[Note: This is part of a series I’m doing that encapsulates simple processes for making real changes. I don’t claim these ideas are original- they are not, but they are my assembly of simple, easily achieved steps to adding beneficial new habits.]
Fitness, in my mind, is about feeling good about yourself physically. Once you start to get fit and generally start feeling better you’ll be more motivated to stay fit and even improve your routines. But the challenge is getting a routine in the first place.
The good news is that there is tons of evidence that working out everyday, doing long workouts in the gym and even running daily are not necessary. In fact they are counter-productive because we need fairly long breaks between workouts to allow muscle to repair itself and grow. Gym junkies won’t like this but most of the proponents of what I’m writing about are former athletes and trainers who chronically injured themselves by overdoing it for years. Running is very hard on your joints and muscles and runners who start young often have serious knee and hip problems by the time they reach their forties. The same with hardcore weightlifters- they often don’t look so good as they age. So, if working out everyday isn’t the answer, what is?
The Workout Tripod: Walk, Intervals and Lifting
Imagine a tripod with each leg one aspect of your fitness plan. Tripods are inherently stable and strong, as long as you don’t remove a leg! This plan has those three legs and each is important to its success. First, you will be doing something everyday but it won’t always seem like a workout. That’s because one third of the workout tripod is walking. The second third is intervals (more on that in a bit) once a week for ten minutes and the third third is lifting heavy things- but only twice a week and only for ten minutes. That’s all.
1) Daily Walking
I’m certainly not original in this approach. Walking is a natural way to get around and extremely low impact. Intervals are how the pro coaches train athletes in running sports to develop the aerobic ability to do great, short bursts of speed, something distance running does not do. And heavy lifting builds strength- but it turns out that long weight circuits, macho sets of lifting and fast pumping while lifting all do more damage than good as you are constantly re-injuring muscle tissues and not allowing them to repair and rebuild.
Measure Your Progress & Adjust Your Attitude
The average walker covers about one mile every twenty minutes. Obviously this varies but this is as good a measuring stick as any. If you want to find your own pace find a measured mile at a local high school track or running route and time yourself walking it at a comfortable pace. The reason I mention this is that you are going to track your monthly walking tally in miles and the easiest way to do this (unless you do the same route every day but why would you do that?) is by timing yourself.
We’re going to start with 1.5 miles or a half hour of total walking each day. If you’re really out of shape this may be hard but I’m going to show you how to do it easily. Before we get into that, let’s talk about an attitude adjustment. Starting today I want you to park further away from any destination in your life including work, malls, appointments, etc. As far away as you can and then walk that little extra distance. This isn’t an exercise and it consumes no more time than than driving around looking for a better spot. It is an attitude adjustment.
The second adjustment is to walk when you do short errands, under a half mile or ten minutes. Running out to Starbucks for coffee? Getting a quart of milk at the convenience store? Walk it.
Walking In Thirds
“Over all, the results “are really encouraging,” he says. “For people who think that 30 minutes of exercise is too hard or takes up too much time, we can say, just do 10 minutes three times during the day. And, conversely, if someone is tempted to dismiss a mere 10 minutes of walking as too meager to be meaningful, it seems clear that, at least for blood pressure control, fractionized exercise is actually more effective than a single 30-minute bout.”
– Glenn Gaesser, a professor and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University
Now we’re going to get into something interesting. A recent study found that breaking up your thirty minutes (or more) into three shorter walks is actually healthier than one long walk. This is great news for those who think they can’t find a half hour everyday (you can, but that’s another topic) to walk. Three ten minute walks daily. Bump it up to fifteen minutes and you’ll be doing two mile days, about the amount where you’ll start to notice real results.
A Note About Sitting
We sit way too much and more recent studies find sitting more than three hours a day actually takes years off your life. It’s simply not our natural habitat. But with the walking in thirds technique you can break up your sitting routine three times a day. If you get a break at work, take a quick walk. Want a coffee? Take it with you- walkers can touch their noses and rub their heads at the same time.
Tracking Your Progress
The final component of the walking tripod leg is keeping track. Print out a blank monthly calendar page and jot down your mileage each day. Writing down progress helps build this new habit because each time you add more miles you are rewarding yourself. Habits consist of three components:
- A Cue: Time to walk over and get a coffee
- An Action: Walk ten minutes, and
- A Reward: Getting to write a 1.5 mile note on your calendar
When you complete a month of 1.5 mile days you’ll really understand the power of this- you just walked 45 miles! We’ll be tracking your other tripod legs that same way for the same reasons.
2) Intervals Once A Week (10 Minutes)
This one is a little more challenging but it’s only ten minutes a week. The way intervals work is simple: Go fast as you can for 20 seconds, then do the same thing slowly for twenty seconds. Repeat 5-10 times. You’ll have to work up to this if you’re really going all out.
You can do this with any aerobic activity: Running, stair climbing, biking, rowing, treadmill, etc. I live in a five story building. Up the stairs quickly then back down slowly. In five minutes I am breathing hard and can really feel it. In summer I do it on the bike as I really don’t like running as much as I did when I was a kid.
For biking or running outside try this. Find a route to do your sprints. Pick a starting point and go all out for 20 seconds (one one thousand, two one thousand…). When you reach twenty, slow to a walk or easy ride and turn around. Now leisurely walk or ride back to the beginning and do it again. If you’re on a machine in the gym just use the timer.
This is once a week at the start. If you want you can do it every four days but not any more. You gain more aerobically from intervals, even with this minimal schedule, than daily running. And you are far less likely to cause long term damage. But remember- go as fast as you can.
A final note on intervals. Watch little kids playing. They are constantly running intervals. Burst of speed, then slow, over and over again. And we know how much energy they have!
3) Lift and Lower Heavy Things Twice A Week (10 minutes each session)
This tripod leg is a little more complicated but only because you have so many options. You can lift one heavy thing you have around all the time: Your body. This is done with pushups, pull-ups, squats and other exercises requiring minimal equipment. Let’s look at pushups for a moment. There are many kinds of pushups at many levels. You can push from your knees or lean against a piece of furniture like a heavy couch for an easy version. You can do the standard pushups as you get stronger and then you can do the really macho versions if that’s your thing. The best way to see how this works is to check out some videos on the web like this one: Progressive Pushups
Another home or gym workout is the kettlebell. These ball-shaped weights with cast iron handles and a great way to exercise in a small space with just a few different exercises. Get a light one to start, lighter than you may think. It’s easier to get the technique right. Start with the Kettlebell Swing and then add a few other routines. A great progressive kettlebell routine video.
If you go to a gym or have weight equipment at home, choose three exercises for your routine, no more. And be sure to have an experienced trainer get your weight and any machine setting rights for this method. Then follow the routine I’m outlining.
This workout is super simple and very safe. Anytime you are lifting things you have two stages: You lift the weight and you lower the weight. Lifting is harder and we tend to rush it. Lowering is easier and we tend to rush that too. No more rushing.
You’re going to do three sets of whatever exercise(s) you’ve chosen. A set is eight to twelve repetitions and ends when you cannot do another rep. You choose your weight by this standard: If you can go more than 12 or cannot reach eight, you need more or less weight. With pushups just substitute an easier or harder version.
Timing is the key. You are going to do each rep excruciatingly slow in both directions. This is the secret to the most gain with the shortest workout. Starting with the weight on the ground or at the bottom of your movement take at least ten seconds to lift to the top. At the top, hold the weight for 2-3 seconds, then lower for ten seconds. Don’t set the weight down between reps. The idea is that your muscles are constantly loaded during the set. Repeat until you have done 8-12 reps and set the weight (or yourself!) down slowly. Breathe in deeply and slowly and exhale the same way while lifting and lowering. Don’t huff and puff.
Get up and walk around a bit for 30-40 seconds, then either repeat or go on to your next station. Do the same thing again and a third time.
That’s it, you’re done.
What About Stretching?
Stretching before exercise isn’t necessary with these routines, nor is stretching after because when you go very slowly with your lifting you are naturally stretching your muscles. If you want flexibility, this slow routine will really help. And you can always add in some yoga if you want.
Burn and Build
When you do your strength training correctly you should feel a fairly intense burn as you complete each set. This is the goal. If you feel a very localized burn or a tearing feeling stop the set- you may be using too much weight or improper technique and could be injuring yourself. And if you are sick or injured, don’t work out- your body needs to heal itself.
Exercise, especially lifting, is a Burn and Build process. You go to the point where you are actually damaging your muscles a little then you take a long enough time off for them to heal and and actually grow stronger. Too frequent exercising does the Burn (damage) but never allows the Build (healing and growth).
Starting Out With Your Fitness Program
If you’re out of shape, walk and gradually build up your daily mileage until you’re averaging 1.5 miles a day for a month. Keep your calendar. You will notice a difference. Follow the One Way To Lose Weight Diet (even if you’re not trying to lose weight- I’m a skinny guy and it is just the right way to eat). Get at least seven hours of sleep at night.
When you’re ready, add in intervals of fast walking once a week and start lifting and lowering every four days for ten minutes or so per routine. Keep track on your calendar. Interestingly, as you raise your weights you can actually do very well by only only doing one strength session a week because those six days off, combined with a high protein diet, give your muscles plenty of time to rebuild and grow.
This One Way workout gets results pretty quickly if you adhere to the simple schedule. The walking alone will make you feel a lot better almost immediately.