What Kind of Exercise Should I Do?
What’s the Wrong Answer to 2 + 2?
Is it 5? Is it 14? Is it Jell-O? Who the fuck knows?
Creating an exhaustive list of all the exercise trends that aren’t the best is like trying to find the wrong answer to 2 + 2.
There is almost unanimous agreement that we should be exercising; using our bodies and maintaining our strength, health, and vitality. But with so many activities claiming to be “exercise,” which one should we choose?
We don’t understand what exercise is. Exercise is one thing, and not anything else. In other words, there are not a lot of activities that will qualify as exercise, in the same way that there are not a lot of numerical values that will qualify as an acceptable answer to 2 + 2.
A Useful Definition
There have been several definitions put forth in the past decades, but here’s one that is simple and useful:
Exercise is an activity performed for the exclusive purpose of improving one’s physical fitness, that does so without undermining one’s health in the process.
Not so tough, right? So 1) you need to be doing the activity for the sole purpose of improving your physical fitness, 2) it has to actually improve your fitness, and 3) that activity cannot cause any degradation—short-term or long-term—of your health, such as an injury or an illness.
What’s “fitness?” Simple definition: the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. What Art De Vany calls your Physiologic Headroom. The least you can do is always going to be “Just Lying There” and the most you can do will always be what you are capable of at peak muscular exertion. When the two meet, that’s called “Dead.” Any time you increase the distance between the two, you have improved your fitness.
What’s “health?” Simple definition: an appropriate balance between the anabolic and catabolic processes of the body. The body tears itself down (catabolic) and regenerates itself (anabolic). Cancer, for example, is out-of-control growth of certain cells. This is an inappropriate situation favoring an anabolic process, and undermines your health. Endurance training enthusiasts, for example, slowly waste away as they accumulate the byproducts of oxidation in their systems, degrading their bones, muscles, organs, and connective tissues in the process. This is an inappropriate situation favoring a catabolic process. If you return your body to an appropriate balance between anabolic and catabolic processes, you improve your health.
Bullet Points for the Slow
- If the activity doesn’t stimulate your body to become more physically capable, it’s not exercise.
- If you’re doing it for recreation, it’s not exercise.
- Even one injury is too many.
- Again, exercise does not cause injury. If you get injured, what you’ve done has not been exercise.
Pretty Easy, Right?
Even though there are an infinite number of wrong answers, I’m going to explore some common ones that are confusing millions of people these days.
Holy Shit! If you click on the picture to zoom it in, you’ll notice that there is a section called “In Sickness and In Health.” But that section doesn’t address “Health.” “Health” is what those people had before they started Crossfit™.
Remember that even one injury from exercise is too many. In other words, the “injury” category and the “health and medical issues” category should have zero comments on zero threads. Instead, there are tens of thousands of comments on thousands of threads. So unfortunately, those thinking of doing Crossfit™ for exercise are making a huge mistake.
Since Crossfit™ doesn’t qualify as exercise, we’ll have to categorize it broadly as “sport.” Crossfit™ doesn’t actually represent itself as anything other than sport, so I’m not saying they’ve done anything wrong. This part of the post is for the people thinking of doing Crossfit™ for exercise even though Crossfit™ never claimed that it was exercise. It’s a sport. A competition. A really fucking dangerous competition.
It’s a lot like professional football. The people doing it are ripped and super fit, and they also get hurt all the time. We don’t come down on football for ruining the knees and backs of thousands of young men every year (high school/college/pro). It’s not supposed to make you healthier. It’s a sport. This is why you don’t see anyone trying to get in shape by becoming a running back even though running backs are in great shape. It should be just as ludicrous to try to get in shape by joining a Crossfit™ box. Both activities are increasing your fitness and undermining your health in the process.
Short version: You won’t care how ripped you are when your back goes out and you can’t wipe your own ass.
Did you know that “cardio” isn’t actually a real thing? It’s true. If you ask someone what it is, they’ll say, “You know, like running, or biking, or an elliptical LOL!”
Some people think that a pickup game of basketball is “good cardio.”
Some people think that racquetball is “good cardio.”
Some people think that swimming is “good cardio.”
It seems like pretty much anything where they can feel their hearts beating is cardio, since the prefix “cardio” is usually at the beginning of words that have to do with your heart, like “cardiovascular,” “cardiopulmonary,” or “cardio date to see if she’s eighteen.”
By that standard, any time your heart is beating you’re “doing cardio.” If “cardio” can be all these things, it means that “cardio” becomes a meaningless word in this context.
Even so, we all know that someone who says “cardio” is probably talking about a steady-state activity at a low intensity that makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe faster for an extended period of time. Let’s see if this qualifies as exercise.
Well they’re doing it for the purpose of improving their fitness, so that’s 1/1.
Are they improving their fitness? Not really. “Cardio” only improves your athletic performance in the specific activity that you’re training. The beneficial changes are not taking place in the heart and lungs and they’re not taking place in the muscles. The benefit is taking place in the motor control centers of the brain. You’re “learning to do that skill better” without improving your body.
When they test a bunch of people on exercise bikes and treadmills, then train them to run a 10k on a treadmill, then test them again on the bikes and treadmills, all of their markers of cardiovascular fitness (VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, Heart Rate, etc.) are improved on the treadmill test but remain unimproved during the bike test. How can this be? It’s because the skill of running on a treadmill is much easier for them now that they’ve practiced it. And if something is easier, your heart and lungs and muscles don’t have to work so hard to do it, i.e. your markers of cardiovascular fitness seem to improve. But it’s not that your body is working better; it’s that the task is easier now, so your body doesn’t have to work as hard, which gives the illusion that your body is working better. But only during the activity you’ve trained for!
If the “cardio” they were doing on the treadmill during the 10k training caused a global improvement in their heart, lungs, or muscles, then that improvement would apply across the board; it would apply to any other activity (in this case exercise bike performance) that involved the heart, lungs, and muscles. But instead, the improvement only applies to the specific modality that they’ve trained. They’ve stimulated a motor learning improvement, not a physical improvement.
So have these people increased the “most they can do?” Nope. They have not stimulated the body to produce an improvement in their muscles, heart, or lungs. They’ve gotten more skilled at the one specific thing they’ve chosen for “cardio,” but they have not caused any positive changes in their cardiovascular or muscular systems. Hell, they’ve probably lost some muscle. Oops. 1/2.
Third, are they undermining their health in the process?
1. Hip Bursitis
2. Snapping Hip Syndrome
3. Hamstring Pulls
4. Groin Pulls
5. IT Band Syndrome
6. Hip Stress Fractures
7. Runner’s Knee
8. Dislocating Kneecap
9. Plica Syndrome
10. Shin Splints
11. Stress Fractures
12. Exercise-Induced Compartment Syndrome
13. Ankle Sprain
14. Achilles, Knee, Hip Tendonitis
15. Plantar Fasciitis
16. Arch Pain
17. Heel Spur
18. Piriformis Syndrome
And this is just off the top of my head. Remember that even one of the above is an unacceptable result of exercise. And they’re not just “side effects;” they’re effects! 1/3.
Sorry, guys. “Cardio” is not exercise.
Like I mentioned, I could write 50,000 words discussing all the wrong answers to 2 + 2. So I’ll stop with these two very common and egregious examples and move on.
Exercise Effect ≠ Effective Exercise
Just because your breathing has picked up does not mean you’re exercising. Just because your heart is beating faster does not mean you’re exercising. Just because your muscles are burning does not mean you’re exercising.
Let’s say you have a gas stove and you spend all afternoon using all four burners to prepare dinner. As a result of this, the temperature in your house begins to rise.
In this case, cooking has a Heating Effect. But clearly, running your stove burners would not be considered Effective Heating, even though the house gets hotter when you do it. A better way is using a furnace to provide central heat. No shit, right? “Anything that heats up my house is Effective Heating” is a non-sense statement. There’s clearly a better way to do it.
Yet this is the mistake that people are making when they consider anything that produces an Exercise Effect and decide that it qualifies as Effective Exercise. This is why it’s easy to mistakenly think that running, Crossfit, P90X, Insanity, Zumba, etc. are all forms of exercise even though they don’t qualify. You’re using the stove to heat your house, guys.
By the way, in 2013 we’ve come to the point where telling your girlfriend that Zumba is stupid is equivalent to telling her that she “looks fat in those pants.” Don’t do it, guys. Let her have her Zumba. Just let it go.
So What The Hell Should I Do For Exercise?!
Well it’s taken me over 1,700 words to get to the title of this blog post. What should we be doing for exercise? What’s going to improve our fitness without undermining our health in the process?
Very slow, very difficult, very infrequent strength training.
Very slow so you can’t injure yourself. Very difficult so you stimulate an adaptive response from your body. Very infrequent so you give your body the time it needs to synthesize the adaptive response, and so that you spend more days above baseline (recovered) than you do below baseline (recovering).
The goal is to strengthen your muscles. That is the key to the kingdom and the cornerstone of any exercise program. Safely strengthening your muscles is where it’s at. And here’s why.
Increased Muscle Mass—Sorry ladies, this one’s mainly for the guys. Women don’t have enough circulating testosterone to build big muscles even if they wanted to. No amount of strength training will make a woman’s muscles grow very large unless she is a serious outlier or is injecting growth drugs on a regular basis. BUT the slight increase that does take place will add an appealing feminine shape.
Men: a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle and vice-versa. The force-producing capacity of a muscle is directly proportional to its cross-sectional area. So by training a muscle to produce more force (which is best accomplished with slow movement, allowing the actin and myosin filaments to fully overlap inside the muscle fiber) you will increase its cross-sectional area. For the slow: your muscles will get bigger.
Increased Cardiovascular and Cardiopulmonary Function—Your heart and lungs are a delivery system. That’s what they are. Together they are the delivery system that delivers nutrients to working muscle and clears away the byproducts of fatigue that accumulate in working muscle. The higher the quality of the muscular stimulation, the higher the quality of the heart/lung stimulation. You cannot stimulate improvements in the heart and lungs without the use of the skeletal muscles.
A proper exercise regimen will improve your cardiac output, which is the product of your heart’s stroke volume (how much blood is pushed with each heart beat) and your heart rate (the frequency with which your heart beats). Intensely-working muscle increases your venous return, or the amount of blood that comes back to the right side of your heart through your veins. The greater the venous return, the greater the stroke volume that your heart then pushes back out through the arteries. Intense muscular work also causes vasoconstriction in the stomach and organs and vasodilation in the limbs, decreasing the resistance against which your heart must push, lowering your blood pressure, and easing the strain on the heart. Contrary to popular myth, proper strength training is one of the best things you can do for your heart.
Improved Flexibility—A stronger muscle or muscle group will be able to move the body part to which it is attached through a greater range of motion. Any artificial manipulation of the joint to increase flexibility is unnecessary and ill-advised. All that’s needed is an increase in strength, and your range of motion will improve as a consequence without causing any joint instability.
Increased Resistance to Injury—Your cartilage, tendons, bones, and ligaments all respond to an increase in muscular strength by improving their integrity and resistance to force, adding a larger margin of safety to every activity. This also means greater joint stability, because your improved ligaments are now better able to hold your bones in place. Unless you stretch a lot, which un-stabilizes them again. Real smart.
Improved Glucose Metabolism—A larger, stronger muscle will be able to accommodate more glucose. Every gram of glucose that is taken up by muscle is a gram of glucose that is not turned into triglyceride and stored in the fat tissue. Regaining efficient glucose metabolism is a huge deal for fat people and diabetics especially, most of whom have become profoundly insulin resistant.
Increased Endurance in Any Chosen Activity—This is one of my favorite benefits of exercise. Dig this: exercise causes an increase in all of the above factors, and because of that it makes you better at anything you do that requires muscles, flexibility, heart-and-lung function, and on and on and on.
So: exercise makes you better at Zumba. Exercise makes you better at Crossfit. Exercise will make you a better jogger, a better swimmer, a better biker, a better hiker, a better climber, a better jump-roper, and better on an elliptical machine. Exercise improves your performance in football, golf, basketball, hockey, badminton, or any other sport you play. Whereas running only makes you better at running (it’s a specific adaptation), exercise makes you better at everything (it’s a general adaptation), including running! Exercise makes you better at anything you like to do with your body.
You train for your sport by practicing and developing the skills that are specific to that sport. Separate from that, you exercise in order to safely strengthen your body’s muscles, which are then more capable of expressing those sport-specific skills that you’ve developed.
Exercise makes an old person better at getting up out of chairs, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and playing with grandkids while increasing their resistance to injury and improving their recovery times if they have to have some kind of surgery.
Exercise makes a firefighter better at fighting fires, lugging all the gear, moving around in the heavy fire suit, and carrying people through burning buildings.
Exercise can give you the energy to be there for your family, your colleagues, your friends, and everyone else without being overwhelmed, listless, moody, or frustrated.
Strong people are happy people.
Strong people are healthy people.
Strong people are attractive people.
Strong people are energetic, vigorous people.
So get strong without hurting yourself in the process.
I’ll spell out some more specifics in later posts, so this is just an introduction to proper exercise. You can do what you like, but keep the following in mind:
- There’s never any good reason to move quickly during an exercise. If any momentum is involved, you’re going too fast.
- There’s never any good reason to move your limbs into any “deep stretch” positions. What you feel as a “stretch” is not your muscles, but is instead strain on your ligaments, which are not meant to stretch.
- If you can do a certain exercise for more than three minutes or so, it’s not intense enough.
- Even one injury from exercise is too many and is unacceptable.
- Free weights, machines, and bodyweight exercise all have their pros and cons, but they are all just tools. You can use any of them to exercise properly if you understand the basic principles I’ve written about here.
- You should plan your workouts around your life, not the reverse.
- Exercise is not a luxury or a recreation; it is a requirement for a fully-functional human animal.
- Proper exercise is far better than “cardio” for improving the function of your heart and lungs.
- Any health benefit that can be obtained from any form of activity can be matched and usually exceeded by proper exercise performed once weekly and lasting not longer than twenty minutes. I shit you not.
If this line of thought intrigues you, check out this book. It’s an excellent primer on what exercise really is.
Here’s a great article that further explains the relationship of proper exercise to “cardio” and “aerobics.”
And here’s another fantastic article along the same lines. Just to get you thinking.