It is easier to train for a marathon than for general fitness. That might sound sacrilegious for the runners out there. But let me explain: of course marathon training likely takes more time, energy, and effort. But at least you know what you’re training for. You have a goal, checkpoints for how training is coming along, and feedback on whether you did too little, too much, or just the right amount.
General fitness is nebulous. So in these post, I want to outline my perspective on what actually matters when it comes to exercising for general health. This isn’t about performance, or training to run your fastest or lift the most weight. What follows are some myth-busting or clarity-bringing concepts around fitness for the general population:
Why I Hate Cardio
No, not the actual activities that people do for cardio, but the phrase “cardio.” All exercise is cardiovascular training. All training is muscular and neural.
When we reduce training to ‘cardio’ we overemphasize things like heart rate zones. Forget them (especially if you live in Houston, TX where the heat/humidity makes them just about useless). What I want you to think about instead is how easy or hard is it to breathe? Can you talk during the exercise or not?
This gives you an indicator of intensity or effort. The harder it is to talk, the more intense the workout is. As a heuristic, the easier the work, the longer it takes to develop our fitness in that area, but the longer-lasting it is. The easy work is like investing in a simple index fund. If you do so consistently over the long haul, your gains gradually increase.
The harder the workout is, the more it’s like taking riskier and riskier investments. Moderate difficulty in breathing is like picking individual company’s stocks. You might time it well, but you want to be selective on the risks you take. Extremely demanding workouts (for general fitness) are like investing crypto at the peak of its hype. Sure, maybe you get lucky and get a good bang for your buck, but more likely you end up broke.
So what should you do for aerobic endurance and overall health as gauged by your ability to talk:
- Full-on conversation effort: As many days in the week as you feel comfortable. 30-60 minutes each time.
- Text or Twitter-like conversation effort: Once every week or so. 5 to 20 minutes total per session. This can be split up.
- Angry significant other texting conversation (i.e. “ok” replies): Rare. More for the psychology of resetting your tolerance to discomfort. For general fitness, I like once every month.
What often happens is the average Joe spends a lot of time in the texting conversation zone, where exercise kind of sucks and the payoff is moderate. So they end up quitting. For beginners, to stay out of this middle zone, it might mean going on walks for a while until you’re able to jog without being out of breath. For experienced exercisers, you might be able to run or ride your bike at a decent clip and still have a full conversation. Listen to your body.
But, but… I can hear the CrossFitters tell me… HIIT (high-intensity interval training) gives us the best of both worlds, aerobic endurance and anaerobic capabilities!
No, it doesn’t. Interval training is icing on the cake. By itself, it can provide aerobic adaptations for the untrained who are doing little easy aerobic training. But it’s like the Pert Plus of workouts. I mean, technically it’s shampoo, conditioner, and soap all rolled into one, but it does each of those jobs really poorly. It’s much better to take the time to do each workout right, to maximize your gains in the right, and slow and patient, way.
And if you actually wanted to maximize the effects of interval training, you wouldn’t go until you puked. It’s why the general rule of thumb for middle-distance superstars is to “stop one rep short.”
Lifting Heavy Objects
Okay, so we understand that for general fitness, easy aerobic exercise is king. But strength and power also matter. Instead of strength, I want you to think about this in terms of muscle fiber recruitment.
Whenever we do any movement, our body recruits muscles to do the work. Within those muscles are a number of muscle fibers. We have different kinds of fibers that do different types of work better.
When we perform an exercise, our body likes to be efficient. So it tends to recruit just enough muscle fibers to accomplish the goal. There are some muscle fibers that are easy to recruit, last a long time, but don’t produce much power. And others that give us a big hit of power, are hard to recruit, and fatigue quickly. We categorize these on a spectrum of fast twitch to slow twitch.
With strength training for general fitness, our goal is to recruit the full spectrum of fibers.
For general fitness, especially as we age, it’s about maintaining strength, power, and balance. The goal isn’t necessarily to get jacked. It’s to make sure your body can utilize those harder-to-recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers. If we don’t remind our body that they are there, not only will strength and power dissipate at a muscular level, but also the electrical pathways from the brain to the muscle become like old, never repaired country roads.
So lift heavy things? Well, that’s one path towards accomplishing that goal. But it’s not the only one.
The key to general fitness is you want exercises that recruit a large amount of muscle mass. That means, full-body movements like squats, cleans, kettlebell swings, and so forth do a great job. There are two ways to increase the amount and kind of muscle fibers our body recruits.
We can increase the load, lifting heavy(ish) items so that the strength demand goes up. It’s as if our brain goes “This is heavy, call in the reserves!” The other way is to do exercises that require a lot of power. Think of sprinting. All you are ‘lifting’ is your own body weight. That load is not heavy. But because of the speed and power requirement of the movement, you are putting 4-5x your body weight of force into the ground with each step.
In order to put that much power into the ground, you’ve got to recruit a lot of muscle fibers.
So you’ve got options. Do something explosive and powerful or go lift something relatively heavy.
Finally, there’s one other general fitness item that becomes really important as you age: balance and coordination. This is also the simplest to train. Spend 5 minutes, a few times a week, practicing balancing on one leg, with eyes closed, and maybe even with some rotation or movement involved. As you age, incorporating various hops, skips, and jumps will help as well. It improves what we call proprioception, and allows you to have stability as you navigate the ground.
So what? For general fitness, you can either lift or sprint (or perform a similar power exercise):
- Lift objects. 1-2x a week. Prioritize big movements. For novices, light or moderate weight can suffice.
- Power! Sprinting is great. But if you haven’t for a while, build up to it. And to reduce injury risk, sprint up a hill. Once every 2 or so weeks. Low volume (4-6x 8 second long sprint with full recovery)
- Balance: 5 minutes a few times a week. Practice balancing or incorporating jumping rope, skipping, etc. This can be done as a warm-up.
Is this the be all end all for exercise? Of course not. If you are training for something, you want to be sure you are prepared for the demands of that activity. But if your goal is simply health and longevity as you age, keep it simple:
- Lots of easy movement.
- Occasionally moderately difficult.
- Lift some kinda heavy objects or do things that make you feel fast and powerful.
- Balance, move, and coordinate.
Or if you’d like to copy my own personal “stay fit” but not compete routine:
- 6+ days of 30-50 minutes of easy running
- At least one daily long walk with the dog
- One day a week: moderately hard workout. I alternate between ‘long’ workout (i.e., 2×10 minutes at a steady pace) and ‘short’ workout (i.e., 8x 1min moderately hard with 1 minute jog).
- Once every 2 weeks: I go find a hill to sprint up 6 to 8 times for only 8-10 seconds. Full recovery between the reps. Fatigue isn’t the key. Speed and power are.
- Two or so times a year: Very hard. Go see God. Go empty the well. Could be a race, hard workout, or other heavy effort. Just go remember what truly hard actually feels like.
That’s it. If I want to train for a race or to deadlift as much as you can or something different then the volume and intensity will go up. But for general fitness, you can’t beat: lots of easy; occasionally hard; and very rarely go visit God.
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