Are you interested in growing new brain cells, improving your mental health, preventing immune system decline, and slowing the rate of biological aging? If so, you probably should have an exercise routine.[*]
When you have a daily exercise routine, you don't need willpower to stay active. You've locked in the habit.
The lifelong benefits of an exercise habit are hard to exaggerate. Exercise keeps you young, strong, energized, and happy.
So how do you build a fitness routine that's right for you? What should the practice include, how often should you perform it, and how can you "lock in" those good habits? Let's find out.
Hold your burning exercise questions to the end. You'll have the chance to submit them for a future Q&A.
Why Exercise Matters
If they could make exercise into a pill—and they probably never will—it would be the biggest blockbuster drug ever. Exercise not only keeps you functionally fit but slows the aging process itself.
In one study, highly active adults appeared nine years younger (measured by telomere length, a genetic marker of biological age) than sedentary adults.[*] Another study found that older cyclists (lifelong exercisers) had immune systems that appeared 30 years younger than expected.[*]
Cardio may help lower the risk for most chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers. It may also improve sleep, strengthen bones, lower blood pressure, and help with weight loss. It potentially even reduces the risk of death.[*]
And we haven't even mentioned strength training to maintain muscle as you age. Or flexibility training to reduce injury risk and scoop up your grandkids later in life. Or high-intensity training to supercharge your endurance in under an hour per week.[*]
The benefits of exercise are endless. Let's cover how to access them.
Why Build An Exercise Routine?
You exercise for the benefits, but why build a routine? Why not be spontaneous?
For the same reason you don't spontaneously brush your teeth. You have a routine—a habit—that virtually guarantees you'll clean your chompers daily and keep your breath from offending anyone within a three-mile radius.
When was the last time you didn't brush? You probably can't remember.
You want exercise to be like that. Imagine if you couldn’t recall the last day you were completely sedentary.
A fitness routine, in other words, makes exercise habitual. And when a behavior is habitual, you don't need willpower to perform it.
But you don't form habits overnight. It may take weeks or even months to form a new routine..
We'll cover how to develop lasting exercise habits in a bit. First, though, let's review some more mechanical questions about exercise.
What Should Your Exercise Routine Include?
Different types of exercise have different benefits. You'll want to include these major categories in your routine.
#1: Aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise, also called endurance or cardio exercise, includes activities (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling) that increase the amount of oxygen your blood carries during physical activity. (Translation: cardio boosts endurance capacity.) If you had to pick one exercise category for healthy aging, the evidence suggests cardio would be a fine choice.[*]
#2: Strength training
But don't neglect strength training in your quest for longer-lasting vitality. Placing your muscles under tension prevents sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), reduces injury risk, and makes you look better naked.[*]
#3: Balance, stability, and flexibility training
Want to stay functional into your 80s and 90s? Flexibility and mobility exercises are a must.
Yoga, pilates, stretching, and science-backed programs like DNS (Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization) all qualify.[*] To sweeten the deal, activities like yoga also build strength and endurance while reducing stress.
#4: High-intensity training
If you're searching for the most efficient exercise, consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT).[*] You can perform your sprints on land, sea, cycle, or StairMaster. And you only need to set aside 20-40 minutes per week.
How Often Should You Exercise?
According to the research-backed US Physical Activity Guidelines and the American Heart Association (AHA), adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio (i.e., brisk walking) and two strength training sessions per week to unlock the benefits of exercise.[*] The cardio figure drops to 75 minutes for "vigorous" activities like jogging and cycling.
These targets are highly achievable. It only takes about 20 minutes per day.
Want to learn how much exercise you need weekly for weight loss and more? Check out this deep-dive guide.
What's a Good Beginner Exercise Routine?
A starting exercise routine shouldn't be too ambitious, but it should keep you active while varying your modalities.
Example beginner exercise routine:
- Moderate cardio (jogging, cycling, etc.) for 30 minutes 3 times per week
- Strength training (push-ups, resistance bands, etc.) for 45 minutes 2 times per week
- 3-5 sprints (running, cycling, or swimming) 1 time per week
- Daily yoga or stretching for 10 minutes, with at least 1 session over 30 minutes
- Walking everywhere you can for low-intensity exercise
You'll probably want to customize to suit your situation. We'll cover that next.
How To Build an Exercise Routine
Motivated to form an exercise routine? These tips will help turn your ambitions into reality.
Know your wellness goals
Beyond healthy aging, what are your wellness goals? Do you want to lose weight, gain muscle, optimize your sleep, or perform better in your weekly pickleball game?
For weight loss, look to cardio and HIIT, but be mindful not to overeat following exercise. If you consume more calories than you burn, it'll be hard to shed pounds.
For muscle gain, however, you'll want to consume a caloric surplus (with plenty of protein) and execute a well-defined strength training program. And you may want to scale back the cardio. Too much endurance training can hamper muscle building.[*]
And don't forget to meet your body where it is. The optimal exercise routine for an athletic 20-something probably isn't optimal for an overweight octogenarian.
Make it convenient
If you want to exercise habitually, make it convenient. For example:
- Jog, walk, or cycle around your neighborhood
- Favor bodyweight movements (squats, pull-ups, push-ups) that don't require a gym visit
- Install a home gym or join a gym that's under five minutes away
- Get a standing or treadmill desk
The less friction you have to start moving, the more you'll move.
Make it fun
Want to exercise more? Make working out synonymous with activities you love.
Tennis, golf, basketball, pickleball, softball, and ultimate frisbee are wonderful sports that get your competitive juices flowing. Or try hiking, yoga, swimming, or cycling for a more meditative experience.
It's also fun to feel good after exercise. (Endorphins, baby!) That pleasurable reward solidifies the good habit.
If you join a tennis league, pay the fee, and tell everyone who will listen—you probably won't bail on game day. Ditto if you leave a question or comment below this article.
Plan and track your routine
Private commitments carry force too. In one experiment, people who wrote down their fitness plan were 2-3 times more likely to exercise than controls.[*]
You can automate this advantage by tracking exercise in the Carb Manager app. Each time you log your activity, you'll get a hit of feel-good dopamine to reinforce the behavior.
It's rewarding to make progress towards your goals. And remember, small wins add up to massive wins over time.
Exercise Routine Questions, Anyone?
This article is just a jumping-off point. It's designed to get you thinking deeply about your exercise routine.
You probably have lingering questions—questions about fasted exercise, exercise for weight loss, exercise supplements, protein needs and timing, cardio vs. strength training, and more. You might even be wondering how I built my exercise routine for health and longevity.
Well, I've got you covered. Drop your question in the comments below, and stay tuned for a future Q&A session with me, Brian Stanton.
But you don't need to wait for the Q&A to improve your exercise routine. Start today, and have fun with it.