Thumb through any magazine or scroll through most any website, and you’re sure to find a compelling article on the benefits of the latest workout craze. From the ever-popular HIIT (high-intensity interval training) protocols that promise results with a minimal investment of time, to the equally popular daily brisk walk that promotes a routine accessible to just about everybody – and a whole host of long-term benefits, there’s no shortage of advocates for every conceivable workout. So, what approach really is the best?
The truth is there’s no such thing as a “best” workout. Nor is there a miracle workout, or a workout that will cure absolutely anything. The bottom line is that the best workout is one that you will stick to. And that means picking an approach that focuses on your goals, your current health, and what you can fit into your lifestyle. So before jumping onto the latest buzzy exercise or dropping hundreds of dollars at a gym with a specialized approach, consider the following guidelines.
Just Getting Started? Start With Your Doctor
If it’s been a while since you exercised, if you are overweight or obese, or if you have underlying health conditions or joint concerns, the first step is to talk to your doctor. While virtually anybody can benefit from some exercise, it’s important to rule out any health concerns that might limit your efforts. Talk to your doctor about your goals and get his or her approval before starting anything more strenuous than a gentle walk. Then consider working with a personal trainer to map out a plan and ensure you know how to perform the exercises correctly and safely.
Looking to Lose Weight or Improve Health? Go Long and Slow
Walking is still one of the best exercises around. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s accessible to just about everyone, and you can go at your own pace. Start slow, with maybe a 20-30 minute walk several times a week. Add 5 minutes every week while you quicken your pace. Once you can walk 3-4 miles in an hour most days of the week, you’ll be well on your way to better health. Oh, and you’ll no doubt lose a few pounds in the process.
Looking to Maintain Fitness as You Age? Add in Some Power Moves
Building (and maintaining) muscle mass is critical as we age. Not only does muscle help keep your metabolism revved, it also increases strength, aids in mobility, and helps preserve bone density. Muscle mass and strength generally peak around age 35, and then slowly decline after that. However, that decline is accelerated after about age 65, and over time it will impact balance, walking speed, recreational activities – and even the ability to get out of a chair easily. A National Institute on Aging study found that the best way for seniors to preserve their lifestyle and health is with a combination of walking and resistance training. And while lifting weights is a great option, it’s certainly not the only one. Yoga, Pilates, resistance bands, squats, wall pushups, planks and a plethora of other options are great for building strength and flexibility – both keys to maintaining mobility as we age. Of course, it’s important to take a class or work with a trainer if you are unsure about any movements or need some extra help. Then go at your own pace – steady and slow – and don’t forget about a daily walk!
Looking to Increase Cardiovascular Fitness? Go Long and Hard
Improving your cardiovascular fitness means improving the way your heart and lungs supply the oxygen you need. Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone, because you’ll need to maintain a medium to high intensity to see improvements. If you’re just starting out (and you’ve been given the OK by your doctor) you can start with 15 minutes a day of running, cycling, rowing, swimming – or whatever exercise you prefer to get your heart rate up. Start by getting your heart rate between 55-70% of its maximum rate. (Not sure how to calculate your maximum heart rate? Click here.) As your fitness improves, aim for 70-80% to really see results, and extend your workout period to 30 minutes or more. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to go faster and harder to get your heart rate up as you improve. And remember that the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week for optimal health and cardiovascular fitness. You can easily get that with 5 workout days and two rest days every week.
Looking to Maximize Strength Quickly? Go Short and Intense
Training for an upcoming event or just looking to take your fitness to the next level – fast? HIIT workouts may be the key. These high-intensity internal training programs stress your muscles more than any other workout, but you can burn fat and build muscle fast. However, if you aren’t properly prepared and doing it correctly, you can also cause serious injury. Once again – make sure your doctor approves, and then consider taking a class or working one-on-one with a trainer for a few sessions. It’s a small investment that can help ensure your safety while you work towards your goals. Once you are ready and warmed up, you can then hit the circuit and rotate between a stationary bike, treadmill, stair climber, kettlebells, jump rope, burpees, dumbbells, pushups, and a variety of other aerobic and strength exercises. The idea is to go all out for a short period of time (usually less than a minute) followed by a brief recovery (15-30 seconds). Keep repeating the sequence of all-out effort and recovery for the length of your workout, starting with 10-15 minutes total, and working up to 30 minutes. This is not a workout for the faint of heart, but it’s a sure-fire way to see fast results.
Of course, the right fitness routine is a decision that only you can make, with help from your doctor and a qualified trainer. Just keep in mind that consistency is the most important aspect of any health journey, so be patient and persevere and you’re sure to see results!
IMPORTANT: Be sure to consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. For help finding a doctor, click here.
This article appeared in the February 2024 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.