What’s the Single Best Exercise?

This question was asked last week and discussed in an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine.  So the title might be catchy, but is there a single best exercise?  Can you even ask that question and expect a real answer?  As you might expect, you can ask ten different people and get ten different answers.  And while you might argue that it’s ridiculous to expect there to be a “single best exercise,” the article does center on four candidates, all of which have their merits.

The first candidate is the burpee, sometimes known as a squat thrust.  If you’re scratching your head wondering what a burpee is, check out this 30 second clip.

Burpees will absolutely get your heart rate going, and with the jump at the end of each one you are adding a little muscle work for your legs.  But can you imagine doing just burpees?  Burpees can be great mixed into a workout, but as the article points out, for an exercise to be effective, it has to be something you can stick with and do for the long haul.  How quickly are you going to be thinking about your “burpee workout” for the day and bagging it…maybe after a few days? 

Candidate number two is brisk walking.  Studies have shown tremendous benefits from implementing a program of brisk walking, from cardiovascular improvements to drops in rates of depression.  Like the burpee, brisk walking requires no equipment and can be done anywhere.  I often advise clients who are new to an exercise program to start with walking.  And unless the weather is really inclement, I strongly advocate walking outdoors.  In the New York Times article a group was assigned a “workout” of brisk walking for 3 minutes, followed by slower walking for 3 minutes.  This is more of an “interval style” workout, which is generally much more effective over time than steady endurance work.  Another option which I encourage is to find a hill and walk up it (the work interval), and then back down it (the recovery interval).  Simple stuff, but it can be very effective.

The third suggested “single best exercise” was the squat.  Ah, strength training!  Resistance training, unlike endurance training, helps to combat loss of muscle mass, which we all experience as we age.  Studies have also shown decreases in waist circumference and abdominal fat and maintenance of bone density from strength training.  While sets of bodyweight squats can be a great place to start, eventually in order to continue to benefit, you will need to add external load (e.g. dumbbells or a barbell).  While I am a huge advocate of strength training, like the burpee, doing a workout of just squats is a) going to get boring and b) really neglects other parts of your body.

The final exercise advocated as the “single best” is HIT (or sometimes HIIT), short for high-intensity interval training.  This is similar in concept to the brisk walking interval workout described above, except you need to work really hard during the work interval.  Studies have suggested that one can get the same benefits of a much longer workout by doing short, highly intensive intervals followed by recovery.  One of the hardest workouts I have ever done is a Tabata style workout on the bike (indoor, my bike on a trainer) ~ the entire block is only 4 minutes long, but is 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of recovery, 8 times through.  The trick to a real “Tabata” is that the work session is all out…and I mean really, really hard.  Four minutes might sound like nothing, but if you are doing this workout correctly, you may not even be able to finish, it is that hard.  Obviously HIT is not for those new to exercise.  And one of the difficulties with this kind of workout is getting people to actually push themselves hard. 

So, what can we conclude from the four candidates for the “single best exercise?”  As you might guess, none can be declared a winner.  It really depends on a person’s health history, level of fitness and what their goals are.  In reality, all of these suggestions pose some benefits.  If you’re doing nothing, start with walking.  As you establish a base fitness level, begin to incorporate some strength training (and more than just squats ~ the upper body is important too).  And from there you can begin to incorporate some interval style training like HIT…maybe one day you could even do 20 seconds of burpees, 10 seconds recovery, 8 times through.  🙂

Happy Monday everyone.

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About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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One Response to What’s the Single Best Exercise?

  1. I never thought about doing “intervals” while on my 4-mile walk. I’m gonna give that a try. I’m also happy to see that my “wimpy” walking is not such a bad work-out after all!

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