For our well-being, it is fundamental to understand the difference between fitness and health. Fitness is something that allows us to do a particular activity very well. Exercising for optimum health is something entirely different and fortunately requires much less time and effort. Applying the latest scientific knowledge, it can be done at home with less than 2 hours a week.
To understand how to exercise with minimum effort for maximum health, we need to get some misconceptions about exercise out of the way.
Like so many other aspects of nature, the genetic predisposition for a particular body type, our response to exercise or our state of health is distributed in a bell-shaped curve when viewed across the whole of the population. On the left end we have the really unhealthy people who are in terrible shape, and to the right, we have the super fit looking role models from advertisements. Chances are very good that we belong somewhere amongst the 95% of average people in-between and not the extremes.
When speaking to a physician about exercise we have to keep in mind, that all they mostly see people in very bad shape - overweight, maybe close to a stroke or even after such an event, or in another severe medical condition. The leftmost 2.5% of the bell curve.
For someone like that to go out and have a daily walk or engage in moderate exercise will probably improve their unfavorable condition and show some effect. However, this is not what we want. We want our bodies, which are already in good shape from eating a healthy diet, in peak condition. That is something with which an average physician probably has not much experience.
We all know the perfect looking girls and guys that try to sell us their way of getting in perfect shape in almost no time. Sounds great, but unfortunately does not work for the average person.
It all boils down to genetics.
Our body contains myostatin, which it uses to suppress muscle growth. This is needed e.g. in the hands, otherwise, we would just get muscular hands by using them, which in turn would render them useless. Just by genetic variation some people have less myostatin in their muscle cells and can workout with little effort and still build muscle quickly. Almost none of them are aware of their special genetics and thus attribute their shape to their training method, believing and advertising what works for them would work for everybody else.
Just like the misconception, that training like a swimmer will get us a V-shaped swimmer's body. Nothing could be further from the truth. We mix cause and effect since we only see successful swimmers on TV. Only athletes with the genetic disposition to getting a V-shaped body when training like a swimmer turns out to be successful swimmers. Unsuccessful swimmers, even when they train hard, just look like the other guy.
Just like with nutrition, to decide what is the most efficient and healthy way to exercise our bodies for optimum health, we should not rely on beliefs, tradition or other people's business agendas. Instead, we should understand how our body and its biochemistry works.
Fortunately, there has been fabulous research in the last years, leading to a good understanding of what should be done. "Body by Science" from our reading list does a great job explaining the current knowledge in depth and a very understandable manner.
The basic takeaway for the 95% of us:
We need to build muscle to reach peak health
see more: Body by Science (Reading List)
Our body needs far more energy to maintain a kg of muscle than normal body tissue or fat tissue. The body spends this energy around the clock, even while we are sleeping. Building more muscle increases our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and thus is far more efficient at burning calories than aerobic exercise like running, that only consumes energy while working out.
Working out our muscles is anaerobic exercise, which means it is performed without burning fat and oxygen for fuel and thus not training our aerobic capabilities while exercising.
However, the anaerobic energy production generates lactate as a byproduct that is stored in the muscle during exercise. After exercising the body has to get rid of the stored lactate and in this process has to perform up to 7 (!!) times the aerobic processing compared to cardio exercises.
Thus, we have a substantial aerobic training effect when resting after our muscle workout, which can even surpass that of conventional aerobic exercise.
The primary purpose of our cardiovascular system including our heart is to provide all organs with nutrition, energy, and oxygen.
When building muscle our body automatically adjusts its cardiovascular capability to keep up with the increased demand due to the added muscle mass. We are not only training our muscle but our hearts at the same time, resulting in increased capacity and a lower resting heart rate.
Our muscles consist of four different types of muscle fibers, which employ different properties regarding strength and recovery time. All muscles have built-in energy storage that is depleted while the muscle is under stress. The recovery time ranges from 60-90 seconds for the fastest and weakest fibers to a full week or more for the slowest and strongest fibers. Depending on the strength needed our body activates the respective threads. Only if we fully deplete all types of muscle fibers while working out, we fully activate the impulse for growing more muscle. Once we have exhausted the storage and triggered the growth impulse, no more training is necessary until the energy stores in the fibers have regenerated, which takes about a week.
Thus, the most effective training is the one that depletes all types of muscle fibers in the shortest amount of time. Amazingly this can be achieved using special workout gear in 12 minutes. Unfortunately, this requires a gym with the special machinery at hand.
A very convenient alternative that does not need a gym or any special workout equipment whatsoever is bodyweight training, where we only use our own body to exercise our muscles to depletion. The training can be quickly done at home and is divided into four 30 minute sessions per week.
See more: You are your own Gym - (Reading List)
Research has shown, that indeed exercising once a week to depletion of the muscle's energy storage is superior to training twice a week or more often. When comparing training groups that either trained once and twice a week, both groups made the same progress for the first 12 weeks. After week 12, the once a week group started improving at a far better rate than the second group that showed a notable slowdown in progress.
To avoid frustration when training it is vital that we have reasonable expectations about the progress we can make. As much as we all would love to believe it: For an average person (and most of us are) there is no way that we can get entirely ripped or in super shape in three months. Not even close to that. We must not believe in the advertising of the fitness industry or most of the fitness gurus that are trying to sell themselves, supplements or clothing. These people do not have our best interest or our optimum health on their agenda but first and foremost the bottom line of their business, exploiting our desires and dreams.
Fully training an average body takes 18-24 months.
As Paradox as it sounds, this is due to our bodies being masters at optimization.
When we do intense aerobic exercise repetitively, instead of building muscle, our body perfects the necessary motion and becomes more and more efficient, needing less muscle to produce the same result. The body then tears down the unnecessary muscle that now is just an added burden for our aerobic efficiency. Less muscle directly translates to a lower basic metabolic rate.
We burn energy while working out, but due to the loss of muscle mass the rest of the time, we burn less energy in standby, which results in a decreased overall energy consumption.
The amount of energy expended during exercise cannot make up for the lost muscle. If we don't reduce our food intake at the same time, we will gain weight.
Intense, repetitive aerobic exercise like cycling and jogging can put an enormous strain on our joints and our spine. When running, every step we make hits our structural system with force multiple times greater than our body weight. Over time we irrevocably wear out our joints and the cartilage that protects them. Given the fact that working out our muscles trains our aerobic capabilities too, it seems hardly worth the price.
If we want to go for a run, we use our Five Fingers, easily allowing us to run on the forefoot thus reducing the load on our system tremendously. Or we go for a swim, which is so much easier on our joints.