What's the Best Exercise?

I have often been asked, “What’s the best exercise?”

Sometimes the person asking has a specific goal in mind. He may have an injury and want to speed his return to normal function. She may want to prepare for an upcoming season or increase her competitiveness in her chosen sport. He may need to lose some weight to lower his elevated blood pressure or look slimmer at his high school reunion. We can choose a solution based on personal preference, and I may recommend the help of a physical therapist, dietician, or personal trainer. In the end, though, answering the question is fairly simple—at least when there is a particular goal.

Oftentimes, the person asking is actually implying “What’s the best exercise to be healthy.” This question requires a background discussion of what constitutes fitness, before we can arrive at an actionable answer.

The three principle components of physical fitness are aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Aerobic capacity is our ability to take in oxygen and deliver it to our active tissues. If we enhance this ability, we can substantially decrease our chance for heart attacks, strokes, and other degenerative conditions. Any activity that increases our heart rate, and sustains this increase over time, is aerobic. Weight training increases our heart rate, but not in a way that optimally increases aerobic capacity.

Which aerobic exercise is the ‘best’ is totally personal. The most intense aerobic activity identified by Ken Cooper, MD, who studied aerobics in depth and published Aerobics and The New Aerobics, is skate skiing. Unfortunately, skiing is seasonal and there’s equipment to buy and techniques to learn. Personally, I like the simplicity of running outdoors. Other people prefer the controlled climate and socializing found in an aerobic dance class.

The value of muscular strength as a part of adult fitness was not discussed much until recently. Only football players and body builders lifted weights, and gyms were dingy, smelly, basement places. Now, participants in all sports recognize the value of muscular conditioning, large numbers of people are finding value in firming muscles, and women are working out as well. Gyms are well-lighted storefronts with big windows to show off the equipment and the buff bods inside.

Medical people have also changed in how we view strength training. Once, we accepted that people just naturally lose strength as they age and there wasn’t much to do about it. Then some smart-aleck discovered that older people could increase their strength dramatically with a simple program of lightweight lifting and good things resulted, such as a decrease in the risk of falling. Today physicians see strength-building as a tool to prevent aches and pains and loss of function.

The third component of fitness—flexibility—is the most overlooked. The gyms are full of people working out, the roadways and bike trails are crowded, but athletes, coaches and physicians have not equally emphasized this leg of the fitness triad.

When we spend a lot of time on a particular activity, whether recreation or work, our muscles become specialized and we risk injury from the imbalance created. We can reduce the risk of injury by incorporating an activity-specific program to stretch those muscles that have become stronger and tighter. Distance runners need to stretch the backs of their legs, for example.

Sedentary non-activity can also cause problems. We humans are built to move, and when we spend long hours driving or working on our magazine column on the computer, our ligaments, tendons, and muscles grow tight and our joints stiff. We can all reduce our risk of becoming stooped, creaky, achey old people by making stretching a normal part of our day, just like brushing and flossing. Yoga is the ultimate stretching practice. However, the rigor and time commitment of yoga are not required for adequate flexibility. Just 15 minutes a day in a general stretching program will make a big difference.

While a comprehensive program to enhance strength, aerobic capacity, and flexibility is the ideal, my favorite answer to “What’s the best exercise?” is short and simple: The best exercise is the one that you enjoy so much you’ll stay with it forever.

“There is no finish line.” Nike