“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” – John F. Kennedy
Your body is a mailable tool that can serve as a constraint or a facilitator. Anyone who’s ever been sick understands how connected our bodies are to our physical and cognitive performance. The good news is that you can take steps to sharpen this tool and optimize it for maximal performance. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts, pills or magic potions that substitute for the time and hard work required to get your body into its optimal state.
In this post, I will outline some basic steps that almost everyone can take to improve their physical fitness. I strongly recommend you read my previous blogposts in my “Health & Wellness Series” and master/implement the content therein before attempting to implement the content of this post.
Exercise vs. Physical Activity
I’d like to make a distinction between two terms, physical activity and exercise. Physical activity is a broad category that includes any type of movement such as walking, running, biking, stretching, playing sports, etc. Exercise is a more specific type of physical activity that is measurable. If we want to improve our physical fitness, we need to be able to measure our current state and compare it to a future state. Exercise allows us to do this by quantifying our progress. For example, if you can only do 5 pushups today and are able to increase this number to 10 in two weeks, you have essentially doubled your capacity/strength in this domain. Tracking progress is very important because it allows us to quantify our progress in real terms.
Hormesis and Stress Adaptation
You get stronger through a biological process called hormesis. Hormesis is the process of your body adapting to stress. It’s important to understand that your body wants to optimize its energy usage by only recruiting resources when it absolutely has to. The demands that you place on your body will dictate how your body will restructure itself to meet those demands. For example, if you sit in front of the computer for eight hours per day and proceed to drive home and sit in front of your television for another four hours while eating junk food, your body will respond by reducing your muscle mass and increasing your fat reserves. If your job involves lugging heavy concrete blocks for twelve hours a day, your body will restructure itself to add muscle mass and reduce fat stores. Exercise creates the necessary stress that your body requires to restructure itself and meet future stress demands.
Creating a Fitness Baseline
I recommend that everyone perform at least 3 exercises every day using their own body weight in order to build a fitness base. I compare this activity to brushing your teeth. It is the basic maintenance required to prevent physical degradation and to keep a baseline level of fitness. The three exercise are 1) full-range of motion squats 2) pushups 3) crunches. Why these specific exercises? These three exercises will target most major muscle groups in your body, are relatively easy and quick to perform and can be done anywhere. They minimize the barriers to entry for exercising and give you very good results for the amount of time and energy invested (total exercise time is less than 10-15 min per day).
If you’re new to working out or haven’t worked out in a considerable amount of time, I recommend you start with 5-10 pushups, 5-10 squats and 10-20 crunches per day. You can increase these numbers as you become more accustomed to the exercises. It’s always better to start low and go slow.
Full Range of Motion Squats
The squat is a compound exercise, which means that it targets multiple muscle groups. The main muscles targeted by full range of motion squats are the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, gluteus, calves, hip flexors and abdominals.
To perform a squat correctly, you should start in a standing position with your legs spread slightly wider than your shoulders and your feet pointing outwards at about a 45° angle. Your hands should be placed behind your head or directly above your head. You should try to maintain a straight back while performing the exercise and make sure that your knees don’t go too far past your feet when you’re in the sitting position of the squat. The down and up phase of the exercise should take at least 3 seconds each. You can take a slight 1-2 second pause at the bottom of the squat to increase the difficulty.
The pushup is another great compound exercise. The main muscle groups worked during a pushup are the pectoralis major (chest), deltoids, triceps brachii, serratus anterior, abdominals and coracobrachialis.
To perform a pushup correctly, you should start in a plank position but with your arms fully extended. Your arms should be perpendicular to your body and form a 90° angle with your body. The arms should be moderately wider than your shoulders. Your back and legs should form a straight line and you should maintain this alignment during all phases of the pushup. Your feet can either be placed together or spread apart depending on whether you want to increase or decrease the difficulty, respectively. Your toes should be curled and you should be pushing off of the toes to maintain the starting position. The downward phase of the pushup should take at least 3 seconds and you should come to a stop when your upper and lower arm form a 90° angle. Your chest should be close to the ground but never touching the ground. The upward phase should take at least 3 seconds and terminate when your arms are almost fully extended (don’t lock your elbows out). You can take a 1-2 second pause at the bottom of the pushup to increase the difficulty.
The standard crunch is an ideal exercise for targeting the rectus abdominus, or the muscles that make up your “six-pack.” It should be a part of everyone’s workout as it strengthens the core which is essential to almost all other exercises and movements.
To perform a crunch correctly, you should start by laying on your back with your legs bent at the knees. Your feet should maintain complete contact with the floor while being extended as far away from your torso as possible. Your hands should be placed behind your ears and maintained in the same plane as you perform the exercise. You should never pull with your hands or lead with your neck as this can cause neck strain and reduce the efficacy of the crunch. The upward and downward phases should each take at least 3 seconds. You can hold for 1-3 seconds at the top of the crunch to increase difficulty. You don’t need to come up a lot in order for this exercise to be maximally effective.
Train for Your Goal
So now that you are doing your daily baseline workout, you need to add exercise that will help get you into your optimal condition. So what should you do? Swim? Bike? Weight train? Cross fit?
You should first establish a goal and then choose the type of exercise that will best help you reach that goal. For example, I practice jiujitsu on a regular basis and one of my goals is to constantly improve my skillset within this sport. This includes learning new techniques, refining techniques I already know and increasing strength, movement and flexibility required to perform those techniques optimally. So my exercise plan might look drastically different from your exercise plan as your goals might focus around a completely different activity/sport.
Generally, the best way to get better at activity X is to practice activity X. If you want to become a better swimmer, swim. If you want to become a better runner, run. I think this is self-evident. If you do supplement with strength/weight training for your sport, make sure what you’re doing is bringing you closer to your goal and isn’t counterproductive. Bodybuilders don’t make good swimmers and swimmers don’t make good bodybuilders.
Tracking Your Progress
Tracking is IMPORTANT! Track your progress so you can evaluate your progress. You can do this in a spreadsheet or with pen and paper. The important thing is that you actually do it! People that track their progress have better results and lower failure rates, period!
I hope this post gave you some insight and actionable materials for the exercise domain. Exercise is a hard topic to cover as it’s so customizable and specific to each person. I do offer heath and wellness planning, with exercise as a part of that plan. If you’d like a customized health and wellness plan, contact me for more info.
I would like to recommend one book which I found extremely useful in my quest for the best way to train and exercise. The book is “Body by Science: A Research Based Program for Strength Training, Body building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week by John Little and Doug McGuff.” I have zero affiliations with the authors or the book.
As always, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please feel free to comment below.