By Dr. Mercola
Having been an avid exerciser for 48 years now, there's no doubt in my mind that a comprehensive fitness routine is essential for optimal health. Fitness is a continuous journey though. You never really reach the end of the road — until you're dead, that is.
The featured video is one I update each year for our Anniversary celebration week, as my views and recommendations are constantly evolving in this area.
It's important to take stock of where you are, and to keep pushing yourself to new heights. At the same time, you need to listen to your body and be willing to fine-tune or completely alter your routine as circumstances change.
I ran long distances for nearly 40 years, but as I got older, I realized there were far healthier and far more effective forms of exercise.
Once I began focusing on peak fitness high intensity interval training (HIIT), my fitness soared and my physique changed rather dramatically for the better. I'm still an avid fan of HIIT, but now I'm starting to incorporate more strength training, mobility work and functional exercises.
For reasons that vary from inactivity to improper workouts, most people will benefit from functional exercises that help you move about your life without pain and restriction.
Strength training also becomes increasingly important with advancing age, and I'm experiencing this first-hand. The moral of the story is to be willing to change and experiment to find what works best for you, and to continue experimenting as time goes on.
All of this and much more is detailed in my Fitness Plan which I launched today. Depending on your current fitness level, you can choose to follow the beginner, intermediate or advanced level, each of which includes Peak interval training, strength training and functional exercises. Click on the button below to get started.
How Exercise Benefits Your Body
A number of biological effects occur when you work out. This includes changes in your:
- Muscles, which use glucose and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for contraction and movement. To create more ATP, your body needs extra oxygen, so breathing and blood flow increases. Tiny tears in your muscles make them grow bigger and stronger as they heal.
- Lungs. As your muscles call for more oxygen, your breathing rate increases. Once the muscles surrounding your lungs cannot move any faster, you've reached what's called your VO2 max, your maximum capacity of oxygen use. The higher your VO2 max, the fitter you are.
- Heart. Your heart rate increases with physical activity to supply more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The fitter you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this, allowing you to work out longer and harder.
- Joints and bones, as exercise can place as much as five or six times more than your body weight on them. Weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis.
Your Brain Health Depends on Physical Exercise Too
You also need exercise for optimal brain health. There are in fact intriguing links between muscle growth and brain regeneration, also known as neurogenesis, which helps slow down or ward off cognitive loss. Mechanisms by which exercise produces beneficial changes in your brain include:
- Increasing Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which preserves existing brain cells1 and promotes development of new neurons, effectively making your brain grow larger.2
- Decreasing Bone-Morphogenetic Protein (BMP) and increasing Noggin. BMP reduces neurogenesis and Noggin is a BMP antagonist. By reducing the detrimental effects of BMP while boosting the more beneficial Noggin, your brain is able to retain its agility.3,4
- Reducing plaque formation: By altering the way damaging proteins reside inside your brain, exercise may help slow the development of Alzheimer's disease.5
- Triggering genetic changes, turning genes on or off. Many of these changes help protect against brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
- Triggering release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA. Some of these are well-known for their role in mood control and have mood boosting effects.
The Importance of Non-Exercise Movement
All of that said, before you even begin to consider putting together a regular exercise program, take stock of how much you move throughout each day. Do you sit down during work and commuting and then spend most of the evening on the couch?
More than 10,000 studies now show that sitting too much significantly deteriorates your health, even if you exercise regularly. If you think about it, why do we exercise in the first place? 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 luxury of grocery stores. They had to perform physical labor in order to secure food for the day. Nor did their work center around technology, chaining them to a desk for eight to 10 hours a day.
Our ancestors didn't have to "exercise" because they rarely sat down. They moved all day long, and research shows THIS is absolutely key for health. In fact, studies show that exercising several times per week does not counteract the adverse cardiovascular and metabolic effects of prolonged sitting.
So non-exercise movement is now recognized as a foundational piece for optimal health — even more so than a regimented fitness routine. Ideally, you'd do them both, but if you're currently sedentary, I recommend you start by sitting less. A fitness tracker can be a helpful tool. 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 purchased standup desks for all my staff at Mercola.com.
Squats — An Undervalued Exercise With Many Health Benefits
In this year's fitness update video, I demonstrate some of my favorite strength training exercises. These kinds of exercises provide great value as they promote mobility and balance, helping you complete real-world activities with ease. Squats are one of the best strength training exercises out there, and for good reason. After all, humans have been squatting since ancient times, so it's a foundational human movement.
Chairs and toilets have largely eliminated the need to squat, however, and if you don't compensate by doing squat exercises, you can lose a great deal of functionality. In fact, the inability to perform a proper squat can give you important clues about your current fitness and mobility.
If you have to rise up on your toes in order to squat down, your hip extensors and/or hamstrings are likely too tight, suggesting you need to work on improving your hip flexibility. If your knees buckle inward upon lowering or raising yourself up, your hamstrings and glutes are weak.
Squats help strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and ankles, making you more stable on your feet. But they also provide a number of other health-boosting benefits, including building and strengthening muscles throughout your body by triggering the release of testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH), which support all-over muscle development.
Building your leg muscles can also increase fat burning, as muscles use more calories even when they're not being worked. For every 10 pounds of muscle you gain, you burn about 500 to 700 more calories per day than before, and your leg muscles are among the largest or bulkiest in your body.
Squats also help tone and tighten your buttocks and abs, and help build muscles that participate in the regulation of glucose, lipid metabolism and insulin sensitivity, which in turn helps prevent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease,6 diabetes and obesity. Doing squats can also induce more regular bowel movements by improving fecal movement through your colon.
How to Perform a Basic Squat
Many elderly and those with knee problems tend to shy away from squats, thinking they're too destructive on the knees, but there's really no need to avoid them. Research7 shows that when done with proper form, squats actually improve knee stability and strengthen connective tissue. So just make sure you're doing them properly and avoid using weights, which places extra stress on your knees.
The best book I have ever read on how to squat properly is "Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe. He spends nearly 100 pages in detailed instruction and pictures on how to do it properly. He also covers deadlifts and overhead press, which is better than the bench press (which is also reviewed). I demonstrate safe squatting technique in the featured video, but here are some key points to remember:
- Stand with your feet just over shoulder width apart and your feet externally rotated around 30 to 45 degrees
- Make sure the bar is at the right height, which is the upper part of your sternum (breast bone). Unless you are a competitive body builder, always warm up with an empty bar
- Keep a narrow grip when you grab the bar as this will lock the bar into your back better by helping you contract your back muscles
- Grab the bar without wrapping your thumb around it and be sure to keep your elbows high behind you as this will further lock the bar to your back
- Keep your chest forward, and keep your knees centered over your feet
- It is important to look down and push your chin back to put your spine into the correct position
- Slowly bend your knees, hips and ankles, lowering until you reach a 90-degree angle, then return to starting position. Be careful to externally rotate your knees as there is a common tendency for your knees to collapse inward
- Breathe in as you lower yourself down; breathe out as you return to starting position. When you raise yourself, it is important to keep your chest out and move your pelvis up first. "Starting Strength" has excellent photos that can walk you through all these steps
- There are many options for choosing how many reps to do. I currently do five and keep increasing the weight until I reach my maximum, which is typically three or four sets
The Deadlift — Another Awesome Functional Exercise
Strength-training exercises are quite possibly the most important type of exercise to keep you fit. The older you are, the more important they become because without them, your muscle tone and strength will decrease with each passing year. Like squats and lunges, deadlifts are a functional strength exercise that should be a regular part of your strength training workout.
As with squats, doing deadlifts can help strengthen your knees and posterior chain, provided you do them correctly. Research has shown doing deadlifts twice a week helps improve the torque capacity in both your knee extensors and flexors, which in turn improves your speed and power to perform explosive movements, such as vertical jumps.8
This is useful if you're active in sports or do plyometric exercises, but it's also important for maintaining your body's capacity for functional movement. Deadlifts also work all of your posterior chain muscles, including your low back, glutes, hamstrings and calves. Ignoring these muscles can actually contribute to deteriorating knee function.
Among people with low back pain, properly performed deadlifts have been found to decrease pain intensity and increase activity levels.9 A second study found that both men and women improved their strength by performing deadlifts twice a week. Those who benefited the most were women who had never done them before.10
The take-home message is that while deadlifts might seem intimidating, they're an exercise that even beginners can, and should, take advantage of. As with all exercise, start slow, using a manageable amount of weight, and gradually increase it as you grow stronger. If you cannot maintain proper form, decrease the weight you're using.
Safety Precautions When Performing Deadlifts
I recommend performing deadlifts with a qualified personal trainer. Anytime you lift a heavy weight, you run the risk of hurting your back if it's not done properly. Deadlifts are incredibly effective, but proper form is imperative. For a demonstration, please see the featured video. To protect your spine, be sure your abdominal muscles are engaged (i.e., pull in your belly button). This engages a muscle in your lower spine called the thoracic lumbar fascia, which will help protect your back.
I used to use a pair of wrist straps when lifting weights over 275 or 300 pounds, but the "Starting Strength" book convinced me this was a bad idea and will not help build grip strength. The strap can help prevent your wrist from being pulled into excessive extension, though, as well as help you keep proper form and avoid injury or a failed lift.
If you don't have access to a barbell but still want to benefit from deadlifts, dumbbells are an option. They may actually be better for beginners, and if you have your own set you can use them at home. On the downside, dumbbells will not allow you to lift nearly as much weight as you can with a barbell, so eventually you'll probably need to make the switch.
To Maximize Your Fitness Benefits, Address Your Nutrition
If you're staying active and exercising regularly but still struggle with weight or health issues, the culprit is probably your diet. Contrary to popular belief, you simply cannot out-exercise your mouth. If your diet is poor, you will not be able to reap the maximum benefits of your fitness efforts.
In fact, your diet may account for as much as 80 percent of the benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, with exercise accounting for the remaining 20 percent. It's an important 20 percent, no doubt, but nutrition lays the groundwork upon which everything else is built.
If I were to summarize healthy eating in its most basic form, I would say it's about eating REAL FOOD. Doing so will help you avoid the most serious pitfalls. However, the devil is in the details, and if you're serious about optimizing your health, you'd be wise to take the time to understand some of the finer details of what makes for a healthy diet. To help you with this, I've created a detailed and comprehensive Nutrition Plan.
Take Control of Your Health With My Updated Nutrition Plan
I issued my first optimized Nutrition Plan nearly a decade ago. Since then, I've updated it as needed based on changes in our food environment and the weight of the scientific evidence. It is now significantly improved and contains a number of updates and clarifications. One of the most important facets of eating for optimal health is to understand how to nourish and support your mitochondria (the little power stations in your cells) and this has been the focus of my latest revision.
If you're new to this plan, there's a section dedicated to helping you evaluate your current starting position. The plan itself is then divided into Level 1 and 2. If you're new to this website and you're not yet fully familiar with my health recommendations, you'll probably want to start at Level 1.
If you've already implemented most of my health advice, then you can proceed to Level 2. The second level is also recommended if you have a serious medical condition and are looking for more extensive measures to promote health and healing, although you still need to implement the recommendations in Level 1.
You'll know you're ready to move on to Level 2 once the health indicators listed are in their optimal ranges. Even if you have previously read it, I would strongly recommend reviewing the revised Nutritional Plan whenever your schedule allows. It is a very detailed and comprehensive program — it's basically an entire book, in multi-media format, and has many informative videos as well.
Consider Using a Nutrient Tracker When Implementing the Nutrition Plan
Once you have the basic knowledge laid out in my Nutrition Plan and want to make sure you're actually meeting your nutritional requirements and maintaining the ideal nutrient ratios, a nutrient tracker can be an invaluable tool. Basically, the Nutritional Plan is what you follow; the nutrient tracker is how you follow the plan.
While there are many nutrient trackers on the market, I believe www.cronometer.com/mercola is the most accurate and best nutrient tracker available. Like my Nutrition Plan, this nutrient tracker is completely free. Cronometer is a really powerful tool that will provide you with a detailed analysis of what you're eating.
I worked with the developer, Aaron, for months to modify and optimize the program for nutritional ketosis, so based on the base parameters you enter, such as height, weight, body fat percentage and waist circumference, it will automatically calculate the ideal ratios of net carbs, protein and healthy fats (including your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) to put you into nutritional ketosis.
This is what will allow your body to start burning fat as its primary fuel rather than sugar, which in turn will help optimize your mitochondrial function and overall health and fitness. Nutritional ketosis can also be a valuable adjunct to just about any disease prevention or treatment program, including those for cancer.
The Importance of Sleep
Besides nutrition, sleep is another important facet that will influence your health and fitness. My own fitness strategy involves using a Fitness Ring to help me monitor not only my daily steps but also my sleep time and sleep quality. 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.
A 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. 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. While gadgets such as these are not required, they can be helpful if used properly. The chief aim is to start and end your day well-rested and relaxed.
Exercise Leverages Other Healthy Lifestyle Changes
While diet accounts for a majority of the health benefits you get from a healthy lifestyle, exercise is the ultimate "leveraging agent" that kicks all those benefits up a notch. The earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards, but it's never too late to start. Even seniors can improve their physical and mental health — not to mention physical function — by starting up an appropriate exercise program.
Strength training and functional exercises such as squats and deadlifts are particularly important for the elderly, in order to maintain strong bones and physical functionality. Overall, Peak Fitness really helps maximize the health benefits of exercise while simultaneously being the most efficient and therefore requiring the least amount of time, so I strongly encourage you to include some form of high intensity exercises in your program as well.
At bare minimum, avoid sitting as much as possible, and make it a point to walk more every day. Researchers have clearly identified sitting as an independent risk factor for chronic disease, increasing your mortality risk from ALL causes. So standing up more and engaging in non-exercise movement as much as possible is just as important for optimal health as having a regular fitness regimen.
Remember to visit my Fitness Plan, which goes hand-in-hand with my Nutrition Plan. It's customized based on your particular fitness level and offers a large range of fitness tips, tactics, and strategies you can start to utilize today.