High intensity interval training. Zumba. Weight lifting. Circuit training. Long, slow walks. Yoga. Group fitness. Running. Obstacle courses featuring lots of mud and occasional electric shocks.
Fitness can be a little like fashion sometimes; it moves through phases and fads. Sometimes this is based on progressions in scientific research, other times it’s just money making tactics.
I get asked a lot about what the best type of exercise is; my answer is always the same: whatever type you enjoy. I also think that ultimately, any safe form of movement is good movement, so try not to get too caught up in what the ‘best’ type of exercise is.
But if you’re feeling a little confused by the variety of fitness programs, here’s a simple breakdown of the pro’s and con’s of some of the most popular.
Their website uses the phrase ‘party yourself into shape.’ I tend to find that people who do Zumba really enjoy doing Zumba, and those who don’t enjoy it – give it a miss.
Pros: Zumba, or any form of dance style class, will improve your agility and co-ordination, with the inclusion of both the lower and upper body. You can definitely get your heart rate up (improving cardiovascular fitness and health) but as with other exercise it will depend on how hard you push yourself and how extravagant you make the movements.
Cons: Muscular endurance and strength training are lacking in this program, but you can incorporate these sorts of training on other non-Zumba days of the week. Some people find they get too confused with all the dance moves, meaning their brain gets a work out but their body doesn’t.
Crossfit uses the slogan ‘forging elite fitness’, it certainly is hardcore and I’ve even heard it described as a cult.
Pros: Depending on which club you train at, the group dynamic can be really strong and this is great for social people. Crossfit includes cardiovascular training and strength work, meaning you cover both of these important elements of fitness in one hit. It is challenging and provides options to take your work out to the next level.
Cons: I’ve heard of a lot of injuries coming out of Crossfit (note: I don’t have any facts on this, just word of mouth from colleagues), it’s not something I would advise for beginners or those who don’t have good awareness of how their body is moving. I think there’s a huge reliance on how good the ‘coach’ or instructor is as to how safe the workout will be.
LONG, SLOW TRAINING
Feel like taking a long walk along the beach at sunset? Go for it! Longer duration steady state training has been slammed by some, saying that it’s all about HIIT (below) but there’s still a place for lower intensity exercise.
Pros: It’s safe, achievable and often more enjoyable. A great option for beginners who would rather walk at a moderate intensity for 30-60 minutes than train at high intensities for <30minutes. Health benefits are great and injury risk is low. Also important to include for those wanting to improve endurance (eg those training for a half or full marathon). I love to include some lower intensity, longer duration exercise into my weekly schedule as a way to be kind to my body and give it a break from the higher intensity training.
Cons: If you’re aiming to improve your fitness, rather than just exercising for health, you’ll need to push the intensity up a bit higher. It’s also not ideal for people who are time poor.
HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING
Also known as HIIT, it’s certainly taken off over the past few years, with good reason – there’s strong scientific merit for HIIT. This type of training combines low to moderate intensity recovery periods incorporated with high intensity working periods. For example: 30 seconds high intensity sprinting, followed by 30 seconds walking to recover; repeat, repeat, repeat.
Pros: As you have periods of recovery interspersed, you can really push yourself during the work phases; this mean your heart rate can reach close to maximal levels and you’ll achieve great fitness gains. Higher intensity exercise also means the overall duration can decrease (usually 20-30 minutes), great for time poor people. You can use HIIT with a number of modalities, including running, cycling, swimming, and weight training. I also find this sort of training to be more mentally stimulating and I love using music – hard work during the chorus, recovery during the verses.
Cons: Not for beginners, but definitely a great thing to build up to. When you’re starting out, use longer recovery phases and shorter work periods, gradually adjusting until you work harder for longer. HIIT isn’t something that should be done every day, 2-3 sessions per week is enough for most people. We also need to be cautious that we don’t rely on a 20 minute HIIT session as our only form of activity for the day; whilst it’s brilliant for improving fitness we still need to be moving as much as possible (at lower intensities) throughout the day for health benefits – 20 minutes of HIIT doesn’t balance out spending the remaining 23 hours and 40 minutes sitting or lying.
As with Zumba, I think this is something you either enjoy or you don’t. I love it. My body feels really good when I do Yoga, strong and flexible and my mind feels calmer.
Pros: Builds upper and lower body strength using your own body weight which also means you don’t need any equipment. Unlike the previous fitness programs, Yoga includes balance and flexibility training which are both vital components of fitness. Depending on what sort of yoga you do (Hatha, power Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram) you may also be surprised at how much you can lift your heart rate and get a little breathless. Many people also enjoy the relaxation benefits of yoga. I encourage you to take Yoga at your own pace and let it be something that you really feel with both your mind and body.
Cons: Some of the poses can be unsafe for those with certain medical conditions or injuries – let your instructor know so they can modify poses as appropriate. As the movements aren’t those that we do in day-to-day life it can take a while to get a hang of these, this isn’t necessarily a ‘con’ of yoga, more so just something to be aware of and know that it will take a few classes to settle in.
I’ve noticed a greater emphasis on weight training as a way to achieve that ‘fitness model physique.’ It’s important to note that a lot more goes into that physique than weight training, and it’s not always healthy (but that’s another post).
Pros: There are lots of benefits to lifting weights: improved strength and endurance; increased or maintenance of bone density; prevention of age related sarcopenia (muscle loss).
Cons: Make sure you have rock solid technique to avoid injury. Be aware of training all muscle groups to avoid muscle imbalances (which not only looks a little weird but can affect posture and injury risk).
If you want to know more about weight training, I’ve written 3 blog posts on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
OUTDOOR OBSTACLE COURSES
Aren’t these all the rage at the moment! I have to admit, I’m not even slightly interested in doing one so I can’t comment from personal experience but…
Pros: It’s great to do something different, have some fun with friends and get a little dirty! It can bring some enjoyment and variety into your training.
Cons: Mud. Electric shocks. Rope climbing. Freezing cold water. Do I need to say anything more?
Have I missed something? Let me know if there’s another fitness program you’d like to know about (there are lots and only so many I can write about in one post).
My overall advice is to always make sure the exercise you are doing is safe, enjoyable and designed to meet your personal goals. If you’re not sure, get in contact with an exercise professional in your area who can provide you with the best, individualised advice.