By Dr. Mercola
I've been exercising for 47 years now, and there's no doubt in my mind that a comprehensive fitness routine is essential for optimal health. The featured video is one I plan on updating every year for our Anniversary celebration week as my views are constantly evolving in this area.
Beginning and Ending Each Day Rested and Relaxed
My own fitness strategy these days actually begins with sleep. I use a Jawbone fitness tracker to help me monitor my daily steps and sleep.
As a general rule, I encourage you to get at least eight hours of sleep every night, and to do that, you may have to get in bed earlier than you realized. The fitness tracker can help you determine this, as it will tell you how many hours you were actually sleeping — not just lying in bed waiting to fall asleep.
It's a really important device that helps you keep track of two crucial health factors: walking and sleeping. So that's the first step: Start your day well-rested.
The other thing I do, before going to sleep and first thing upon waking, is to meditate. I use a clinical grade EEG headset that helps me enter the optimal meditative state. I will go into more details on that device in a future article, but the point here is to start and end your day rested and relaxed.
The Importance of Non-Exercise Movement
Next, before you even begin to consider putting together a regular exercise program, take stock of how much you move throughout each day — at work, and at home during your off-hours.
This is equally (if not more) important than working out a few times per week. In fact, even if you exercise regularly, or are a highly competitive and fit athlete, you may still endanger your health simply by sitting too much.
If you think about it, why do we exercise? We exercise because we're trying to replicate what our ancestors did. They moved around to a far greater degree than we do today, largely because they did not have the major technology we do today to easily obtain our food and shelter.
Our ancestors didn't have to exercise per se because they rarely sat down. They moved all day long, and research shows THIS is absolutely key for health. In fact, studies show that engaging in consistent exercise does not counteract the adverse cardiovascular and metabolic effects of prolonged sitting.
So non-exercise movement is now recognized as being a foundational piece for optimal health — even more so than exercising for an hour a few times a week. Ideally, you'd do them both, but if you're currently sedentary, start by sitting less.
This is where the fitness tracker comes into play again. I recommend getting at least 7,000 to 10,000 steps each day, and limit sitting to three hours or less. I am so convinced of the importance of this strategy that I am in the process of purchasing stand up desks for all staff at Mercola.com.
More is better when it comes to non-exercise movement, and it's really hard to overdo it unless you have a disability. I now walk about 17,000 steps per day, barefoot on the beach as much as possible, to take additional advantage of the health benefits of grounding.
In fact, these days I rarely wear shoes unless I'm traveling. Typically, I wear shoes about three hours total per week. The rest of the time I'm barefoot, as I believe grounding to the earth is another foundational health aspect.
Walking 17,000 steps a day takes me about 1 3/4 hours of dedicated daily walking and the rest I gather by walking around my home. This can seem like quite a time investment but I started reading books on my Kindle while walking, so now I'm actually able to read two to three books or more each week, which is something I love to do but rarely could find the time to do.
As an added bonus, that walking time also provides me with plenty of sun exposure as I now live in the sunshine state of Florida.
Live and Play Like You Mean It...
While a healthy diet accounts for about 80 percent of the benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, exercise is the leverage that allows all of those benefits to be maximized. You simply cannot be optimally healthy without regular physical movement — and this includes both non-exercise movement throughout the day, and a more vigorous exercise regimen.
Finding ways to release the stresses of your day and getting enough sleep are also foundational components for health and well-being. The video above, featuring a Boston terrier named Rose, is a perfect example of "living life to the fullest." She has seemingly boundless energy, and the concentration and dedication with which she keeps a balloon in the air is really amazing. Ideally the best exercise is play and it is clear that Rose is doing that.
Please also notice that during her play her body is going through just about every range of motion it needs to maintain fitness. Ideally we can figure out a comparable activity in our own life. Frisbee and tennis are two of my favorites but still don't provide the range of motion benefits that Rose is getting.
My Current Fitness Routine
Many of you may not realize that my early life goal was to be an astronaut.
However, it's interesting to note that the routine scientists have determined to keep astronauts healthy in space is what I wound up doing for myself in a much more comfortable environment on planet Earth.
The two areas of health that coincide are sleep and exercise. Astronauts sleep for eight and a half hours, which is precisely my sleeping time. They also exercise for two and half hours. They need to exercise that long to counteract the effects of microgravity.
While we have the benefit of gravity on earth, I do believe that we benefit from that amount of movement and exercise activity each day and interestingly, that is at least how much I exercise every day. One hour and forty-five minutes of walking every day, fifteen minutes of swimming, and at least 30 minutes of stretching and exercise.
There's no doubt in my mind that nearly everyone can benefit from high-intensity exercise. But there are many ways to do it. Using fitness equipment such as an elliptical machine or stationary bike is one way (see demonstration below).
You can also do sand sprints, or high-intensity walking (for important safety advice and guidance, please follow the hyperlinks). Strength training is another important component, and you can also turn your strength training session into a high-intensity exercise by slowing down your movements (so-called super slow strength training).
Ideally, work with a fitness trainer if you're new to weight lifting. If you can't afford one, be sure to check out several different videos on each exercise on YouTube to get a good idea of the proper form. If your form is poor, you can easily injure yourself.
One way to prevent exercise injuries is a program developed by Gray Cook called Functional Movement System (FMS). I highly recommend getting an FMS assessment if you can, as it can tell you where your weaknesses are and allow you to customize a program around those weak areas to strengthen them without injuring yourself.
Ideally you should have a personal trainer to make sure your form is correct. However I realize many can't afford one so thankfully we have YouTube now and you can easily search just about any exercise and find hundreds of examples of how to do the exercise. Watch as many as you can and you will have a pretty good idea of what good form looks like.
My current workout incorporates kettlebells, which I demonstrate in the featured video. Unlike lifting a dumbbell, which keeps your center of gravity fixed, kettlebells incorporate movements that throw off your center of gravity and use your core muscles to keep you balanced.
The end result is a dynamic, whole-body exercise routine that incorporates cardiovascular, resistance, and range-of-motion training into one workout. Pavel Tsatsouline has written Kettlebell Simple and Sinister, which is likely the best book on this topic. It's available on Amazon. In the video above, I demonstrate my current kettlebell routine, which includes:
- Kettlebell swing: five sets of 20 repetitions
- Turkish get-ups: five on each side
Next, I do 10 reps of deadlifts using 170-pound free weights. This is probably the single best exercise to build strength. My goal is to deadlift 400 pounds by the end of this year. The key is to lift with your thighs and legs, not your back. It really is important to keep your chest forward and lift with your legs to prevent hurting your back.
The Importance of Stretching
Flexibility training is another important component. To achieve optimal fitness you really need to be able to move freely in all directions without any limitations to your range of motion (ROM), as this is what allows you to participate in all of life's wonderful activities.
Many fitness trainers still recommend stretching movements that last up to 60 seconds. For decades this prolonged static stretching technique has been the gold standard. Research shows prolonged static stretching actually decreases the blood flow within your tissue, creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply), and lactic acid buildup. This can potentially cause irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, as well as neural tissues.
Aaron Mattes, who has worked with tens of thousands of patients, including many Olympic and professional athletes, developed a program called active isolated stretching (AIS), which is a great way to warm up before exercise. AIS works with the primary laws of your body, allowing elongation of muscle and fascial tissue without eliciting your body's protective mechanisms that would inhibit safe, effective stretching and overall flexibility.
You use very gentle pressure and 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. You have to be careful not to use too much pressure so as not to engage the Golgi tendon and myotatic stretch, which act as safety mechanisms that if engaged will prevent the stretch from working. The keys to using AIS effectively include:
- First move the joint as far as you can in the direction of the stretch. This is the ACTIVE part of the exercise which activates the antagonistic muscles that inhibit the stretch. Many fail to do this and only passively stretch the muscle and that simply will not work. It is the most common mistake people make doing this work
- Stretch the muscle gradually with a GENTLE stretch of less than one pound of pressure toward the end point of ROM, and then hold it for TWO SECONDS
- Do NOT push through the stretch; instead do multiple stretches and with each stretch you get more ROM
- Usually you do sets of 10 reps
It is important to always return the area being stretched to the starting position before continuing the next repetition, as this will allow the tissue to receive blood that carries oxygen and nutrients through the movement of your lymphatic fluid, and it will also allow waste products generated during the stretch to be removed.
High-Intensity Interval Training Using an Elliptical
High-intensity interval exercises (HIIT) are far superior to typical aerobic cardio exercises. Unlike long, slow cardio, it engages your fast and super-fast twitch muscle fibers, which has many beneficial effects on the metabolic systems in your body.
By engaging these fast and super-fast twitch muscle fibers, HIIT promotes the production of human growth hormone (HGH), a synergistic, foundational biochemical underpinning that helps support your strength training and other exercises, so that they work to your advantage and help you burn off calories effectively. Benefits of HIIT include:
✓ Reduced body fat
✓ Firmer skin and less wrinkles
✓ Improved athletic speed and performance
✓ Dramatically improved muscle tone
✓ More energy and libido
✓ Rapid achievement of your fitness goals
The key to performing HIIT exercises properly is to raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold. Keep pushing at maximum effort for 30 seconds, and then rest for 90 seconds. Here's a summary of what a typical Peak Fitness routine might look like:
1. Warm up for three minutes.
2. Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. By the end of this 30-second period, you should reach these markers:
• You will be in oxygen debt, and will have difficulty breathing
• You will begin to sweat profusely. Typically, this occurs in the second or third repetition, unless you don't sweat much normally, which could be an indication of a thyroid issue
• There will be a rise in your body temperature
• You will feel a muscle "burn" as your lactic acid increases
3. Recover for 90 seconds.
4. Repeat the high-intensity exercise and recovery five to seven more times. If you're out of shape, start with just two or three repetitions, and work your way up to eight.