the other, moving both at once.
4. Chest and leg raising x 4 Definitely the move you’d least like your neighbours to catch you doing, this involves lying flat on your front, hands tucked beneath your thighs, while raising your head, shoulders and alternate legs.
Conclusion: Women in my age bracket, 26-30, should aim to reach a fitness level of 30 (out of 48) in the RCAF plan, performing exercises for 12 minutes every day. I’m impressed — it’s a comprehensive workout in a short time, even at level one. You don’t need special clothes or shoes (unless you want to emulate that Fifties look with a leotard), nor more space than a yoga mat. The exercises are basic and I can’t see them giving you enormous strength, but they would definitely tone and improve mobility.
Of course, if that’s not enough, there’s always the promise, contained in the original booklet, that the workout will boost “desirable qualities such as vitality, appearance and personality”. What better incentive to start training like a dame?