We all know that exercise is important, but most people don’t realize that it is a crucial component to optimal health. Certain systems in the body cannot function fully without exercise. Fitness as a pillar of health is an obvious one for most people, but I would venture a guess that many people have no idea how to apply certain types of exercise to particular goals. We just think that exercise is good for us, but many times give little thought as to the specific goal of the exercise. The ‘side-effect’ of exercise is typically that it just makes us feel better and I am the first one to tell you that this has immensely positive impacts on your health. Just a sense of feeling better from exercise often times can be the first domino that falls in a chain reaction of getting healthier. Many people report that diet begins to improve as soon as they start exercising because they don’t want to ruin all the hard work they just put in. In fact, many times this occurs because your body and brain start working better, which makes you think clearer, make better decisions, and crave this sense of well-being. It can drive you to start eating better, perform better at work, and improve your self-confidence, just to name a few. There are many reasons for these occurrences. One is that your body begins to produce more of the hormones that promote health and less of the hormones that can negatively affect health when in excess. For instance, as we will discuss later, exercise helps to improve your insulin sensitivity. What this means is that your cells are much more responsive to insulin and you effectively need less insulin to do the same job. This reduction of insulin production improves your blood sugar regulation and helps to decrease inflammation. On the other side there are hormones like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that gets released more with exercise. This protein helps promote the growth, differentiation, and maturation of the nerve cells. In short, it makes your brain work better. So, these ‘good’ feelings that occur from exercise are not just random. It is because your body is actually beginning to work better and more efficiently and that is pretty powerful!
However, there can be a dark side to exercise that is never really talked about. While the right amounts and types of exercise can be a huge boost to health, the wrong types, intensities, or durations of exercise can actually be harmful to your health and potentially decrease longevity. This is why it becomes so important to understand what the goal of exercise is so that we can choose what we are doing appropriately.
The first thing that must be said before we dive into the details is that exercise, for many people, is the only way that they can de-stress and calm the insanity of life. This is more powerful than people imagine and can never be forgotten in the equation of exercise prescription. Someone who runs a large volume of miles every single day can put tremendous stress on their body. However, if that time running allows them to neutralize the other stressors in their life and get some time to themselves, then we have to take that into account as part of the health paradigm. After all, reduction of mental stress can be a major player in helping someone improve their health. That being said, we still need to understand a little bit more about exercise so that we can make the best choices for our health.
Also, we must discuss the fact that certain exercise volumes and intensity are mandatory if you are a professional athlete or training for a specific event. In these cases, the exercise is matching the goal and the focus must now become figuring out how to get the most physical improvements necessary with the least amount of stress to the body. This is the sweet-spot. The place where training more probably doesn’t get you increased physical benefit and can only lend to higher chances of injury and/or overtraining. This can be tricky to figure out and often times is most reliant on someone’s overall health status and ability to recover quickly. Just know that if the goal is to get better at running marathons you’re going to have to put in the miles. However, getting to the starting line healthy usually trumps logging all the training miles and showing up injured or tired for the race.
We live in an ever-increasing sedentary world where people spend the vast majority of their lives sitting. While this is extremely harmful to overall health, there are also times where certain types of exercise strategies may not be the best choice either. Movement is key to human health. Applying the correct types and intensities of movement can ensure that it is a positive, and not a negative, impact on human health.
Next, I think that it will be helpful to look at the definition of exercise:
exercise: activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.
This is a great definition and unless we are getting paid for our sport we should take this into account when choosing our training plans. Training ourselves into the ground can many times make us tired, burnt out, and grumpy. This is the point where we need to take a step back and figure out what the true reasons are for exercising.
The other great thing about this definition is it opens up an entirely new possibility of exercise choices for many of us. For instance, one of the most peaceful, and meditation-like activities I have ever done is Tai Chi. Now, this fits completely into the definition of exercise we just reviewed. It requires physical effort (although not excessive amounts) and helps to sustain and improve health (mental clarity, mobility, and stress relief). Now, I’m sure most people would not categorize Tai Chi as exercise, but if we begin to look at exercise as fitting into this definition then it most certainly is. We need to get rid on the notion that exercise only counts if you are dripping in sweat and can barely catch your breath. While sweating and being out of breath does prove that you achieved certain types of exercise goals, it does not encompass all types of exercise such as walking or basic yoga.
Now, this also doesn’t mean that you can consider daily walking as your only exercise. While this is exercise by definition, you are not giving your body the vigorous types of exercise that it needs to maintain strength, improve cardiovascular health, and maximize hormone benefit. In fact, I would argue that the best fitness plans incorporate many different types of exercise and movement to capture the benefits of all the various types of physiological benefits. So, let’s look at what some of those benefits are.
Benefits of exercise:
- Control weight
- Improve blood sugar control
- Improve mental health
- Reduce your risk of heart disease
- Improve your mood
- Strengthen your muscles
- Improve bone density
- Reduce your risk of some cancers
- Improve your sleep
- Enhance sexual health
- Increase your chance of living longer
- Improve your quality of life in later years
- Help you think clearer and make better decisions
This is just a sampling of benefits that can occur with exercise. However it doesn’t really tell you how to achieve these. Running on a treadmill everyday is not the answer for every goal, just like lifting heavy weights is not the answer to every goal. However, this tends to be the go-to answers for most people. Hopefully this article will help you better understand what types of exercise you should be doing for specific goals. While it would be impossible to cover all aspects of fitness in this article, hopefully you will be armed with some better information so that you can start making the best decisions for your situation.
The best thing to do is look briefly at the main categories of fitness, some of the major goals that accompany each one, and then figure out what types of exercise you need to do to reach your intended goals. However, I will bet that most people will think that it would be a good idea to try and capture all the benefits! If so, you will need to have a mixture of the different categories.
Firstly, there are many different goals within just this type of exercise. You can execute different plans depending on whether your goal is increasing power, strength, muscle size, or endurance. Without going too much into details about that, it is obvious to say that resistance training leads to an improvement in muscle health and size, which has numerous benefits. It helps us become more resilient, improves bone density, improves the strength of your connective tissues, and definitely helps us avoid dangerous falls as we age. However, what most people don’t realize is that putting on muscle is one of the best way to burn fat! Most people think that the treadmill is the only answer, but how many calories can you really burn on the treadmill?? Not many. While aerobic activity like running does burn calories and can help burn fat, extra muscle on your body can be much more productive. Pound for pound muscle burns many more calories than fat does. This means that you will automatically be burning more calories in your daily life just by increasing your lean muscle mass. Weight, or resistance training should be a part of everyone’s routine. This doesn’t mean that you have to go for huge muscles and enter body building competitions. It does mean that you should be challenging your muscles to promote improved strength and lean muscle gain. The benefits are numerous and undeniable. The goal is not just a better physique, but a more resilient, healthier body.
This doesn’t just mean using barbells, dumbbells, and weight machines. Things like reformer pilates and exercises with bands also fall into this category. Anything that is providing extra resistance to movement is considered resistance training. You can even consider your own body weight as resistance in many instances. Things like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, dips, etc, all provide fantastic muscle gain benefits even though you are not specifically adding any other weight other than your body weight. They are all going to result in changes to the neuromuscular system. The amount of resistance that you add, and the level of difficulty for you (think pull ups!), will determine how the body will respond. Lift heavy weights and your body will put on muscle faster, lift moderate weight and your body will still become stronger, but will focus more on becoming leaner and more tone. Lift lighter weights and you will be improving the endurance of your muscles. Define your goal and then apply the resistance accordingly.
Also, a quick note for females. Many times I hear females say that they don’t want to lift heavy weights because they don’t want to get big and bulky. I promise you that this is NOT going to happen. It takes a TON of work and dedication to get big muscles. You would have to consistently lift heavy weights and eat appropriate quantities of food to gain excessive muscle mass. Most females that lift heavy weights become strong and very tone. So don’t avoid lifting heavy weights with the misconception that your muscles will become too big.
Major benefits of resistance training:
- Increases lean muscle
- Reduces in abdominal (and total body) fat
- Increases bone density
- Improves strength of connective tissue
- Reduces injury risk in daily life
Typically people are either all cardio or none. This seems to be common trend. Cardiovascular training is really just anything that increases the heart rate. The level at which this is done can vary and different ‘heart rate zones’ have varying benefits. The basic equation to figure out what your max heart rate is: 220 – your age
So, if you are 40 years old then your max heart rate will be about 180 beats per minute. While this can vary it is a good starting point. Also, note that you should never be at or near your max heart rate for too long of a duration, unless you are extremely well-trained and doing it for a specific purpose. This provides too much stress to the heart.
Low intensity: 50-70% max effort
Improves overall health, speeds recovery, improves endurance, and burns fat
Moderate intensity: 70-80% max effort
Improves aerobic fitness
High intensity: 80-100% max effort
Improves performance capacity and speed
So, if the goal is to burn fat or speed recovery you want to maintain a low intensity in your cardio sessions. If you are trying to improve speed or aerobic capacity you want to train at high intensities. This is why runners vary their training to make sure they are working on all aspects of their run fitness. The science has shown us the specific ways to affect different parts of our physiology most effectively.
Understanding the ranges of heart rate intensities can also help to show you that many activities are considered cardio exercise that you otherwise might not have known. Things like dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics, advanced yoga, and hiking are all cardiovascular exercises. They all surely get your heart rate to 50% or more of your max heart rate effort. Depending on your skill level or aggressions these types of activities can be in any of the three levels of heart rate intensities.
Regardless of the intensity, cardiovascular training will help you reduce blood pressure, improve lung function, improve insulin sensitivity, burn calories, and improve the strength of your heart, just to name a few. Many of these benefits just don’t occur as dramatically with other forms of exercise. And since your heart is a pretty important piece to your overall health, performing activities that improve your cardiovascular system should be a no-brainer. Figuring out the correct types and intensities can vary depending on your goal, your age, and your health status. Obviously you should not push your heart to extremes if you have current health conditions, are new to cardio training, or your doctor has not cleared you for exercise. Also know that maintaining high heart rates for long periods, without rest, can be damaging to the heart. As with anything, moderation seems to be the key.
Now, you can get some cardiovascular training within weight lifting if you reduce or eliminate the rest time and keep your heart rate elevated during the training, but it will not be nearly as beneficial as increasing your heart rate steadily for longer periods of time. Also know that many of the benefits to cardiovascular training increase as the intensity increases.
Major benefits of cardio training:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves strength of the heart
- Improves insulin sensitivity
- Burns calories
- Improves brain function
- Improves sexual health
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
This is currently the most popular form of exercise and for good reason. High intensity interval training can lead to the most hormonal benefits to the body. HIIT improves immune system function, increases growth hormone production, improves insulin sensitivity (as discussed earlier), increases release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (as discussed earlier), and increases opioid release (makes you feel good!). However, long bouts of HIIT can also increase the amount of inflammation produced by the body.
Basically, HIIT training means that you are exercising at very high intensities with periods of rest, or lower intensity activity, at specific intervals. This allows you to get the benefits of high intensity exercise without overloading the system and creating excessive inflammation and stress. The science clearly shows the benefits of this type of exercise. However, what many people don’t know is that you can achieve many of these benefits in as little as 3-5 minutes. Constant high intensity exercise for 2 minutes, or intervals of 20 seconds at high intensity, 20 seconds at low intensity, for a duration of 3-5 minutes, can give you the hormone benefits without any risk of excessive inflammation. And the beauty is that you won’t get any more of the hormone benefit with longer bouts! Now, this doesn’t meant that longer duration HIIT isn’t beneficial. You will still get improved cardiovascular and strength benefits from longer sessions, but many of the hormone benefits can be achieved in a much shorter span of time. So, even if you only have 5 minutes to exercise, this type of exercise can be immensely beneficial to overall health.
However, even outside of the hormone benefits many HIIT classes and gyms are even incorporating a multifaceted approach to their fitness sessions. Not only are you varying the intensities, but you are doing both cardio and resistance training in the process.
Benefits of High Intensity Interval Training
- Increase growth hormone production
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Improve brain function
- Increase opioid release
- Improve immune system health
I am going to give this its own category to highlight the difference between this and the movement involved with things like running and resistance training. The body thrives with movement. In fact, losing mobility is a sure-fire way to decrease your health status. Use it or lose it is absolutely true. So, just basic forms of movement that don’t require weights, or low, moderate, or high intensities should also be considered as exercise. Things like basic yoga, tai chi, easy walking, stretching, foam rolling, etc. These are also very beneficial to health even though there is no external resistance applied or significantly elevated heart rates incorporated. They all require the body to move more efficiently and help to maintain full ranges of motion.
These types of things not only help to keep range of motion optimized, but they also help to improve blood and lymphatic flow throughout the body. And since these things are crucial to move nutrients throughout the body they should also be seen as an important thing to incorporate. They also allow you to have more time to recover from the other more intense activities.
Benefits of Movement:
- Increase or maintain range of motion
- Improve blood flow
- Improve lymphatic flow (your body’s drainage system)
- Reduce stress
- Speed recovery
Hopefully this article has helped to define the various types of exercise so that you can apply them with a purpose to your training plan. Many times you will have to focus mainly on one type if you are trying to achieve a specific goal, but you should also be aware of how beneficial it is to add brief bouts of the other types within your plan. If your true goal is optimal health and longevity then you should definitely be incorporating each of these into a well-balanced fitness attack. Also note that sometimes you may have health restrictions that prevent you from this. Injuries or poor health status can many times cause us to alter the ways in which we exercise. In these cases, knowing all of this information can be even more helpful. If you can’t perform certain types of exercise, know that there are many different options that can boost health from many different aspects. Whatever your situation, just know that exercise is a critical part of your health. You must always make exercise and movement a priority to keep your health at optimal levels.