In the endless pursuit for health, wellness, and the optimal body composition, people are constantly searching for the perfect exercise routine. I find people jumping from one modality to the next based on what the best looking influencer is promoting on social media. To the detriment of the person looking to improve their health, these routines are hard, soul crushing, and certainly something no one, even the fit person promoting them, can follow for any sustainable period of time.
For most people just looking to be healthy and have an optimal body composition, exercising does not need to be complicated or even that hard. Of course if you have very specific goals, or are an athlete trying to be competitive at a sport, your training may look very different and at times push you to your limits. For the average person that level of intensity, focus and time commitment is not required and is probably detrimental to their goals.
In fact even for my clients that are athletes and have specific fitness goals, the routine I prescribe them is based on what I would give to a client just looking to optimize their health or body composition and I just tweak a few things. If you are looking for an easy, sustainable fitness routine that will get you closer to your goals, this is what you have been looking for. Read on to get the “magical” formula.
Technically I don’t like to count movement as exercise, after all it’s called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, aka NEAT, for a reason. However, it is the most critical piece in making the rest of the routine in this post work. The reason is that NEAT should account for most of the calories you burn throughout the day outside of what your body burns just to stay alive .
Ideally your NEAT should be high enough so that exercise is just the “icing on the cake” and if for some reason life gets in the way and you can’t exercise that day it is not that big of a deal.
I personally like to measure NEAT via steps.
Is it a perfect metric?
Does it accurately capture all your movement?
Is it a good enough proxy that almost everyone can track?
Every cell phone these days can track steps taken, so you don’t even need some kind of fancy fitness tracker to do it.
Ideally I would like to see steps in the 7-10 thousand range for most people. This can be done with three 20 minute walks in a day plus generally just moving about the rest of time. Most people are way below this threshold. If you are one of these people, my first suggestion is go for a 10-20 minutes walk after each meal. You can do it incrementally and build up over time as well. Start out by just walking after breakfast and do that for a few weeks. After a few weeks add the walk after lunch. Then finally add one after dinner. You can also take the strategy of beginning and end the day with walks if that works better for you. Do walking meetings, walk the dog, take the kids for a walk, go for a walk with your wife, walk in the rain, walk in the snow, walk when it’s brutally hot, walk when it’s brutally cold….you get the point….just walk!
Once you are consistently getting 7-10 thousand steps a day the next thing to add into your exercise routine is strength training. A few years ago I would have never ranked strength training so high on my list of priorities when it comes to exercise. Now I realize how important strength training is when it comes to your overall health.
Muscle is an amazing tissue, it has so many benefits when it comes to living a fulfilling and healthy life. I don’t want you to think that I am advocating that you need to have the physique of a bodybuilder. In most cases bodybuilders have taken muscle building to such an extreme that they are not healthy at all. My recommendation as a coach is to build and maintain enough muscle so you are healthy and can do the things you need to do in everyday life.
You wouldn’t imagine how many clients come to me struggling to do everyday tasks that seem so simple, like carrying things or picking things up off the ground. Most of their struggles can be solved with just a little bit of strength training 2-3 times a week for 30 minutes!
I also see a number of endurance athletes who start to break down physically the longer they try to push their endurance capacity. Injuries are common, their ability to push further into races fades away, and they too can’t do much else besides run, bike, or swim for long periods of time. Again, adding in 2-3 days of strength training a week and they have less injuries, more power later into the race, and can actually pick up heavy things!
Another group of people who can see massive benefits from strength training are those looking to improve their metabolic health. Most of these people are being directed to use medications and improve their diet to solve their metabolic problems. While those things can certainly help, nothing improves metabolic health like adding muscle mass. That is because exercise is a great way to not only use the fuel you currently have available, but also helps eliminate excess body fat. In addition, strength training specifically, will add muscle mass, and muscle loves to consume glucose. The best part is that the muscle is always around consuming that glucose (as long as you are moving) so even if you are not exercising you are using up excess glucose.
All this to say no matter who you are or what your goal is, strength training is going to benefit you. It doesn’t take much either. Outside of those who have very specific strength or muscle building goals, 2-3 days a week of 30-45 minutes of strength training is plenty to make a huge difference in your health and performance. This is exactly the strength training protocol I have used with everyone from endurance athletes to weight loss clients with huge success.
Depending on who you are, you either love aerobic training or you hate it.
No matter what your take is on aerobic training, it is important for everyone. Is it as important as strength training? Probably not, but it is important enough that it deserves some attention.
Humans are aerobic machines, we were meant to travel long distances at an easy pace. Being able to track and hunt animals over long distances and spend an entire day foraging for fruits, tubbers and veggies, is what allowed us to survive thousands of years.
Today, asking the average person to go walk for a mile can seem daunting.
Now if you are walking 7-10 thousand steps a day you are doing pretty good from an aerobic perspective, walking a mile should not be too daunting for you.
I do however like to have clients go beyond just walking. Doing some kind of aerobic exercise like running, biking, swimming, rowing, hiking, or even something like the elliptical for 20 minutes a few times a week can have profound benefits. Bonus points if you can do this activity outside in the sun as well.
By adding in some extra aerobic exercise you will notice your ability to do more strength training, you will recover faster from harder workouts, and you can notice improvements in cardiovascular health, mental health, sleep, and much more.
Today the “sexy” exercise routines all involve destroying you.
Leave you laying on the ground ready to vomit.
Wanting to never exercise again no matter what the benefits are.
These “sexy” routines repeat these strenuous workouts, day after day after day.
I fell prey to this too when I first began my health journey. Ever heard of a workout program called Insanity? It is exactly as it sounds….insane….pushing you to your limits every day, 5 days a week.
If you are lucky, you can sustain this level of intensity for a month or two, after that most people burn out.
Doing a really hard workout is not something you should do everyday or even every week. It is something you do occasionally, maybe once a week and only if you are feeling really good. These workouts take a lot out of you and take time to recover from. They also don’t need to be incredibly long either. They just need to be long enough for you to exert maximal effort until you start to fatigue. Once you start to fatigue, the workout is done.
What kind of workouts usually fall into this bucket?
Anything that falls under the bucket of HIIT, or high intensity interval training. This is a type of training where you work really hard for a short period of time and then rest until you feel recovered and then work really hard again. You repeat this until, like I said above, your performance starts to decline. There are many different work/rest protocols you can use, one popular one is called tabata, where you work for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds and you repeat that for 8 rounds . In all a tabata style workout takes about 4 minutes, but when done right it can be quite effective.
My favorite prescription for HIIT for clients is to hop on the rower and do several rounds of 30 on 30 off rowing intervals. The first week it might only be 4 rounds of this. More advanced clients will get more rounds with less rest. If a rower is not an option, you can do the same thing on a bike, or an elliptical, or if you have solid running technique you can do sprints or hill sprints. Ideally I have clients do this one day a week, but if they are having an “off week” this is the first workout I will scrap.
The last piece of the ideal exercise routine is play.
Yup I said it, do something that involves moving your body, that you just love to do and you find fun.
Golf, tennis, yoga, hiking, play a sport with your kids, rock climbing, swimming, tai chi, surfing, wakeboarding…..just find something you love to do and you enjoy and doesn’t feel like exercise.
This type of exercise is for pure enjoyment and has more of a mental and social benefit than a physical benefit. However all the things you do above, will complement this activity and you can watch your enjoyment of this activity increase as you become a healthier person.
When we put this all together this is what your routine will look like in a given week:
- Get 7-10 thousand steps everyday
- Strength train 1-2 days a week for 30-45 minutes
- Do some 20-40 minutes of aerobic training one or two days a week
- Play, do something fun and that you enjoy one day a week
- Optionally, do something hard one day a week
As you can see, the above exercise routine does not take up a lot of time, is not overly complex, and incorporates various types of training and exercise. This keeps things fresh, interesting, and builds a type of fitness that enables you to not only have optimal health but perform optimal in your life. You should be able to run, sprint, pick up heavy things, and play a game with your kids or grandkids.
This brings us back to the foundation of my health coaching practice, using ancestral health as the basis for achieving your goals. Our ancestors didn’t exercise intentionally but they did all of the above exercise modalities as a consequence of trying to survive. By following this routine we are just replicating ancestral movement practices in the modern world. To learn more about how you can better model ancestral best practices in today’s modern world use the form below to sign up for my newsletter and each week you will get free actionable information to help you achieve your goals.
- (2014, February 20). (PDF) Metabolic adaptation to weight loss … – ResearchGate. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260397860_Metabolic_adaptation_to_weight_loss_Implications_for_the_athlete ↑
- (2019, April 19). Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity …. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31004287/ ↑