By Dr. Mercola
Staying in shape doesn't have to cost a fortune. With a few well-chosen fitness essentials, you can easily create an effective exercise routine right in your own home.
While options are plentiful, the following are my personal recommendations for basic fitness necessities that won't put too big of a dent in your wallet. Some items you don't even have to buy, as you probably own or have access to them already.
- Stairs: You don't need a stair machine to benefit from stair exercises — just use any set of stairs in your home or neighborhood.
One study1 from 2000 showed that taking the stairs for just over 13 minutes per day helps improve heart rate, breathing ability and HDL cholesterol levels. Participants in the study climbed stairs six times a day to achieve the targeted daily duration.
- Towel: A gym towel is an inexpensive alternative to resistance bands or a medicine ball. No matter where you are, if you have a towel, you have an effective workout tool that can be used for exercises like sliding push-ups, leg curls, and isometric shoulder press just to name a few. For descriptions, see LiveStrong's Gym Towel Exercises page2.
A simple thigh exercise using just a towel is as follows: Place a rolled up towel between your thighs, then simply squeeze your thighs together and release. Do about three sets of 20, or until you "feel the burn" on your inner thighs.
A towel is also a great tool for stretching and rehabilitation exercises. For example, a simple stretch to help strengthen your ankles is to sit on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you. Place a rolled up towel behind your right calf. Flex your right foot back and forth, 10-15 times. Switch to the other leg.
- Chair: A chair can be a very useful exercise tool. Use it for push-ups, tricep dips, squats, lat pulls, or abdominal exercises as described by LiveStrong.com3.
Seven Basic Pieces of Fitness Equipment
While it's certainly possible to get fit without any equipment at all, a few basic, inexpensive pieces can be quite helpful and well worth the money spent. My top selections include:
- Foam roller: My favorite is the Trigger Point Performance Roller4 as it tends to not wear out and become compressed after a few months
- Rope for stretching
- Jump rope
- Resistance tubing or bands
- Medicine ball (exercise ball that comes in weights ranging from two to 25 pounds)
- Kettle bells
- Bosu ball
The first two on the list — rope and a foam roller — are very helpful aids for stretching, which is an important component of your warm-up, and jumping rope is good old-fashioned warm-up that still stands the test of time.
Resistance tubing, a medicine ball, or kettle bells are all excellent options for an inexpensive in-home gym with minimal equipment. The medicine ball can be used in lieu of the kettle bells or other weights, and offers an easy way to incorporate resistance training into your routine. It's especially useful for adding resistance to your abdominal workout. You can also incorporate a medicine ball in plyometric, or "explosive" exercises, to increase strength and muscle mass.
I prefer kettle bells to other hand weights, because the ball portion of the kettlebell, which is suspended below the handle, helps shift the leverage of your movements. This change of leverage makes your body work harder. A bosu ball can also be purchased for about $100 and is a great device that will help improve your balance and core muscles.
Why Warm-Up Tools are a Good Idea
Whether you're exercising with or without equipment, it's important to warm up and stretch first — especially if you're doing high intensity interval exercises such as sprinting, which you can do outdoors. (To learn more, please see my previous article on outdoor sprinting.) While sprinting outside is a simple and inexpensive exercise, I want to strongly warn you: it is also one of the most dangerous forms of high intensity training.
I and many of my friends who were fit and athletic became injured when seeking to implement Peak Fitness exercises. So I highly recommend performing the stretches demonstrated in the video below before sprinting, to reduce your chances of injury.
I did not follow this advice and when I first started HIIT five years ago. I didn't stretch and wound up tearing one of my hamstring muscles. Implementing the following stretches helped me to finally recover from that injury. These stretches are so-called Active Isolated Stretches (AIS), not static stretches. For a demonstration of each stretch, please see my video. To perform these, you'll need a rope and a foam roller. The stretches include:
- Hamstring I stretch (straight: 10 reps)
- Hamstring II stretch (foot twisted slightly left: 10 reps)
- Hamstring III stretch (foot twisted slightly right: 10 reps)
- Rolling your hamstrings using a foam roller
Inexpensive Tools to Monitor Progression Toward Fitness Goals
Next, three tools that can be helpful for monitor your fitness progress are:
- Measuring Tape
- Heart Rate Monitor
Notice I don't include a scale on this list. That's because weighing yourself is probably one of the worst ways to track your progress. Failing to see any change on the scale can give you a false sense of failure, since muscle weighs more than fat. Weight alone is also not an effective way of judging if your health is at risk. Certain body compositions do tend to increase your risk of chronic disease, and carrying extra inches around your midsection has been repeatedly shown to increase cardiovascular health risks. Your waist size is also a powerful indicator of insulin sensitivity, as studies clearly show that measuring your waist size is one of the most powerful ways to predict your risk for diabetes.
Waist circumference is one of the best ways to evaluate whether or not you may have a weight problem as it will also give you an indication of your intra-abdominal fat mass — something that BMI or weight on a scale cannot do. Measuring your percentage of body fat is another alternative, which can give you a very precise indication of how you're progressing on your fitness program. For this you will need a set of calipers (see instructions below). Lastly, a heart rate monitor can be a worthy investment if you're doing high intensity interval training, to ensure you're really pushing yourself hard enough to maximize benefits. I'll discuss this below as well.
Two Ways to Get Your Waist Measurement
You can go about measuring your waist in two different ways. You'll need a flexible measuring tape for both. The first way is to calculate your waist to hip ratio. This is done by measuring the circumference of your hips at the widest part, across your buttocks. Then measure your waist at the smallest circumference of your natural waist, just above your belly button. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement to get the ratio. For a demonstration, see the video below.
Another even simpler method is to measure only your waist circumference (the distance around the smallest area below the rib cage and above your belly button). Waist circumference is the easiest anthropometric measure of total body fat. A general guide for healthy waist circumference is as follows:
How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage
Another tool, which many experts are now leaning toward as the most accurate measure of obesity, is body fat percentage. As it sounds, this is simply the percentage of fat your body contains, and it can be a powerful indicator of your health.
- Too much body fat is linked to chronic health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
- Too little body fat is also problematic and can cause your body to enter a catabolic state, where muscle protein is used as fuel.
Body fat calipers are one of the most trusted and most accurate ways to measure body fat. A body fat or skinfold caliper is a lightweight, hand-held device that quickly and easily measures the thickness of a fold of your skin with its underlying layer of fat. Taken at three very specific locations on your body, these readings can help you estimate the total percent of body fat within your entire body. You can pick up a set of calipers for about $5. Keep in mind that it's perfectly natural for women to have a higher percentage of body fat than men. A general guideline from the American Council on Exercise is as follows:
Classification Women (percent fat) Men (percent fat) Essential Fat 10-13 percent 2-5 percent Athletes 14-20 percent 6-13 percent Fitness 21-24 percent 14-17 percent Acceptable 25-31 percent 18-24 percent Obese 32 percent and higher 25 percent and higher
When to Invest in a Heart Rate Monitor
I highly recommend investing in a heart rate monitor if you're doing high intensity interval exercises in which you raise your heart rate up to, or beyond, your calculated maximum heart rate (220-your age) for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period. You want to make sure you're pushing yourself to your anaerobic threshold, as this is where the "magic" happens that will trigger your growth hormone release.
However, it's nearly impossible to accurately measure your heart rate manually when it is above 150, which is why I recommend investing in a heart rate monitor.