Few things get me more riled up than advertisements for an exercise program or piece of workout equipment with the verbiage: Best, Only, Complete, etc.
Another pet peeve is studies, usually done by the manufacturers or developers of a program, touting amazing benefits on unconditioned people. ANY moderate exercise will benefit a deconditioned person. The only risk would be too high-intensity of a training.
Want the truth: The best exercise for you is the one you are currently NOT doing.
Components of Fitness
There are three basic components of fitness:
- Cardiovascular Endurance
- Flexibility (or Mobility)
The goal is to be efficient at all of these. If you only run, your cardiovascular fitness will be excellent, but the other elements will be lacking. If you are passionate about lifting heavy weights, you’ll have a hard time hiking up a hill. Both of these modalities will result in a lack of flexibility. However, if you’re only doing Yoga or Pilates, you might be missing muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance.
Role of Exercise
If you go back 100-125 years, the idea that we would be going to a gym to exercise would be ludicrous. The vast majority of the populous engaged in physical labor. Even if you were wealthy, activities of daily living were much more strenuous than they are today. You don’t even have to go back that far. Look at life in the1960’s:
- There was one phone in the house; often downstairs.
- Most typewriters were manual.
- Most cars were stick shift.
- You had to get out of the car to open the garage door.
- And yes, kids played outside.
Today we go to the gym to exercise because our lives have become too sedentary. As a species, humans are meant to engage in moderate physical activity (movement) during most of their waking hours with brief bouts of aerobic (running) or anaerobic (heavy lifting) thrown in. Unfortunately, in today’s advanced societies, we lead very sedentary lives and some of us try to make up for that by “hitting the gym” most days of the week. Often we then do exercises that are virtually contra-indicated for us. One of the most glaring, in my opinion, is cycle classes. Though I’m a lifetime certified Mad Dogg Spin Instructor, and regularly sub spin classes, the format bothers me for the following reasons: People are coming to the class after sitting on their butt’s for eight plus hours. Their hip flexors are tight and their shoulders are rounded forward, now they get on a bike to exercise and those same movement patterns are exacerbated. I do think the classes have a purpose; they are great for cardiovascular work and nowadays many cycle classes incorporate some upper body strength with light weights, but for most “desk jockeys”, doing a cycle class twice a week is plenty.
The best exercise program involves movement throughout the day, so here’s what you do:
- Stand up and walk around every 30 minutes.
- Go for a walk before work, at lunch and after work.
- Be the office geek who volunteers to replace the water cooler tank.
- Clean your own house.
- Mow your own grass.
- Hit the gym most days of the week and MIX. THINGS. UP.
This will hold true even if you are competing FOR FUN in an obstacle course race, triathlon, road or trail race, etc. If you are a serious competitor, you are probably not reading this blog. If so, get of the internet and get a sports specific coach.
My Training Philosophy
None of my clients are professional athletes. Though some regularly place in amateur 5K, triathlon or obstacle racing, the majority are professionals who are trying to keep their quality of life high, reduce illness and keep the pounds off. This is my focus for these folks:
- Multi-joint exercises with weights that are heavy, for key moves such as Squats, Deadlift, Overhead Lifts and Pull-Ups. All of these movements are performed with the utmost integrity. Weight is only added after the movement patterns are properly performed.
- There are components of Yoga and/or Pilates with each workout, but I also encourage my clients to take these classes apart from our training sessions.
- HITT sessions (Hi Intensity Interval Training). The modality can be rowing, running (treadmill), biking (stationary), etc. If they’re training for a specific event, e.g. a half-marathon, I would obviously encourage running. Format can be Tabata (20 seconds all-out and 10 seconds recovery for four minutes) or something like a quarter mile run as fast as possible.
- I arrange for my clients to compete in road races as they are so accessible to everyone. I can get 15 clients out for a 5K and everyone can enjoy it. Some will win their age groups and others will walk the route. Everyone gets a beer and food at the end.
There’s No Best Exercise, But There Are Ways to Make Your Exercise Better
Two things that will help you get more from your exercise program are getting out of your comfort zone and using your brain while exercising.
Don’t Do What You Like
People are often told to find an exercise that they like and focus on that as they are more likely to do it. I agree with that up to a point, but I also think we should do things that we don’t like. Our continued efforts to stay comfortable all the time do not serve us well. Our ancestors crossed continents by walking and we are upset when our plane is delayed in an airport with conveniences our forefathers could only dream of. Fortitude with physical discomfort carries over to fortitude in activities of daily living. Instead of doing all your exercise in a climate controlled gym, break out of the comfort zone: swim in cold water; run or bike in the heat (bring water) and lift a little heavier (with good form) than you normally do.
Brain and Body Connection
Learning new things that involve both mind and body helps keep your brain young via a mechanism called neuroplasticity. Forget about electronic games to increase brain function, they don’t work:
What does work is combining movement with memory. I heard that Spartan races used to have you memorize a number at an obstacle and you had to repeat it a few obstacles later. If you forget, burpees or some other punishment was assigned. If a Spartan race is too intimidating, try Zumba or Ballroom Dancing. Learning the intricate moves will help neuroplasticity.
If you have physical limitations, try to memorize a phone number, address or poem while doing bicep curls. These types of activity increase neuroplasticity and keep your brain and body young.
We have gone from having to “exercise” as a daily part of our life to “fitting it in”. Ask anyone if exercise is important, and they will say “yes”. So keep moving my friend. But don’t just rely on that gym visit and when you do hit the gym, be mindful of your workout and make sure you are addressing the following:
- Cardiovascular Endurance
- Strength Training
- Cognitive Function
Stay well my friends!