As an exercise professional I’m often asked what is the best exercise? If you search Google, you’ll get page after page of articles highlighting one, or a small number of exercises, as if any single activity is superior to the rest. But there are literally a limitless range of exercises you can do. And each one has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
Before you Decide
When it comes to deciding which exercise is best for you, there’s a number of things to consider. First, what are your goals? Do you want to increase fitness? Are you training for a specific event? Is increasing strength what you want? Or, is it just for the fun of the activity?
Some activities take more planning than others. Some require equipment, travel and/or a partner. You’ll need to consider how much time you have. Are you free to exercise at any time of the day? Or do you only have a set window of time to exercise? Does it matter if the activity costs money? And what equipment do you have, or will you need to buy?
Aerobic activities are the most common form of exercise. These are exercises that increase your heart rate and get you breathing faster. Aerobic exercise includes things such as brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing and cross-country skiing. Sometimes referred to as cardio, the word aerobic means requiring oxygen.
These exercises are great for improving your cardiorespiratory fitness. They increase the ability of your body to use oxygen for energy. As a result, your heart doesn’t need to work as hard. This leads to a lower chance for disease and longer lifespan. People often find this type of exercise the easiest to fit in given the many choices, the simplicity of some of the activities such as walking and running, and that it’s usually done at a moderate pace.
Strength and Weight Training
Whether your 27 or 87, strength training is good for you. It’s not just for people who want to go to the gym, wear sunglasses and grunt hard. It also doesn’t mean lifting heavy weights. Instead, strength training is about lifting weights that challenge your muscles. And this depends on your current strength.
If you’ve never lifted weights, 5 to 10 pound dumbbells or a resistance band may be all the equipment you need. Alternatively, a 4 litre jug of milk, which is 10 pounds, will do. Or other objects around the house. You can also do exercises in which your body acts as the weight, such as push-ups. You can ease into it by starting with push-ups against the wall, then onto a chair (with feet on the ground) before doing them on the floor.
Weight training is great for maintaining bone health and keeping up one’s strength is essential for independent living later in life. It doesn’t take much time either. All you need is a suitable weight that you can lift 8 to 10 times. While some people often repeat that set 2-3 times, the greatest gains in strength come from doing that first set. Doing another set (after a rest) is helpful but it doesn’t double the benefits. If you’re concerned of bulking up too much, not to worry. Most of us don’t have the body type to end up looking like Dwayne Johnson no matter how much we weightlifting we do.
Continuous or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
In recent years, the popularity of doing high intensity interval training (HIIT) has increased dramatically. HIIT consists of short bursts of high intensity exercise interspersed with active rest. This is in contrast to continuous exercise done at a moderate pace such as a 40 minute run, cycling or swim. The important difference from continuous exercise, is HIIT is performed at a high intensity. Because of that, it can only be maintained for a short period of time (commonly 1 to 4 minutes).
The main benefit that draws people to HIIT, is it generally saves time. Working at a higher intensity, even for less time, can lead to the same fitness benefits as longer continuous exercise. However, not everyone is comfortable exercising at such a high intensity. It’s also not advised for those new to exercise and a good warm-up is needed. That being said, for those with a good base of consistent exercise, HIIT is another way to add variety to your routine.
Weight-bearing exercises are those that require work against gravity. As our bones are always in a state of remodelling (new bone replacing old bone) the stress from weight-bearing causes them to adapt and strengthen. Think of exercises in which you strike your foot against the ground such as walking, dancing, running and tennis. In addition, weight training exercises fall into this category.
These activities are ideal for building and maintaining the strength of your bones. While cycling, rowing and swimming are great aerobic exercises, they’re not weight-bearing and won’t improve your bone strength in the same way. If any of these are your main form of exercise, you may want to ensure you add in some regular walking or other activity. But be mindful, as doing too much too soon may not give your bones enough time to adapt to the added stress.
With literally thousands of different activities to choose from, there’s bound to be one (or more than one) that works for you. Pick an activity you enjoy and one you can do regularly as part of your daily routine. Once you have that, you’ve found the best exercise for you.
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