How to Exercise for Optimal Health and Longevity – a Guide

How do you get it?

The way you exercise has probably been influenced by a smorgasbord of factors. Hopefully you have figured something out based on an assessment of your goals, your lifestyle, and your individual needs. All great!

Wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that you are covering yourself from a health and longevity perspective, too?

Broadly what is optimal is the same for all of us: a lower body fat, strong muscles, being flexible and supple in our movements, and having our workouts energize us and redress any imbalances created in our lifestyles.  

There are actually three types of exercise you need in order to stay healthy from an all-purpose perspective, and minimum amounts you need of each. 

(Exercise motivation is a whole article onto itself – so I’m not dealing with that here! Suffice to say, it can be challenging, especially as it seems like we might be genetically hardwired to be lazy – yikes! However, there are a ton of ways you can explore to hack your motivation – something I have found effective is to train with someone fitter.)

Why all smart people work out 

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If we don’t make time for exercise, then at some point we will be making time for illness. No exaggeration. 

If we don’t make time for exercise, then at some point we will be making time for illness Click To Tweet

Exercise is the best medicine going – for everything from Alzheimer’s to depression.

Regularly exercising throughout our lifetimes means we have a lower biological age – aka we stay youthful! It also produces beneficial genetic changes. Exercise probably assists with creativity, too. 

Exercise boosts brain health, triggering the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which helps support the growth of existing brain cells and the development of new ones.

And it’s never too late to start exercising. 

We know that we can improve our health drastically with as little as 15 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise (although even three minutes of vigorous exercise will give you benefits).  

One study on the minimum amount of exercise you can do for extended life expectancy showed that you need 15 minutes a day to stay healthy, and 30 minutes a day to stay fit and lean. You might not get any extra benefit once you exceed 90 minutes per day but that isn’t conclusive. 

So what kind of exercise are the health benefits associated with?

Three – it’s the magic number  

There are three types of exercise associated with improved health markers. If your weekly exercise regime incorporates these three elements, you’re onto a winner.

Cardio exercise

Two people running on promenade

This is aerobic exercise. It includes anything that gets your heart rate up over an extended period.

The usual suspects include running, cycling, swimming and walking, but it also includes dance classes, circuits and Fartleck training.

When we work the cardiovascular system, we oxygenate the body improving heart and brain health, and reducing overall mortality. Psychologically, cardio training trains our levels of endurance.

Frequently lumped in this category but not really cardio training is ‘anaerobic’ exercise, such as fast sprints. This kind of endurance training is very beneficial for us too. It works a different energy system (see ‘three energy systems’ below), which carries specific health benefits. 

Strength training

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Strength (or resistance) training encompasses traditional weights training, body-weight training and activities such as yoga. It builds muscle mass, which burns fat. Having lean muscle mass is key in staying healthy. Plus, you can’t look good naked without it. 

Women, strength training helps us to ward off osteoporosis – not a small issue. 

Strength training has been shown to improve cognitive abilities. One recent study linked stronger legs in particular to a fitter brain. Another study has found that weight training can decrease brain shrinkage which occurs naturally with age. It triggers beneficial responses in the the hormonal and nervous systems. Men (and women), strength training spikes your testosterone! Which is why you can sometimes feel fruity afterwards. 

Men (and women), strength training spikes your testosterone! Which is why you feel fruity afterwards Click To Tweet

Regular strength training, combined with sufficient time to rest between sessions, reduces the risk of chronic disease and slows the effects of aging.

Frequency wise, research suggests that a once-weekly session can be just as effective at improving muscle strength than a more rigorous schedule.

Psychologically speaking, strength training trains our levels of resilience and improves self esteem. 

Flexibility training 

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Flexibility training is what we are doing when we practice yoga, Pilates and just regular stretching. It is absolutely key in correcting imbalances caused by strength training and general poor posture from modern life. It complements your resistance training. 

In addition to preventing injuries and improving posture, this type of training lengthens muscles, gets energy into your cells, makes cardio activity a lot lighter and easier, and even helps you to travel more comfortably.

Psychologically, flexibility training helps you to be flexible in mind.

Psychologically, flexibility training trains you to be flexible in mind. Try it and see Click To Tweet

There is a stand out winning form of flexibility training – see ‘yoga’ below. 

A sneaky fourth – Rebounding

Rebounding (jumping around on a trampoline) is super beneficial for your lymphatic system (the metabolic garbage can of the body). It’s an excellent thing to do for health as it helps us to detoxify some of the crap we absorb from our environments. It’s a great stress reliever and strengthens connective tissue. Give it a go. 

Special considerations

There are a few extra points worth mentioning about the three types of exercise. 

To lift or not to lift?

It is true that lifting heavy weights helps us to gain lean muscle mass. However, you can get strong using your body weight. So whether you decide to lift heavy or not depends on your goal. 

When we are talking about optimal health and longevity (and not body building per se), we are interested in reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass. A combination of effective diet (see ‘refueling’ below) and smart exercising will do that without you needing to pump iron.

A combination of effective diet and smart exercising will get you lean without you needing to pump iron Click To Tweet

If you enjoy lifting weights, and your psychology is the better for it, then that’s great. Be mindful of not over-focusing on it to the detriment of the other kinds of training we need to do for health. 

If you do lift, the current thinking is that you should emphasize functional movement – which mimics the way we have been evolved to lift heavy things – and doing compound exercises. Obviously if you’re new to lifting, then you need to find yourself a decent personal trainer who can show you the movements. 

Yoga – the crème de la crème of flexibility training 

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It’s bonkers how great yoga is for overall health and longevity.

As author and coach Victoria Moran has said, ‘yoga will still be transformational after it stops being cool.’

The list of benefits associated with practicing yoga are many. We particularly benefit if we are stressed or we suffer with anxiety or depression. Individuals that do yoga regularly report feeling calmer, sharper and more content.

Filmmaker and health buff Max Lugavere explains more about the particular brain benefits.

Our energy systems

Here is some geeky stuff you don’t really need to know, but will add to your understanding of how exercise benefits us. 

If we want to develop our physical fitness effectively, then we need to train the three different metabolic energy systems that fuel us. 

Each energy system affects fat loss and muscle gain in a particular way, producing specific health benefits. ATP-CP is the quickest to move into gear. After that it’s the glycolitic system and then finally the oxidative.

You train the energy systems by cardio and strength training. 

Fuel 1 – ATP-CP: This supports very brief, high-intensity activities. 

PT direct gives the following examples of training that focuses primarily on the ATP-PC system:

  • Lifting the heaviest weight you possibly can for one or two repetitions.
  • Sprinting as fast as you can for 50 – 100 metres with two to three minute recovery intervals before repeating.

Fuel 2 – glycolytic system: The glycolytic system provides energy for activities of slightly longer duration and lower intensity, like regular strength training. 

Examples of training that focus primarily on the glycolytic system are:

  • Gym circuit class with 45 seconds on each station and 15 seconds rest to move to the next station.
  • Sprint repeats – 10 repetitions of 30 second sprints as fast as possible with 15 seconds recovery between each sprint. 

Fuel 3 – the oxidative system: The oxidative system supports long duration, lower intensity activities like walking or distance running. Although it’s last to kick in, the oxidative system is the most important energy system of all. If it doesn’t work, neither do you.

To train the oxidative system:

  • Long, 65-80% maximum effort aerobic exercise – running, cycling, rowing for 60+ minutes.
  • Fartlek – unstructured sustained efforts with increases in intensity and easier recovery periods.
  • Gym triathlon – select three cardio machines in the gym and either choose a time spent on each (15 minutes) or a distance to achieve on each (five km).

There is a type of exercise protocol which incorporates cardio and strength training and can train all three energy systems – cue High Intensity Intervals or High Intensity Resistance Training.

HIIT – the exercise gold standard?hiit

So it turns out that High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT) has stood the test of time for a reason.

HIIT is an enhanced form of interval training – an exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense, anaerobic exercise with less-intense recovery periods. Workouts are often around 15-25 minutes. 

It turns out that High Intensity Interval Training has stood the test of time for a reason Click To Tweet

Unlike extended periods of steady cardio, doing HIIT trains all three energy systems and can combine cardio and strength training. 

Research shows that HIIT leads to similar (and in some cases better) improvements in shorter periods of time with some physiological markers (see this clip from the documentary ‘The Truth About Exercise’).

In one study, a HIIT group had lost over three times as much fat whilst using far less effort.

HIIT is brilliant for all sorts of other reasons too. For example, you can do HIIT workouts at home or outside that can be completed in minutes, not hours.

The upshot

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There are a gazillion ways that you can do all three types of exercise and ensure you are training all three energy systems. 

I’m going to pretend like you’re only interested in the most time efficient way of doing things. By far that is doing HIIT. 

This also has the advantage of being varied enough to stay interesting.

Try to hit around five, 20-40 minute sessions per week and keep it tough (usually the protocols are tough anyway), so you train your ATP-CP system and your cardio system. Do workouts that offer a mixture of strength and pure cardio, or combine your strength/cardio sessions (for e.g. in a 3-2-1 interval workout). 

Try to hit around five, 20-40 minute sessions of HIIT per week and keep it tough Click To Tweet

If your gym has kept pace, then you should find HIIT and circuits classes on the schedule. You can of course do circuits yourself in the weights areas. It’s pretty fun. 

Online, you’ll find a ton of HIIT workouts you can try. I love Sean T fitness programmes

If you love lifting weights, then for one session per week, keep it really heavy so you can only lift one or two times per exercise. For the other three or four sessions, you could do circuits sessions using lighter weights, as that makes the workout aerobic. 

If you love lifting weights, then for one session per week, keep it ultra heavy Click To Tweet

It is a no-brainer to make time for a great yoga class or a DVD at home at least once per week. 

A change is gonna come?

It is commonly understood that your body gets used to a certain way of training, and you need to switch it up.

As this article explains, that’s probably a bit over-egged. 

You probably don't need to change your programme all the time Click To Tweet

However, if you are getting bored or you aren’t feeling a benefit from your workouts anymore, you should switch things up. Here are some great tips.

Refueling 

Contrary to what was the prevailing wisdom for ages, we don’t need carbohydrates to fuel exercise. All that does it switch you onto glucose burning when you could be on fat burning. (This recent study showed that elite endurance athletes who ate very few carbohydrates burned more than twice as much fat as high-carb athletes during maximum exertion and prolonged exercise.) 

It appears as though exercising in a fasted state is optimal for your health. Having said that, unless you are an endurance athlete, exercising in a fasted state isn’t something you need to do. Just an option if you are comfortable with it. You can also use caffeine to fuel your workout to great effect. 

It appears as though exercising in a fasted state is optimal for your health Click To Tweet

What you should eat when you exercise is the same as what you should be eating anyway.

Many of us are embracing the Paleo diet. With proven science behind it, this back-to-basics diet may be better at lowering body fat than exercise.

Appreciate that diet is probably more important than exercise in terms of lowering your body fat. However, studies do also show that exercise helps you keep weight off longer and will jumpstart your metabolism.

A few other points on this:

  • Unless you are body building, don’t worry so much about eating within a ‘window’ time of your training session. Just ensure that you get enough protein throughout the day (through quality sources of meat and eggs and/or vegetarian sources such as hemp seed, chia and pumpkin seed) and use protein powder (whey isn’t your only option). 
  • Use anti inflammatory spices (especially turmeric and ginger) and take a fish oil supplement – exercise stresses the body, and a high anti inflammatory diet is an effective complement to that. 
  • Eat apples and tomatoes to avoid muscle atrophy as you age.

Outside of ‘exercise hours’ – the peril of sitting down

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You’ll have seen the reports: sitting is the new smoking.

Sitting too much has been to shown to be an independent health risk factor regardless of how much exercise we do. “We’ve become so sedentary, that 30 minutes a day at the gym may not counteract the detrimental effects of 8,9 or 10 hours of sitting”, says Genevieve Healy PhD, a Heart Foundation funded researcher. 

Studies show that inactivity changes the structure and functioning of the brain just like exercise does.

What to do about it when you work all day at a computer or laptop?

Author and wellness activist Kris Carr has this perspective on it:

“For me, staying active is about being more active in your day to day life, not just formal exercising. Can you climb stairs instead of taking the escalator? Park a little further away from the store? Go outside to touch your toes and the earth on your lunch break.

“Staying active also takes shape creatively. I need to engage my mind and my muse to feel whole-body balance. Gardening, reading novels, writing and listening to great music, and engaging in soul-stirring conversation all keeps me inspired too. Mentally and physically active, that’s the perfect balance.”

Be aware that the most lethal combination of all is sitting all day and not exercising.

The most lethal combination of all is sitting all day and not exercising. Click To Tweet

You could buy a standing desk, though (because we are our own worst enemies it seems) you might be better off just becoming conscious of your behavior throughout the day. 

Key takeaways

  • Sit less and move more. Buy a standing desk, or campaign your office manager to remove seats. Tell them it will make you more productive! Walk as much as possible, too. Take lunchtime walks (yes, even though it’s outside of the time you allocated for exercise). 
  • Incorporate all three types of training, each week. Aim for at least five, 30 minute-ish sessions per week, with a mixture of strength and cardio training. Stretch after each session and/or do one yoga class each week. 
  • Do HIIT interval and resistance training. Or have one or two ‘pure’ lifting sessions, and focus on interval training the rest of the time.
  • Be mindful of your individual needs. To be really optimal is to factor in your physiology and psychology. Be aware of what else is going on in your life and your individual body type, and switch up your training accordingly. For e.g. if your nerves are frayed and you are dashing around on overdrive a lot, then yoga will be a good tonic to that. 
  • Do as much yoga as you can. Try get in at least one per week. If you don’t, ensure that your posture is decent by doing these stretches.
  • Buy a rebounder. They’re a lot of fun and might have profound detoxification benefits. 

You’ve probably heard that exercise pills are on their way. Yikes! Would you take a pill instead of exercising? I’d love to know your thoughts. 

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