Almost as confusing as what to eat is how to exercise.
There are so many programs out there and so much dogma it can be a bit overwhelming knowing where to start. Running is best. Bodybuilding is best. CrossFit is best. Body Pump is best. Cycling is best. Swimming is best. So on and so forth.
So, what program is the “best”? Well, sorry, there is no “best” program.
I don’t even like the word “exercise”. It carries with it a bit of a negative connotation and oftentimes invokes negative feelings such as physical discomfort, guilt (because of not doing it), pressure (because I’m supposed to exercise this day or that day or this way or that way). Yes, for some, it is something to look forward to but I would argue most people see it as something uncomfortable or unsustainable for the long run. I know I should be exercising but….
We are now mid-February. Roughly 90% or more of people who made New Year’s resolutions to “getting in shape” or sticking with a particular program have dropped out by now.
Why do we feel the need to view exercise as some regimented “program”? Regimented and dogmatic programs only set up people for failure and oftentimes encourage people to push limits they shouldn’t push. Yes, it is a good thing to push yourself from time to time in the right context or setting but this strange mentality of “no pain no gain” has left us with a nation full of “exercise” failures and injuries because very few people can follow a strict program for years due to burnout and/or injury and just the overall craziness of life and jammed packed schedules.
As a society we really need to step back and really analyze this strange definition and thought process we’ve developed in regards to exercise. For example, there are a lot of runners out there. I am a “former” competitive runner. I know of so many people who will do a “couch to 5K” sort of program. The intentions behind this are pure and good—gradually build up and get in shape with the goal of completing a 5K. The first and most obvious issue with a program such as this is there is an end date. The end date is the day of the 5K, whether this is an organized race or whatever the case may be. What is the plan after this 5K? Most people I know who do a program like this do not continue running and training after he/she has reached the 5K goal. The second most obvious issue with a program like this is it’s completely ineffective and maybe even counter effective for weight loss and health. Running is a terrible way to try and lose weight (this could be an entire blog post on its own but reference my post on chronic cardio). Also, these planned programs (whether this is a running program, some sort of group class, P90X) typically follow a fairly stringent workout schedule meant to keep you working out and building endurance to reach some sort of end goal. Too often people are sacrificing health in order to follow this schedule. They might be sacrificing sleep, working out when exhausted, working out when sick, missing important family or social time or whatever just to follow a particular program. This leads to burnout, injury, weakened immune system making the individual more susceptible to illness, and missed social times with friends in family.
As I alluded to above, exercise often carries some negative feelings along with it and also suggests it is a planned and regimented activity. I prefer to describe exercise using terms such as “movement” and “physical activity” because this can easily be incorporated into everyday life. The Primal Fitness approach, as I’ve explained before, is:
- Move frequently as a slow pace. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were always on the move hunting, foraging, gathering supplies. Sitting and doing nothing for extended periods of time would have surely led to demise of the human race. Unfortunately, our modern society sits and does nothing for extended periods of time. I think the side effects speak for themselves. Try and move every hour you are awake during the day. Avoid extended periods of time just sitting and doing nothing. Walk whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether at work or at home. Park further out at the grocery store. Buy a FitBit or something similar and try and hit 10,000 steps a day. There isn’t anything magical about the 10,000-step mark but if you hit this every day it suggests you are being active continually all day long which is positively associated with good health and longevity.
- Lift Heavy Things. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were in great physical condition as anthropological research has revealed. As with moving, having a strong body was vital to survival of our species. Our genes are programmed for physical labor. Our society has become much more technologically advanced along with more and more “white collar” jobs which has decreased the amount of jobs requiring true physical labor. Unless we purposefully do activities involving physical labor, aka “lift heavy things”, we will quickly lose muscle as we age which sets us up for all sorts of ailments and injuries. More and more research points to the benefits of strength training throughout the aging continuum. Going into your older, twilight years with a strong physical body could be the difference between falling and breaking a hip or falling and straining your wrist a little bit because you caught yourself and broke the fall! Lifting heavy things doesn’t have to mean a 5 day a week bodybuilding regimen at Gold’s Gym. Even two days a week of basic Primal movements (a variation of bodyweight squats, push-ups, pull-ups and planks) will have positive effects. Even as you progress it is not necessary to do strength training more than 2-3 days/week for more than 20-40 minutes. It is quite possible to get a great strength training workout in as little as 5-10 minutes utilizing these basic techniques! As with most everything I suggest, KEEP IT SIMPLE.
- Sprint once in a while. Sprinting is awesome. It is awesome because it takes such little time, makes you feel amazing when you do it and has lasting positive effects almost unmatched by any other type of “cardio”. As with slow movement and being strong, we are genetically designed to sprint. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to sprint for 2 main reasons: to catch prey or avoid being prey. When we sprint, there are multiple positive hormonal responses that take place that help burn fat for hours after the sprint session and helps to mold our body composition to a favorable one that is lean while maintaining muscle. Multiple studies show that short sprinting or interval sessions also build endurance similar to long and drawn out cardio sessions in a fraction of the time and with no negative effects! Why not get the best bang for your buck while avoiding all the pitfalls of chronic cardio? Just think of what a sprinter looks like (lean and muscular) compared to a typical marathon runner (skinny, little to no muscle, sometimes has a belly despite running all those miles). Sprinting should be done infrequently—probably about every 7-10 days or so— and if you have any health issues you need to clear it with your medical provider. That being said, there are no “rules” with sprinting really. Go out and walk. Maybe do a little dynamic stretching (stretch a little while you are moving, NOT static stretching). When you are good and warm simply SPRINT! This might be 5 seconds or 35 seconds…it doesn’t really matter and will vary depending on the person. After you sprint then walk and catch your breath. Repeat a few times and then you are done. At this point you will feel tired but will feel awesome! For most people the entire session of warming up, sprinting, and walking back home will take well under 20 minutes but the positive effects of this last for days. I don’t know about you but that sounds better than running 5 miles a day for several days a week! Also, sprinting doesn’t have to be running, it can be done on an exercise bike, elliptical machine, rower, etc.
- Play. Incorporating play into our life is vital! As kids we don’t have to be taught this. We run, jump, climb, ride bikes, get dirty, invent some game, play neighborhood basketball/baseball/football and just keep on playing. For some reason our society tells us when we grow up we are all business and no play. We need to hone our “inner child” a bit more and learn how to play and be spontaneous. Play counts as exercise! It is hard to wrap our minds around this since our society is so regimented when it comes to exercise. If you get home from work and go outside and play some basketball with your kids and then go for a bike ride to the park that counts as a “workout”. Play on the playground with your kids, climb a tree, whatever—it all counts and is good for you! Also, be open to other activities like adult softball league or basketball league as these are not only a good form of exercise but promotes good social interaction.
As you can see, “exercise” doesn’t have to be an overly military style approach with rules and strict schedules that are impossible to stick with and potentially detrimental to your health, well-being and social life. That being said, I am not against people who truly desire the more structured and intense workouts if it is done in the right fashion. I know plenty of people who enjoy vigorous workouts like CrossFit or Body Pump and derive benefit from group activities (I trail run with a group of guys a couple times a month and enjoy the social aspect to it as well as being in the woods). If you enjoy these group workouts then by all means continue do them as long as you are doing it smartly—allow adequate rest, optimizing nutrition and sleeping well.
What is an example of a weekly “exercise” routine for someone following a Primal approach? It involves lots of slow movement every day. This means walking as much as possible, taking the stairs, parking further out, setting a FitBit reminder to get up from your desk and walk every 30-60 minutes, going for a walk around the neighborhood. Two to three days a week it means doing a few sets of squats, push-ups, pull ups and planks. If a person is a bit more advanced he/she might do more advanced strength training techniques. This may or may not be a set time set aside to do these exercises. It can be while cooking dinner you do a set of squats every couple of minutes. Or while doing laundry or watching TV you get down and do a set or two of push-ups. It doesn’t matter how you schedule it, just that you DO it. On Saturday morning, after a good night’s sleep, you go out for and walk and stretch out a little bit. Maybe you walk to a high school football field or another grassy area. After you are warm you sprint 50-100 yards and then walk for a while until you recover then do it a few more times and then go home. Maybe you throw in a few push-ups and squats and pull ups at the playground at the park by where you just sprinted. Several days a week you take every opportunity to play. Fun bike rides, swimming at the pool, playing with your kids outside, going for a hike, climbing a tree, playing on the playground with your kids, a pick-up basketball game, etc. Join in on these opportunities as much as possible.
So that’s really it. Nothing magical or overly complicated. If you practice these basic Primal Fitness habits and combine it with eating real food and avoiding toxic food, sleeping well and managing stress you will be well on your way to optimum health and general awesomeness. If you’ve tried workout program after workout program and it isn’t working or you can’t stick with it then quit taxing yourself and take a more sensible approach that is EFFECTIVE and SUSTAINABLE. Those two aspects are typically missing in most workout programs but come naturally as part of living a Primal lifestyle.