It’s no secret that exercise is good for us. It can help with our mental health, our physical health, and our brain health – in short, it helps us not die. There’s just one drawback: it’s haaard.
Look, some people love getting out of breath and sore while they burn the calories, and that’s fine. But for the rest of us, working out can be a chore – one that has us Googling “easiest actually useful exercise” for longer than we end up on the treadmill.
So, with the help of a (slightly bemused) fitness expert, we set out to learn the best ways to move, shake, and work our way towards better health outcomes – even though we don’t really want to.
Excuse: I don’t have the time
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, adults need to do between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week to see any substantial health benefits. That’s a minimum of 20-30 minutes every single day of the week, even without accounting for things like getting into your sports bra and digging out your tennis racket.
Factor in a full-time job, housework, errands, childcare, study – all of which is tiring enough, let’s face it – and it’s easy to see why some of us lag behind when it comes to getting even the bare minimum of exercise.
However, the key word in that recommendation is “moderate” – turn up the intensity, and you can reduce the amount of time you devote to getting active.
“You might have heard of HIIT workouts,” Chris Ford, Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Hampshire Institute of Sport and Program Lead for the BSc Strength and Conditioning Course at the University of Winchester, told IFLScience. “Essentially you do a 20-minute session of really high intensity… during that session, your metabolic rate is increased, but obviously only for 20 minutes, so it’s not too much.”
“But you then spend the next day, two, sometimes three days recovering from that,” he explained. “You go through this thing called EPOC – an increase [in] your base metabolic rate – because your body is having to work harder to repair the damage it's done in that intense session.”
EPOC, or Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption – you might know it as “afterburn” – refers to the extra oxygen levels taken in by the body after strenuous activity.
“Your body wants to stay in homeostasis,” Ford explained, and high-intensity exercise pulls it out of balance – that extra oxygen is used for things like rebalancing hormone levels, repairing the micro-tears in your muscles, and replenishing the fuel stores used up by all that activity.
“It means that you can do essentially three 20-minute sessions a week and still raise that metabolic rate,” Ford told IFLScience. “It will help you to lose weight and be healthier generally – [and] because it's high intensity, or higher intensity than most other things, it comes [with] a higher endorphin hit, making it more entertaining and more fun to do.”
Excuse: I don’t have the motivation
It’s an easy question to ask: what’s the best exercise? But it’s not as simple as it sounds: “The cop-out answer is that there isn’t one,” Ford told IFLScience. “It’s just hard work.”
That said, there is one piece of advice he places above the rest. “The first thing is to enjoy it,” he told IFLScience. “If you don't enjoy it, you're not going to do it, and it's about doing it consistently.”
And when he says consistently, he means it. We’re not talking days or weeks of activity here – we’re not even talking months: “it's like a year or more to actually be consistent,” Ford said.
“Unless you do high activity, or really go for it, you're not going to see much of a difference in the shortest amount of time,” he told IFLScience. “It's more about that long-term progression.”
That’s why, for those of us who don’t have any particular goal in mind – we’re not exercising for weight loss, or for other health reasons, or for some competition – the most basic starting point for upping our activity levels is to figure out what you like doing.
The second step is the hard one: do it. But this is where things like sports games and Couch to 5k really shine, Ford said. Gamification is one of the best ways to trick your brain into enjoying things that are, objectively speaking, boring AF – ask anyone who’s spent 14 hours mining virtual rocks in World of Warcraft or Everquest for proof of that – and you don’t need teammates or a podcast series to do it if that’s not your thing.
“It's harder to be stagnant if you're playing a sport,” Ford told IFLScience – but if your preferred activity is something more lonesome, like running, or swimming, there are still ways to hack into that gamification system. Fitness apps have been shown to be good for motivation, but even something as simple as writing down your achievements in each session to keep a record of your improvements, or setting out a goal before you begin, can be powerful tools to convince you to keep on going.
Then there’s the workout itself. Putting some thought into how you structure your regimen throughout the session or week can help you meet your goals – just remember that exercise makes you tired.
We know, that sounds overly simple, but it’s important: for all the talk of whether cardio or strength training should go first, the more important question to ask is, “what activity do I definitely want to finish?” Whatever the answer, one idea is to put that first, Ford said – it guarantees you won’t be too tired to complete it after everything else.
That’s not the only option, though. “One of the rules of thumb is, you want to do the most taxing, the most powerful, the most high-intensity thing first,” Ford advised. “Endurance-type stuff [goes] at the end, because unless you're running for competition it's just about running for that hour… or covering that distance. It might not be necessarily to do it at high intensity.”
Of course, when all else fails – just power through. “One of my old coaches told me… he would [set] his athletes some focus sessions – sessions where they’ve got a specific goal and they need to work really hard at – and he’s got some sessions that are called ‘just get it done,’” said Ford. “It’s not about the quality; it’s not about the speed; it’s not about how well you’re doing it – it’s just to get it done.”
Excuse: I’m not good enough
We can’t all be Olympic-level athletes – for one thing, it would make the actual Olympics way less impressive – but when you can’t even make a minute of activity without needing a rest, it can be easy to think this whole “exercise being good for you” thing is just an urban myth.
But don’t be too hard on yourself. “I think that's one thing people will often forget,” Ford said. “My 100 percent is not necessarily the same as somebody else's 100 percent.”
“That's fine – there’s nothing wrong with that,” he added. “It's just how it is.”
Take HIIT workouts, for example – the whole point is to go as hard as you can. However, try to avoid comparing yourself to the other people in the room, Ford said: “for an elite athlete… [they] may be going massively faster or lifting much heavier [weights], whatever it might be, than a lot of other people,” he told IFLScience.
“But that doesn't mean that someone who is just in their first HIIT session isn't trying their hardest,” he said. “It's [about] comparing yourself to yourself.”
The same is true for every type of exercise: “progress” may be something as simple as swimming an extra couple laps, or walking a mile in 20 minutes rather than 25 today. “It's relative,” said Ford. “It's just [about] doing something that's getting you out of breath, getting your heart rate up, and getting that process of exercise going.”
So, if you’re just trying to get into working out for the first time in a while, don’t think you’re just going to immediately hit the tarmac and run 100 meters in ten seconds – your first attempt to get back on the wagon may be closer to a simple walk around the park than a world record sprint time.
“Whatever you enjoy that is activity – the higher intensity you can do that… is better,” Ford told IFLScience. “Whether that's running, whether that's playing badminton, whether that’s playing Beat Saber – whatever. As long as you're raising your heart rate and your breathing rate to the point that you're getting tired.”
Oh – and don’t be discouraged by how much you, well, suck at the beginning of your new regimen.
“The first couple of sessions are always the worst,” Ford told IFLScience. “Don't be worried – it doesn't have to be amazing… it's just what you're doing relative for you.”