We make exercise way too complicated. Here's how to get it right. (2022)

Update: A viral study previously mentioned in this article about CrossFit's injury rate includeddubious data, and the journal wound upretracting the study in 2017 because of ethical breeches. We've updated the article to remove that reference.

A mid-century fitness star named Debbie Drake made me realize that little has changed in over 50 years when it comes to the American pursuit of a better body and the desire for a quick fix to achieve it.

On her morning TV show, launched in 1960, the leggy, soft-spoken blonde would take viewers through "the wonderful world of exercise to the land of slim, trim beauty."

Like many exercise gurus who have come after her, she claimed to hold the secrets to a perfect physique. (Back then, this involved "looking great, feeling great and keeping your husband happy," in Drake's words.) You could erase your double chin, Drake said, by simply stretching out your neck. Through delicate twists and deep breathing, she promised, inches would melt away from your waist, buttocks, and thighs.

Workouts today are much less gentle than Drake’s. We run marathons in record numbers, subject ourselves to violent boot camps, contort our bodies in yoga classes, and pay $35 for less than an hour of SoulCycle or Solidcore — seemingly friendly workouts that I have seen grown men run from. At CrossFit circuit-training classes, the mascot is "Pukey" the clown, and lifting until you pee is a celebrated goal.

So while the forms of exercise have become more intense over time, the desire to unlock the secret to fitness hasn't changed since Drake. Nor have the promises by hucksters and gurus. Jack LaLanne, Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Crawford, Gwyneth Paltrow — they have all purported to know the one true way to a better body.

Incredibly, with all the science that has been done on how to exercise, what we know about what works for fitness is almost embarrassingly simple — yet we have invented myriad ways to cloud, over-complicate, and obscure these basic, common-sense truths:

Read: Surprisingly simple tips from 20 experts on how to lose weight and keep it off

1) If you're not exercising regularly, doing any activity will help
We make exercise way too complicated. Here's how to get it right. (1)

(Prudkov/Shutterstock)

Don't think about jumping from the couch into a power-lifting class. Don't worry about interval training, or even fitting in the right mix of cardio and strength workouts. For people who don't work out regularly, finding physical activity you don't hate doing is the most important step.

Like the best diet for weight loss, the people who research exercise all told me that there is no single best way to go about exercising: just find a workout you can tolerate.

"A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work," said Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? "The best exercise for people is one they are going to adopt and do on a regular basis. If that means getting out for a walk with the dog every night and you can commit to that and stick to it, then do it."

Gardening, cleaning your floors, walking around a shopping mall, walking to the grocery store or work — all of this counts as physical activity. You don't need to sign up for a gym membership or go to expensive pilates classes.

According to sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of the books Diet Cults and 80/20 Running, the single biggest predictor of whether someone will stick to a new routine is simply whether they like it or not. "Those who say they enjoyed their workout the most are more likely to keep exercising after a year," he said.

Many studies

have shown that, even if you don't lose a pound or change your body after working out, exercise will improve a range of health outcomes, including lowering your cardiovascular disease risk and staving off Alzheimer's. So just find a way to sweat — and don't sweat the details.

2) Cardiovascular exercise will keep you on the earth for longer
We make exercise way too complicated. Here's how to get it right. (2)

(Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

Science has unequivocally demonstrated that cardiovascular workouts (walking, running, swimming) will help you live longer.

Starting the 1940s, Jerry Morris — a pioneering Scottish epidemiologist — began to study people who moved around a lot at work (conductors in double-decker buses, postmen who delivered mail on foot) and compare them to people who had more sedentary jobs (telephone operators, truck drivers). Morris was able to establish that there was an association between physical inactivity and chronic disease risk, with the risk incrementally decreasing as a person's level of physical activity increased.

Since then, few have quibbled with the fact that one's level of aerobic fitness is a key predictor for how long they'll live and what diseases they'll succumb to.

We now know that, globally, physical inactivity is responsible for 6 percent of the burden of disease from coronary heart disease, 7 percent of type-2 diabetes, 10 percent of breast cancer, and 10 percent of colon cancer.

Inactivity is also responsible for 9 percent of premature mortality, and a number of studies have shown that people who exercise are at a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment from Alzheimer's and dementia and also have higher cognitive ability scores.

3) If you are exercising regularly, mix it up

We make exercise way too complicated. Here's how to get it right. (3)

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram/McClatchy-Tribune)

For those who do exercise, research suggests that you need to vary your workouts for the best results: both the activities you do and the intensity with which you approach them.

"No matter what workouts you’re doing, no matter how great the workout is, if that’s the only workout you do, you’ll hit diminishing returns," said Hutchinson. You need to surprise your muscles and challenge them in new ways, he added.

As a rule of thumb, Fitzgerald suggests, "Make sure two or three of your workouts every week are strength workouts." The rest should be cardiovascular-based, such as running or swimming.

Interestingly, he has also found that a half hour of weight lifting each time is enough to get results, and that you don't necessarily need to do repetitions of every exercise. "People think you need to do three sets of exercises for each part of the body, but you’ll get 80 percent of the results from one set. So if you’re going from zero to some strength workouts, I would suggest doing only the one set."

Varying the intensity of your workouts is also important. There's a lot of good evidence now that interval training — short bursts of really challenging activity — can greatly improve a person's fitness, even in only a short amount of time every week.

Consider this PLoS One review, which pooled together the results of 37 studies on whether training programs that included periods of high intensity ameliorated aerobic fitness. They found that interval training improved the participants' health outcomes, even when the high-intensity bursts only lasted for three to five minutes.

Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, is one of the world's top researchers on high-intensity interval training. He says that the balance of evidence now suggests that people derive more gains when they dedicate their workout time to an intervals approach compared to endurance exercise.

"There’s good evidence now that intervals can be a time-efficient way to improve your fitness and markers of health status," he said. "You can get away with less total time commitment by taking an intervals based approach."

One of his most recent studies showed that, in a small group of sedentary men and women, doing really intense interval training for just ten minutes, three times per week, improved subjects' endurance, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

But even he says switching your workouts up and finding one you like is the best way to get fit. "A varied approach to fitness is always going to be your best bet. Doing internal training, resistance training, endurance training — that’s going to be effective in the long run for lots of reasons. It can prevent boredom and make sure you’re engaged with your exercise routine."

Plus, many people outside of a study setting will not naturally push themselves into the levels of intensity needed to see a benefit in short-burst workouts, and it might not be a good idea to go from the couch to high-intensity intervals. Here, too, the old adage holds: do the exercise you like doing. "Whenever we start talking about what’s perfect," said Hutchinson, "it can become quite daunting. So what’s ideal shouldn't be viewed as a barrier."

4) Exercise probably won't help you lose a lot of weight — but you need it to keep weight off and stay healthy

We make exercise way too complicated. Here's how to get it right. (4)
(GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

This review of studies on exercise and weight found that people only lost a small fraction of the weight they expected to given how much they were burning off through their new exercise routines. Some overweight people even gain weight when they start exercising.

This is mostly due to the fact that people develop "compensatory behaviors" when they start to work out, thinking they can have those extra treats because of all the calories they burned, said Tim Caulfield, author of the Cure for Everything. "They go for a run and then eat a high-calorie muffin and completely neutralize that run. You're not going to lose weight."

But this isn't the full story about exercise and doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Exercise, as you will have noted by now, is hugely beneficial for health. It raises mood, protects against disease, boosts energy, and improves sleep quality, just to name a few well-documented benefits.

And physical activity is extremely important for weight maintenance. In one study, which looked at 20-year weight gain in over 3,500 men and women, those who were physically active gained less weight over time and had a smaller waist circumference compared to people who weren't active.

When a bunch of studies on the question of weight loss and exercise were taken together, researchers found that, overall, exercise led to only modest weight loss. But, when compared with no treatment, exercise helped people lose a small amount of weight, and when people started to exercise and cut their calories, they lost more weight than with a diet alone. Even when exercise was the only intervention for weight loss (so no diet) study participants saw a range of health benefits, reducing their blood pressure and triglycerides in their blood.

5) You shouldn't do extreme workouts all the time

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(Tyler Olson/Shutterstock)

We have entered the age of the ultra-marathon, Tough Mudder mud runs, and the lift-until-you-puke CrossFit culture. While these higher-intensity workouts will surely push you to your fitness limits, they're also more likely to lead to injuries.

Fitzgerald suggested taking extreme exercise by the "80/20 approach." "This comes from research showing that elite endurance athletes in all sports do 80 percent of their training at a low intensity and only 20 percent at high intensity," he said. In other words, high-intensity workouts only had a small part in athletes' training programs, and he said that studies on recreational exercisers found that this ratio conferred the most fitness benefits.

Hutchinson had this rule of thumb: "The harder you train, the more likely you are to get injured. The smart thing to do is to progress very gradually and never do way more this week than you did last week."

He added: "If you gradually progress over five years, you'll make huge strides."

WATCH: 'Why run the marathon? I ran one to find out'

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