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What Is the Best Exercise?

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Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)

There are countless questions the novice exerciser should be asking themselves before their first day at the gym. I have no idea what those questions are, but I do know that, in exercise as in everything else, it is important to cut corners and maximize one’s leisure time. To that end, for this week’s Giz Asks we’ve gathered a number of exercise scientists to discuss the best kind of exercise. They seem to have a different philosophy, though aspiring muscle-havers, and/or those who just don’t want to feel like they’re dying all the time, will find much that is useful in their responses regardless.

Angela Doehring

Assistant Professor, Exercise Science, University of Illinois Springfield

According to the current Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity guidelines (2018), for health-related purposes, adults 18+ should get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both, weekly. This is in addition to total body strength training at least two times a week. Yet unfortunately less than 25% of American meet these minimal guidelines, and the barriers toward being physically active are endless.

Therefore, the best exercise needs to incorporate both cardiovascular and strength activities, but needs to be enjoyable as well. So, find what you like to do! Whether that is a vigorous, high intensity interval training boot-camp group exercise class at a fitness center, or enjoying the outdoors while walking or gardening.

Really, whatever type of exercise an individual likes to do, so long as it meets those Physical Activity guidelines, is the best!


Kumika Toma

Associate Professor, Kinesiology, Marshall University

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), U.S. National Human and Health Services, World Health Organization (WHO), and European Union all agree on “150 min of moderate or 75 min of vigorous aerobic activity/week and Muscle strengthening activity, 2 times/week” as public health recommendations for physical activity for all populations, with modification if needed (such as disability, aging and/or compatibility).

What they do is not a big question: Just move. But the question always arises: “what is moderate or vigorous” intensity? It depends on an individual’s fitness level, and it’s difficult for beginners. If they don’t do enough, they don’t get much effect. If they do too much, they could get hurt. A heart rate monitor is convenient if they can get one. The easiest and cheapest way to determine the exercise intensity is the “breathing/singing test”: If the breathing during exercise is barely noticeable, that intensity must be very light; if they can talk and can sing full songs during exercise, the intensity must be light; if they can talk or can sing a partial verse, the intensity must be moderate; and if they can talk in short sentences but cannot sing partial verses, the intensity must be somewhat hard (vigorous). If they cannot talk and are breathing heavy, the intensity is very hard (very vigorous).

The above are very rough but good indicators, since our goal is exercising at moderate intensity.


Evonne Bird

Instructor, Health and Exercise Sciences, Truman State University

The best type of exercise is the one a person will actually do. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends cardiovascular exercise of moderate intensity for 30 minutes 5 days a week, and a minimum 2 days a week of resistance training. What type of cardiovascular exercise and resistance training a person does depends on their goals and what they like to do. If a person does not like to run then they should find another cardiovascular exercise they like instead of running. Finding ways to make exercise fun will increase the enjoyment, benefit, and likelihood of doing the exercise. There is not one type of exercise that is best for everyone, each individual needs to find the exercises that fit their lifestyle and preferences.

Marcus Kilpatrick

Professor, Exercise Science, University of South Florida

The best exercise is the kind that you can stick with over the long haul. This is a critical consideration in light of the relatively poor rates of physical activity participation and adherence in the United States and around the world. Scientists are seeking answers to questions regarding which combination of exercise intensity, duration, modality, and frequency conveys maximal benefits for particular health concerns and fitness goals, but the most important recommendation is simply to be active regularly and for a lifetime. Part of the secret sauce to adherence is engaging in physical activity experiences that are enjoyable and satisfying.


Jessica Creasy Peacock

Assistant Dean, Director of Academic Innovation and Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Shenandoah University

The best kind of exercise is the kind you will do! Most people in the United States don’t meet guidelines for physical activity, and a good portion are completely sedentary. Even when people have good intentions and start an exercise program (common right now following the New Year), half will drop out within the first month. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in a health counseling capacity over the years, and a lot of them report that in addition to common barriers like a perceived lack of time, they dislike exercise and/or do not have confidence in their ability to be active.

Exercise doesn’t have to be done in one continuous bout to provide health benefits, and it doesn’t have to be done in a gym. The best kind of exercise is the kind you will stick with in the long run, and this means enjoying and finding meaning in it, whether that’s going outside for a walk, taking the stairs at work, or hitting the gym. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to physical activity or adherence, and it’s often a lot of trial and error to find what will work with your lifestyle. Something is always better than nothing, so I help clients start small and work up to higher levels of activity with time, and to try lots of different activities and exercises to see what fits.

To help my clients create more purposeful exercise I also encourage them to pay attention to the intrinsic benefits they experience when they’re active: improved mood, more energy, less stress, enhanced confidence, etc. When you recognize that exercise can help you feel better it becomes a more enjoyable process; if you enjoy it, you will do it!


Nancy Gell

Assistant Professor, Rehabilitation and Movement Science, The University of Vermont

The best exercise is the one you enjoy, the one you want to do, or at least, are willing to do. Which means the best exercise today, may not be the same as the best exercise tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now. If you want to be stronger, the best exercise is strength training, if you want better balance, you have to train by challenging your balance. And if you want better fitness, then the best exercise is one where you increase your heart rate, like walking or dancing, or biking. One exercise I like to recommend is the “sit to stand” exercise. The name says it all: stand up, sit back down, and repeat. It targets strength, balance, and can contribute to fitness and agility with slight changes. You can make it easier or harder by raising or lowering the seat height. You can also make it more challenging by increasing the speed, or doing it on one leg at a time. It’s an exercise for people of all ages, that can be done just about anywhere.


Lisa Ferguson Stegall

Associate Professor, Biology, Hamline University

It entirely depends on the individual’s goals, and what physical condition they are starting from. The best exercise(s) for lowering blood pressure will be very different from the best exercise(s) to be able to run a 5k. The best for building muscle is totally different from what is optimal for losing weight. (And exercise alone is not the best way to lose weight, as an aside.)

So if we want a well-rounded regimen that checks most of the boxes (improve cardiovascular health, maintain or lose body fat, improve or preserve bone density, gain strength, improve overall fitness) what is the best exercise regimen? Well again, it depends on the goal, but in my opinion, for general health and fitness, doing cardio/aerobic-based exercise (either longer sessions of moderate intensity, or shorter sessions of very high intensity, known as HIIT—high intensity interval training) most days of the week, and strength/resistance training 1-2 days a week is a solid plan. (I am a big fan of HIIT, which offers a lot of benefits for a shorter time commitment, but you do have to be willing to push the intensity!) But if the goal is to improve 5k or marathon or bicycle racing performance, for example, this plan will look pretty different. The endurance sessions will have more intensity built in, and for longer duration sports, much longer sessions; this is related to what we call specificity of training—your training should fit the sport or event you complete in. (You can’t train for a marathon is you only run 30 mins a day 3 times a week.)

But on a more philosophical note, perhaps the answer to what is the best exercise or regimen is simpler: it is the one that you will actually DO and not dread or hate. Do you like to run? Then go run. Swim? Join a gym with a pool and swim! Cycle? By golly, get on a bike and feel free as a bird. Just do what you enjoy, and you are more likely to do it regularly. And that may just be the very best exercise.


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