A Healthy Pause: A Different Take on the Best Exercise

One of my favorite pasttimes as a fitness professional is watching the cocktail party throwdown between rivals of different exercise trends. There's far more drama watching CrossFit square off against, say, P90X, than the Sharks and the Jets in the schoolyard. Throw in a little neo-modern Spinning and some Bikram yoga, and you have the makings for an urban gang war.

When people get turned on to particular forms of exercise, they can get a little possessive and territorial. And, to a point, I think that's fantastic. It means that the activity is having an effect far deeper than simply a flatter stomach and more toned arms. It's becoming a way of life.

I couldn't help thinking about all this when I saw a recent New York Times article titled "What's the Best Exercise?" It seemed like the author was just baiting a city full of well-educated and passionate exercise aficionados.

So what were the options for "best exercise"?

We start with the Butterfly swim stroke. But this was quickly labeled as “miserable, isolating, painful" -- and it requires a coach, a pool, and enough athletic ability that you don't end up injured. NOT a rave.

Next up, the burpee, or as some would call it, the squat-thrust. Again, great exercise, but fairly repetitive to the point where the exercise physiologists question whether anyone would actually stick with it.

Walking? The benefits of walking are many, particularly if you are starting a fitness routine or if you need an added calorie burn. I love to get people walking regularly; we have become a nation of compulsive sitters. But, as it has few benefits for regular exercisers, walking can't quite be "best."

The squat? Great exercise, working major muscle groups in the back, the legs and the glutes. But "best"? Hardly.

So now we come to high-intensity interval training (HIIT). I love this form of training. It's relatively brief but the benefits are incredible. The set-up is a series of intervals coupled with breaks for a period of a few minutes. The most finely crafted HIIT is called a Tabata (named after the Japanese researcher who ran the studio): four minutes of work broken up into eight cycles, with 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of low-intensity work or rest. This form of exercise can really be accomplished with any form of cardio: running, biking, stairs, plyometric exercises. The key is that you have to go all out for the intense period. No holding back.

So, yes, the HIIT is a great exercise. Best? Hmm.

The problem with calling for the "best" exercise is that it plays to people's desire for a silver bullet -- that one single, simple thing that will give them everything that they want and desire. So rather than the "best exercise," I'm going to give you the silver bullet.

Ready? The silver bullet is....

There is no silver bullet. What you want -- what you need -- is a healthy lifestyle. That includes eating smart and exercising regularly. So what's the best exercise? The best exercise is the one you are going to do, the one you are going to get passionate about and defend with your life at cocktail parties. It could be the one your best friend is doing, but if it's not, don't get all deflated and dejected. Keep trying out new things. You might find that it's Cardio-Discolicious-Funkalypso. Awesome! Keep it safe, keep it smart, keep it consistent. That's what's best for you. No brain, no gain!

And if you want to go butterfly, burpee, walk, squat or HIIT, go to it! More power to you! But find that thing that lights you up! And then ride that doggie for all it's worth!

So? What do you think is "best"? Let me know in the comments section below or hit me with your answer at michael@fitnessgurunyc.com.

Rock on!

Michael Feigin, MS, CSCS, is the owner of The Fitness Guru, a DUMBO, Brooklyn-based health and fitness company. For the last 25 years, Michael has helped thousands of New Yorkers (and folks from other parts of the world) achieve their health and fitness dreams.

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