By Dr. Mercola
Official exercise guidelines typically base their recommendations on the number of minutes or hours you should exercise. But the latest research suggests this is an outdated approach.
The effectiveness of your fitness program isn’t measured by how long you exercise. It’s measured by the quality of your exercise. According to an outdated fitness dogma, a person who jogs for 60 minutes would theoretically be getting a “better” workout than someone who does a 20-minute workout… but this is an incorrect over-generalization.
Research now shows that some of the best workouts are only 20 minutes long (or less), and that by incorporating multi-dimensional movement, high-intensity exercise, recovery, and more into your routine, you can get a superior workout in a fraction of the time.
Diversity Is Key to Building a Quality Fitness Program
A recent study divided overweight or obese individuals into three groups. Each group consumed 60 grams of whey protein a day and engaged in one of three exercise regiments for 16 weeks – sedentary, intense resistance training, or a multi-dimensional routine involving mixed cardio and strength training.1
All of the participants had improvements in their weight. However, those in the multi-dimensional group (which was also the most diverse routine), lost the most weight (2.6 percent) and fat mass (6.6 percent) while gaining the most lean body mass (two percent).2 The multi-dimensional activity group engaged in resistance training, interval cardio sprints (high-intensity interval training (HIIT), similar to Peak Fitness), yoga, and Pilates – all activities I highly recommend.
I've often equated exercise to a drug from the perspective that they both need to be wisely prescribed in order to optimize your health. Simply doing random exercises for the sake of "exercising" will not achieve the benefits you seek, even if you’re doing them for long periods of time. In fact, it could cause serious injury, especially if you engage in strength training with poor form.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the best way to exercise is to mimic the activities your ancient ancestors regularly did. Remember, most of them, and many in underdeveloped countries, spend the majority of their time harvesting and preparing food.
Functional exercises can help your body to perform real-life activities (as opposed to simply being able to operate a piece of gym equipment), and include options like squats, lunges, planks, or work on a stability ball.
Functional exercises also allow you to incorporate all three directions when you work out, frontwards and backwards, side-to-side, and rotational. When you exercise in multiple planes, it allows you to target muscles from multiple angles so that you don't develop imbalances, which can promote injury. This is the way your body is designed to move and it's also a way to add efficiency to your workout.
Exercising for Too Long Can Backfire
If you’re still under the impression that the longer you exercise, the better, consider that recent research has given us a much better understanding of exercise physiology, and many of our past notions have been turned upside-down, in terms of how long and how hard you can push yourself without doing harm.
High-endurance training, such as running for an hour at a time, puts extraordinary stress on your heart. And while stressing a muscle usually makes it stronger, extremely high stress can have the opposite effect—and when it comes to your heart muscle, this can be bad news.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that extreme endurance exercise leads to high levels of oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage to your heart tissues. This produces acute physiological responses that can trigger a cardiac event. For instance, German researchers followed more than 1,000 people in their 60s for 10 years.3
About 40 percent of them engaged in 60 minutes' worth of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise two to four times per week. Of the remaining participants, half got an hour of exercise more than four times per week. The other half exercised less than twice a week—about one in 10 reported exercising rarely, if ever.
All of them had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, but were in stable condition. Not surprisingly, those who exercised the least (less than twice a week) had the highest risk for both a cardiac event and all-cause mortality, compared to those who engaged in moderate exercise. However, the most active patients also had an increased risk, doubling their risk of heart attack and stroke, compared to more moderate exercisers.
What is now clear is that the “Goldilocks zone” of exercise – not too much or too little – works best for getting in shape and protecting your health, and quality really is more important than quantity.
By Increasing Your Intensity, You Can Cut Back on Time
Conventional aerobic exercise performed for long periods at a steady, moderate pace was long considered the "gold standard" of a good workout, but in recent years research has refuted such notions.
Instead, high-intensity interval training (which requires but a fraction of the time compared to conventional cardio) has been shown to be FAR more efficient and effective, compared to longer, slower cardio workouts. There are many versions of HIIT, but the core premise involves maximum exertion followed by a quick rest period for a set of intervals.
My Peak Fitness routine uses a set of eight 30-second sprints, each followed by 90 seconds of recovery done after a proper warm up and followed by a short cool-down period. When you use HIIT, the elliptical machine is a very useful exercise tool, although you can also do HIIT using a recumbent bike or even without any equipment at all (using exercises such as push-ups, burpees, and jumping squats, for example).
Ideally, you'll want to perform HIIT exercises two or three times a week for a total of four minutes of intense exertion. You do not need to do them more often than that, however. In fact, doing it more frequently than two or three times a week can be counterproductive, as your body needs to recover between sessions.
If you want to do more, focus on making sure you're really pushing yourself as hard as you can during those two or three weekly sessions, rather than increasing the frequency. The video below is a few years old now, but you can get an idea of the intensity used. I have modified my application to only doing it twice a week. However, the intensity is identical. The other change is that I now breathe through my nose. I discuss more of the benefits of Buteyko breathing in a recent article.
Please note that this video is a few years old and Dr. Mercola has since incorporated Buteyko breathing.
Proper Recovery Is Crucial
Besides intensity, recovery is a key factor in benefiting fully from high-intensity workouts. As mentioned earlier, as your intensity increases, you typically need to decrease the frequency to ensure your body has time to repair and recuperate between sessions. For this reason, it is NOT recommended to do high intensity exercises more than three times a week. Both Phil Campbell and Dr. Doug McGuff have addressed this in previous interviews. Dr. McGuff actually exercises once every ten days.
It is important to realize you can sabotage your fitness efforts by over-exercising. In this case, your body goes into an elevated stress response, keeping your cortisol levels too high. Cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone," is secreted by your adrenal glands and is involved in a variety of important metabolic functions, such as regulating your insulin and glucose levels, and controlling inflammation. Elevated cortisol will cause your body to store fat instead of building muscle.
Recovery is absolutely crucial to your long-term success. You simply must provide your body with the opportunity to rebuild and restore itself after you stress it with intense workouts. Regardless of what type of exercise you do, always listen to your body, as it will give you important feedback about whether or not you are overexerting yourself. During any type of exercise, as long as you listen to your body, you shouldn't run into the problem of exerting yourself excessively.
And, with interval training, even if you are out of shape you simply will be unable to train very hard, as lactic acid will quickly build up in your muscles and prevent you from stressing your heart too much. If you're unsure whether you may be pushing yourself too hard, the following seven symptoms may signal that you need to cut back a bit and allow your body to recover between sessions:
- Exercise leaves you exhausted instead of energized
- You get sick easily (or it takes forever to get over a cold)
- You have the blues
- You're unable to sleep or you can't seem to get enough sleep
- You have ''heavy'' legs
- You have a short fuse
- You're regularly sore for days at a time
It's also important to give your body the nutrients it needs to repair and recover. Consuming a fast-assimilating protein such as 10-20 grams of high-quality whey protein within 30 minutes of your workout will bring your muscles out of their catabolic state and supply them with the nutrients they need for repairs. Processed carbs or fructose-laden sports drinks should be avoided at all costs, as these will nullify many of the benefits of exercise. As just one example, consuming fructose (including that from fruit juices) within two hours of a high-intensity workout will decimate your natural human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is a MAJOR benefit of interval training.
Tips for Building a High-Quality Fitness Regimen
Intense exercise should be balanced with strength training, proper stretching, core strengthening, stress reduction, good sleep, and an optimal nutrition plan. You'll find much more information about HIIT and other types of exercise in the fitness section of my website. Of equal, if not greater importance, is to avoid being too sedentary in general, between workout sessions. Compelling research now tells us that prolonged sitting can have a tremendously detrimental impact on your health even if you exercise regularly. The reason for this is because your body needs to interact with gravity in order to function optimally.
Recently, an Australian study warned that inactivity is the greatest heart risk factor in women over 30—beating out other well-known risk factors like smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure.4 To counteract the ill effects of sitting, make sure to get out of your chair every 15 minutes or so. To learn more about the benefits of intermittent movement, please see my interview with NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos. Personally, I usually set a timer for 15 minutes while sitting, and then stand up and do one-legged squats, jump squats, or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise activities. I would strongly encourage you to visit our intermittent movement page that has videos of 30 exercises you can do during this time.
To put it simply, whenever you have a chance to move and stretch your body in the course of going about your day—do it! That said, there's no doubt that an ideal fitness regimen requires a little more effort. As a general rule, I recommend incorporating a wide variety of exercises, including the following:
- Stand Up Every 15 Minutes. As mentioned, emerging evidence clearly shows that even highly fit people who exceed the expert exercise recommendations are headed for premature death if they sit for long periods of time. Again, be sure to look at our list of 30 videos for examples of what you can do when you stand up.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods, such as Peak Fitness.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability. Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises.
Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities. They also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.