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For some people, exercise is like a haven — a way to sweat out the day’s worries, lift away anxieties, and feel refreshed and focused. For plenty of other people, the act of exercising is grueling and repetitive.

As typically presented, the formula for fitness is fairly mono­lithic. Treadmills. Dumbbells. Young, sleek bodies, toiling away. If that formula doesn’t resonate with you, you might feel that getting fit just isn’t your thing.

But what if working out didn’t involve a rigid to-do list? What if you could choose from a menu of activities, any number of which could satisfy your body’s craving for fitness nutrients?

Below, you’ll find exactly that: a breakdown of movement patterns that nourish your body and a host of unconventional ways to work them into your life. This includes social activities like walking groups, brain-enhancing classes like dance, outdoor ­adventures like hiking, even practical arts like carpentry.

We’ll share the minimum dose of activity that can help you reap its benefits, plus easy ways to do so, in or out of the health club or gym.

If you’re looking to weave more life-enhancing movement into the fabric of your days, these six steps can help you get there.

Step 1. Start Somewhere

One wonderful aspect of a fitness journey is that it can start almost anywhere. So if you’ve been inactive for more than a few weeks (and don’t have a medical condition) simply start doing something — anything — regularly.

One caveat: Don’t do too much too fast. Filled with sudden resolve, many people embark on a program of lifting, running, and stretching that gives them few days off and little chance of recovering between workouts. Almost instantly, they’re sore, exhausted, unmotivated — and back on the couch.

Start small, advises physician Edmund Lew, MD. “Most people — even people who aren’t fans of exercise — have something they enjoyed when they were younger.” That’s a good place to start.

It might be something low-key and social, like walks with friends; an activity like dance, yoga, or martial arts; a sport like tennis or golf; or a physical hobby, such as gardening.

Don’t worry about keeping your heart rate up, making your muscles sore, or stretching yourself into a pretzel. Just make sure you’re moving around, enjoying the activity, and doing it regularly.

For most exercisers, three times a week on nonconsecutive days is ideal. That way, if you miss a day, you don’t have to wait long to get back on track.

First, get in the groove of moving your body, with an activity you enjoy, at least three times a week. Next, up the ante and try moving for 30 minutes with moderate intensity five times a week, or more vigorously at least three times a week. You’ll then be doing more than the majority of Americans — 75 percent of whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as either “inactive” or “not regularly active.”

If you’re meeting these guidelines with a regimen you like, you’re on the right path. “You’re learning the skill of commitment,” explains fitness and nutrition coach Jolie Kobrinsky, founder of Elektren, a training studio in Seaside, Calif. A commitment to even a small amount of activity can benefit your health.

Step 2. Assess

To put your newfound discipline and fitness to the test and further improve your health, the next step is to make your routine more structured and rigorous. Look at your activity of choice and make the following assessment:

  • Does it consist of sustained activity that keeps your heart rate up for 20 minutes or more? If so, you’ve checked the cardio box.
  • Does it require movements that lengthen and extend your muscles and leave you feeling relaxed and loose? Your mobility needs are likely met.
  • Finally, does it require your muscles to contract at close to their full capacity, as you push, pull, and lift from the ground? That’s strength work.

Maybe your current routine includes all of these things. As long as you’re enjoying the activities and committing to doing them regularly, you’re getting a lot of what your body needs from exercise. But if your routine is lacking — or if you want to push a little further — read on for ideas on how to fill in the gaps.

Step 3. Kick Up the Heart Rate

When most people think of exercise, they often think of cardio. It’s possible you’re getting at least some of this type of training right now: If your job, commute, or hobbies require you to walk briskly for 20 minutes or more a few times a week, you’re already on your way.

Over time, cardiovascular training can be transformative by supporting virtually every system in the body, from the brain to the gastrointestinal tract. “If there’s a fountain of youth, it’s cardiovascular exercise,” says Lew. “When you increase circulation, all your organs and bodily functions work better.”

Like a car engine, your cardiovascular system has several “gears” — each of these zones corresponds to a specific level of effort. Some people like to use heart-rate readings to calculate their level of effort. (You can learn more about the five heart-rate zones at “The A.T. Factor.”)

For many others, listening to the body’s messages about perceived exertion is more accessible than — and as effective as — the high-tech approach. In the following table you’ll find observational cues to help you assess your exertion without tracking heart rate.

  Zone Definition Percentage of Maximal Effort Feels Like . . . Sample Activity
 

1

Rest 0–50% Relaxation or minor activity Sitting, eating, standing, writing
2 Very light activity 50%–60% Easy, pleasant movement Walking,
easy cycling
3 Light activity 60%–70% Heart and respiration elevated but under control Light jog,
brisk hiking, brisk cycling
4 Moderate activity 70%–80% Periods of hard exertion Running,
fast cycling
5 Hard activity 80%–90% Periods of extreme exertion Sprinting, running steps, uphill running

For most of us, it’s helpful to spend the majority of our exercise time in zone 2 and at least some time in zones 3 and 4.  

As the chart suggests, zones 3 and 4 are challenging, so you won’t remain there for long. Instead, in the midst of a lighter workout, you might perform several short bursts of ­elevated effort for 30 seconds or a minute before returning to a lower level. After a minute or two, you can repeat the process, cycling through it five or more times for an intense workout. 

This is known as HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. It’s tiring, but if you work up to it slowly — increasing the time you spend in the higher zones and the number of repetitions you perform — it can be an exhilarating, time-efficient way to enhance your health and well-being. 

The beauty of cardio is that almost any vigorous physical activity can fit the bill: As long as you sustain a higher heart rate for 20 minutes or more, it counts. 

Check out the chart at below for some common activities and the zones they hit. Select a few that you enjoy (and any others that aren’t here — this list is by no means comprehensive!), putting together a movement menu consisting of at least three 30-minute sessions per week, ideally with a few forays into zones 3 or 4. If the activities you chose in step 1 meet your cardio needs, stick with those, or replace or supplement them as you see fit.

Activity

Zone 1

Zone 2 Zone 3

Zone 4

CARDIO MACHINES
Assault bike

Elliptical

Stair climber

Stationary bike, recumbent, or upright

Treadmill (uphill or jog)

CLASSES
Aerobic dance  

 
Barre

   
Boxing  

  •

 •

 •

Dance

 •

 •

 •

 
HIIT strength and conditioning  

 •

 •

 •

Indoor cycling  

 •

 •

 •

Karate

 •

 •

 •

 
Kickboxing  

 •

 •

 •

Muay Thai  

 •

 •

 •

Pilates

 •

 •

   
Power yoga

 •

 •

 •

 
Strength  

 •

 •

 
Tae Kwon Do  

 •

 •

 
HOUSEHOLD ACTIVITIES
Carpentry

 •

 •

 •

 
Cooking

 •

     
Cleaning

 •

 •

   
Gardening

 •

 •

 •

 
Grocery shopping

 •

 •

   
Moving furniture

 •

 •

   
Yard work

 •

 •

 •

 
OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES 
Climbing steps

  •

 •

 
Cycling  

 •

 •

 •

Hiking  

 •

 •

 
Jogging  

 •

 •

 •

Jumping rope  

 •

 •

 
Walking

 •

 •

 •

 
SPORTS
Basketball

 •

 •  •

 •

Soccer

 •

 •  •

 •

Swimming (easy)

 •

 •

   
Swimming (laps)  

 •

 •

 •

Tennis and other racquet sports    

 •

 •  •

 •

Step 4. Extend Yourself

This next step includes many activities — stretch­ing, mobility training, flexibility training, joint-health work, Functional Range work, dynamic warm-ups, yoga, Pilates. All these methods have one thing in common: “You’re putting a little WD-40 in your joints and moving them around,” says New York City–based Sonja Herbert, founder of Black Girl Pilates.

Instinctive as it may be to stretch — even animals do it — length­ening muscles and mobilizing joints is often an afterthought, even for regular exercisers.

But some form of stretching is essential to staying healthy: “Reminding your joints every day how they flex and extend and rotate ensures that we preserve those ranges for life,” says Kobrinsky. Or, as Herbert succinctly puts it: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

There’s a huge bonus to mobility work. “You’re increasing circulation and bringing life back into your whole body. Your head, your shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, feet, toes,” says Herbert. This can feel fantastic, both while you’re doing it and for some time afterward.

Another plus: Stretching is an anywhere, anytime activity, requiring no equipment or warm-up. You don’t need a lot of space. It probably won’t make you sweaty, and you can do it in tiny increments throughout your day. It may be the simplest, most accessible type of movement there is.

Herbert recommends starting with a dedicated program just once a week to learn the basics. “If that’s as far as you go — one class, YouTube video, partner-stretching session, dynamic warm-up, or easy ballet session every week — then that’s great,” she says. If you build on it, either by attending classes more often or stretching for a few minutes every day, so much the better.

Step 5. Get Stronger

Strength is the cornerstone of everything physical,” says veteran strength coach Dan John, author of Attempts: Essays on Fitness, Health, Longevity, and Easy Strength. The stronger your muscles, he explains, the easier it is to perform any physical task, whether it’s running, sports, hiking, or the routine activities of daily life.

Regular strength trainers tend to have an easier time getting through a day hike or a game of pickup basketball than someone who doesn’t lift, even if they don’t hike or shoot hoops regularly.

Building strength can also help stem the tide of muscle loss associated with aging, helping us remain vigorous well into our 80s and beyond.

Strength is essential for day-to-day functioning, metabolism, and longevity, but it’s often lower on our list of interventions because it’s the hardest one to pursue without a formal plan. Your heart and lungs can stay relatively healthy if you move vigorously a few times a week, and your joints can stay mobile if you stretch a few minutes daily. But your muscles require more attention.

To cover all your major muscle groups, John recommends five basic movements:

  1. Push: Press something away from you with your arms, as in a pushup or overhead press.
  2. Pull: Pull an object closer to you, as in a pull-up or rowing movement.
  3. Squat: Bend your knees and hips while keeping your chest up and your back straight, then rise along the same path, as in a body-weight or barbell squat.
  4. Hinge: Bend at the hip joint while keeping your back flat and legs relatively straight, as in a deadlift.
  5. Loaded carry: Cover territory (walking, running, or anything in between) while holding something heavy, as in a farmer’s carry or walking lunge with dumbbells.

For health, wellness, and longevity, it’s not necessary to develop high levels of strength in all five areas. More important is to exercise all five patterns regularly at a similar level of intensity. If you do a lot of hinging, pulling, and loaded carrying (as you might if you work for a delivery company, for example, or lift bags of soil during gardening), aim to include some pushing and squatting in your program to balance it out.

The final — and perhaps least appreciated — component of building strength is intensity. Without enough stimulus, your muscles won’t get stronger. In execution, a pushup isn’t that much different from the action of pushing a grocery cart, but one will make you stronger while the other probably won’t. In order to build strength, the movements you perform have to be challenging.

That doesn’t mean you have to lift maximal weights every time you exercise. Rather, to keep progressing, you have to push your edge a little. A 2010 study found that lighter weights were at least as effective for building muscle mass as heavier weights — provided the subjects worked at close to maximum effort, performing more repetitions when lifting the lighter weights.

One strategy for accomplishing that is to take up a regular strength-training program. (Check out John’s “Easy Strength” program at “The Easy-Strength Workout“.)

Or take up a mix of the activities in the chart above and fill in the gaps with other activities as needed, trying to incorporate some of each movement pattern at least once a week.

WEBEXTRA

Five-Minute Mobility

Think you have to spend hours twisting yourself into knots to get more flexible? For a mobility primer, try these five moves, courtesy of Pilates instructor Sonja Herbert:

Neck

  1. Sit or stand upright, shoulders relaxed.
  2. Without bending your neck, slowly rotate your head to the right, as if listening for something with your right ear.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat to the other side.
  4. Perform the sequence five times per side.
  5. Keeping your torso upright, drop your chin to your chest.
  6. Imagining a spoon extending forward from your nose, and a cup of coffee directly beneath it, slowly stir the coffee with the spoon in a clockwise direction, 10 times.
  7. Stir in the opposite direction 10 more times.

Kneeling Hip and Hamstring

  1. Assume a half-kneeling position with your right knee on the floor and your left knee upright.
  2. Moving slowly, extend your left leg in front of you with the heel on the floor and your foot flexed.
  3. Place your hands on the floor on either side of your extended leg.
  4. Keeping your foot flexed, straighten your left leg as much as possible, folding your torso over your knee.
  5. Bend your left knee and shift your weight forward, raising your torso and pressing your hips toward the floor.
  6. Perform eight to 10 slow, controlled repetitions, keeping your hips and shoulders square the whole time.

Hamstring and Shoulders

  • Sit on the floor with your back straight, legs extended forward and slightly wider than hip width.
  • Inhale as you raise your arms out to the sides, slightly in front of your shoulders.
  • Keeping your back long, exhale as you rotate your shoulders to the right, reaching toward your right foot with your left hand, and behind you with your right.
  • Inhale as you return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side, then perform a total of five slow reps per side.

Shoulder Circles

  • Stand with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart, knees slightly unlocked.
  • Keeping your torso upright, swing your right arm in a full circle forward, rotating at your shoulder joint.
  • Briskly circle your right arm 15 times forward; then do the same number of reps going backward.
  • Repeat the entire sequence with your left arm.
  • Finally, perform 15 forward circles, then 15 backward circles, moving both arms at the same time.

Feet, Toes, and Ankles

  • Stand with your feet together, using a wall or railing for balance.
  • Slowly raise your heels off of the floor, coming onto your toes.
  • Keeping your hips stationary, slowly bring your knees forward as far as possible, stretching and extending your toes.
  • Slowly lower your heels to the floor and return to an upright standing posture.
  • Repeat the sequence for 10 reps.
  • From the standing position, slowly push your knees forward as far as possible while keeping your feet flat on the floor and your hips stationary.
  • Rise onto your toes.
  • Slowly lower your heels to the floor, and repeat for 10 reps.

This article originally appeared as “Step By Step” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Andrew
Andrew Heffernan

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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