In pillars of wellness Part 2: Exercise we’ll discuss how to incorporate exercise and movement into your general wellness plan. The 2 basic pillars essential for developing optimal wellness would be nutrition and exercise/movement. For these pillars I’m not talking about highly specialized dietary recommendations or a daily brutal exercise routine, I want to introduce the basic building blocks that will eventually allow you to maintain wellness effortlessly.
Exercise should not be torture and choosing healthy food should not cause a panic attack. We’ve already discussed food, let’s move on to exercise. The goal with exercise is to discover how much you need, you shouldn’t be trying to do as much as possible. Once you’ve established how much exercise you can do without being in pain for a week or sustaining regular injuries, do that once a week and try easier exercises throughout the week.
Avoid over exercise
The idea of no pain, no gain is nonsense. This perspective causes injuries, alienates people trying to adopt healthier habits, and can reward the most devout individual with chronic disease, regular sinus infections, and sickness. Mark Sisson, of Primal Blueprint fame, developed all kinds of chronic health conditions on his journey to become an elite athlete and professional triathlon competitor. I’ve also worked with novice bodybuilders looking for relief from gastric reflux, irritable bowel disease, and other gastrointestinal upset. Like Mark Sisson, once this individual found a more balanced exercise routine and a nutrition plan he could easily adopt, he had more physical gains and felt better!
The 2 major types of over exercise typically involve cardio and daily regimented strength training. The problem with over exercise is that it activates the stress response for a prolonged period. Being in a fight-or-flight response for a short period is not a bad thing and can be highly beneficial. When you are in the fight-or-flight response for a prolonged period the cardiovascular system is working overtime, adrenals struggle to keep up with demands, cortisol levels remain elevated, and inflammation occurs throughout the body.
What’s wrong with running?
If done correctly, running can be a great health-promoting activity. The problem is that almost no one does it correctly and I’m not talking about running form. You might ask, “If this is the case then why do some people thrive?” Some athletes can grow and thrive practicing any exercise, they won the genetic lottery (cue confetti!). Other individuals improve their cardiovascular function, have a lower heart rate, and increased blood volume (a good thing) after years of torture and injury. Even under the best circumstances, people in the “other” category can develop chronic joint tears, are prone to muscle injuries, and get sick regularly. There is a better way.
The right way to run
You want to run in a way that builds your core fitness and doesn’t throw your body into the fight-or-flight stress response. The idea is that if you work within a certain cardiovascular range, you can recover quickly and not overly expend resources. Essentially, you are staying within your allostatic threshold for fitness. As you exercise within this zone, you can gradually run longer distances without exceeding your threshold and activating your fight-or-flight stress response. Exercising like this will maximize physical gains, support cardiovascular health, strengthen joints and muscles, and promote a favorable hormone balance.
You want to stay within your aerobic threshold. To do this, you will need a heart monitor and to find your maximum aerobic heart rate. Using the Maffetone formula, an estimation of your maximum aerobic heart rate is 180 – age in beats per minute. I’m 38 as of writing this article, so that would put me at 180 – 39 = 141. If I were to attempt cardio as a sport, 141 is the heart rate I wouldn’t exceed while training.
What about strength training?
As with cardio, all things in moderation. I find that strength training is a little more forgiving because when your body’s had enough you lose the ability to do the exercise. Although there are people that will strength train every day and develop similar issues to individuals doing chronic cardio. I’m all about doing the least amount of exercise necessary to maximize benefits and maintain my health. As long as I can chase my kids up a tree and climb rocks with them, I’m happy. Otherwise, I would seek a routine that keeps me uncomfortable but doesn’t cause injury or put me at risk of injury. I do a single round of strength training per week, I wouldn’t recommend over 3 days of weekly strength training.
As long as you exercise with proper form and exercise to exhaustion, not to failure, you should be in good shape. I prefer the Primal Essential Movements as my main strength training routine, I also practice martial arts. Sometimes I will use the gym and perform complex movements like squat presses, dumbbell chest press, pull-ups, and planks, then I repeat 2–3 times. I spend so little time in the gym as I leave I usually wave at the same people who saw me walk in.
To CrossFit or not to CrossFit?
Other individuals prefer a more challenging routine like CrossFit and I have no problem with CrossFit but it is up to you regulate how much you can handle. Often people will get initial benefits because their body will naturally prevent over exercise and gradually notice less benefit as they gain the ability to push past their limits. I regularly have clients who achieve their health goals after they take a step back and become more mindful of their limits. The benefits of exercise manifest with recovery and rebuilding, not with exercise. Once you take a recovery and rebuilding perspective, you will notice significantly more benefit with less work.
What is high-intensity interval training (HIIT)?
HIIT is any exercise you do at max intensity for a short period, with short breaks in between. You would typically pick 4 exercises or 1 whole body exercise (I’m looking at you burpees…) do them to max exertion for 30, 60 or 90 seconds, rest for double the interval (60, 120 or 180 seconds) and repeat (3 sets of 4 exercises, or 12 times for a single exercise). You can do this routine with weights and/or calisthenics. If you incorporate weights, make sure to only include exercises that are safe, won’t cause injury, and will allow you to transition easily to the next exercise.
The benefits of HIIT
One of the best ways to maximize your time and effort. HIIT will put your body in an anaerobic state for a short period and acutely stimulate the stress response in a way that’s beneficial for your body. This short anaerobic stint promotes the same angiogenesis and increase in aerobic capacity as long duration, moderate intensity exercise (2). HIIT also promotes mitochondria production and shifts the body to burning fat instead of carbohydrates for fuel. Unlike low–moderate intensity exercise, HIIT stimulates the metabolism in a way that promotes fat burning throughout the day. There are also neurological benefits including an increase in hippocampal neurogenesis (short-term memory cells), improved brain plasticity, and improved cognitive functioning (1, 4).
How to HIIT
As I alluded to earlier, there are many ways to create your own HIIT. The list below is just to get you started. For all exercises below, you want to go for 30, 60 or 90 seconds on with 60, 120 or 180 seconds rest in between.
- Burpees: 30 seconds on 60 seconds rest X 12
- Jump rope, treadmill, exercise bike, elliptical, etc: 30 seconds on 60 seconds rest X 12
- Swim one lap as fast as possible, break for double the time it took to swim the lap X 12.
- Primal Essential Movements: Squats, Push-ups, Pull-ups, Mountain Climbers (planks don’t fit with HIIT) for 30, 60 or 90 seconds with 60, 120 or 180 seconds rest in between (4 exercise cycles X 3).
Benefits of sprinting
A sprinting routine is like a HIIT routine, although you typically don’t do as many reps. The difference between sprinting and HIIT is that sprinting is even higher intensity. Sprint intervals, which are all out, can work the body at > 160% VO2 Max, whereas HIIT can tax the body at 90–120% VO2 Max.
For sprinting, you usually you will do 6 rounds of sprints at maximum effort for 8–20 seconds and rest from 1 minute to as much as needed between sprints. Sprints work nearly every muscle in the body, promote explosive strength, and promotes a favorable hormone response. Sprints are also especially good for building thigh, butt, and abdominal muscles. The benefits of sprinting are also similar to HIIT, except evidence indicates that sprinting may superior for fat loss (3).
Are there sprint alternatives?
Any exercise or exercise equipment where you can go all out on will work, I did not include treadmills here because you can only run as fast as the treadmill will allow. The following options are great alternatives if you are self-conscious about running all out, are afraid of falling/tripping or maybe the weather conditions are awful.
Some examples include:
- Elliptical (high resistance as hard as possible)
- Exercise bike (comfortable resistance as hard as possible)
- Jump rope
- Suicides (If you are limited in outdoor space)
What is the ideal exercise balance?
For almost everyone, you would want 1 session of strength/HIIT training, 1 day of yoga/Tai Chi/running and 1 day of sprinting. I have found this balance to maximize my strength development and not high jack my brain for days on end. You could work up to 2 days of strength/HIIT and leave the rest the same, if this gets easy then it is time to increase the difficulty, not the frequency.
Outside of this, you want to be taking regular walks just to unwind and move. You don’t have to power walk, just get outside and smell the air, feel the sun, pay attention to the sounds of nature, feel the ground or concrete under your feet, and let yourself unwind. If I don’t walk at least once, I’m a wound-up mess by the end of the day.
My specific Exercise routine:
Wednesday–Chen style Tai Chi
Every day–Walk 2–5 miles
- Afzalpour, M. E., Chadorneshin, H. T., Foadoddini, M., & Eivari, H. A. (2015). Comparing interval and continuous exercise training regimens on neurotrophic factors in rat brain. Physiology & behavior, 147, 78-83.
- Gibala, M. J., Little, J. P., MacDonald, M. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2012). Physiological adaptations to low‐volume, high‐intensity interval training in health and disease. The Journal of physiology, 590(5), 1077-1084.
- Naves, J. P. A., Viana, R. B., REBELO, A. C. S., De Lira, C. A. B., Pimentel, G. D., Lobo, P. C. B., … & Gentil, P. (2018). Effects of high-intensity interval training vs sprint interval training on anthropometric measures and cardiorespiratory fitness in healthy young women. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 1738.
- Neeper, S. A., Góauctemez-Pinilla, F., Choi, J., & Cotman, C. (1995). Exercise and brain neurotrophins. Nature, 373(6510), 109.