Movement, Physical Activity, and Exercise: A Basic Guide for Optimal Health and Performance
© 2011 Nathan Daley, M.D., M.P.H.
Movement is life! If organisms do not continually orient themselves in their environment or move in search of food, water, and other needs, then life ends. This was true of humankind until just recently. On the surface, it appears that we can now sit motionless and still live. We can, at least, obtain food, water, shelter, and all types of essential and non-essential materials without much movement. However, there is not much vitality to this sedentary living and there is not much hope of sustaining humankind and our supporting natural environment with this sedentary living. The stimulus to regenerate, reshape, replace, and rebalance the human body is movement. Bones, connective tissues, muscles, neuromuscular connections, intervertebral discs, and etc., are all continually replaced and replenished according to the stimuli of movement. Likewise, one’s physiology is constantly adapting and compensating in response to the stimuli of exertion. Without regular and diverse movement, the body, along with its resilience and efficacy, atrophies and degenerates. Most modern day ways of life do not require frequent movement. When they do, manual labor type occupations often involve repetitive movements continued for unnatural periods of time. It is a challenge, therefore, to achieve the frequency and diversity of movement necessary for optimal health. The combination of active hobbies and active transportation may be the best bet for many. Active transportation is a modern day approximation of natural ecology with perhaps the most obvious ability to profoundly contribute to scale-free health, person to planet, or holos.
Basic Approximations of Natural Ecology:
1. Movement should be daily, frequent, diverse, and whole body: The human body needs to move in many ways; walking, running, squatting, climbing, lifting, pushing, swimming, reaching, laying, etc. Move with a full range of motion, move frequently throughout the day. Stand and walk across the office rather than sending an email or calling. Get out of the chair and walk, squat, step outside, and use the stairs frequently. Engage in hobbies and activities which require diverse movements.
2. Movement should be fast , slow, intense, and easy: The human body needs to move at all varieties of speed and intensity. Move fast and explosively and move slow and smoothly. Experience your limits and maximize your physiology. Experiencing your physiological limits triggers physiological adaptation and increases resilience (one component of health). Let your physiology reflect the terrain. Stretch, rest, and recover as well.
3. Through daily, frequent, diverse, fast, slow, intense, and easy movements, move an average of 5 miles daily (less on some and more on others is quite natural) on foot. Let your body guide you in the extent of movement on any particular day, but average 5 miles (or around 10,000 steps) a day.
4. Let nature move you and challenge you: Follow your kinesthetic impulses. Let yourself run across that stretch of green grass barefoot and follow your curiosity over that mountain. Listen to the call of that warm sand or ocean water.
5. Don’t exercise, play: Movement is a dance, an interaction, a reciprocal exchange. It is a medium of connection, not an activity in isolation. Embody your ecology through sensation and responsive movement. Movement occurs as a fluid and singular system, not as isolated anatomic mechanics. Move like the child spontaneously skipping and jumping around the forest. Make it play, not exercise.
6. Prioritize active transportation: In modernity we sit motionless while we move. We sit cars, buses, airplanes, etc. We stand motionless while we move vertically in buildings or horizontally in airports. Oftentimes, we let our bodies atrophy even for easily walkable or runable distances like 1 or 2 miles. Using active transportation for these short trips (or longer trips) can help serve as a modern approximation of our evolutionary activity and can make a PROFOUND impact on holos.
Simply hiking or running over hills and through valleys, walking around the community to run errands, and lifting various items, on a regular basis may provide near optimal movement. However, when such a lifestyle is not an option due to unavoidable work constraints or a pedestrian unfriendly community, a more exercise specific plan is needed. What follows is a condensed exercise schedule for busy yet already fit individuals. Those not in excellent physical shape will need to work with a trainer or physician to construct a gentler schedule. Though the following discussion refers to exercise and often focuses on running and cycling performance, remember that exercise should feel like play. It may be hard and unpleasant at times, but, as a gestalt, the experience should be enjoyable and fun and lead to feelings of wellbeing.
Weekly Exercise Schedule:
There are many common frequencies to exercise and aerobic training which seem to be effective and selection of any specific exercise/training regimen requires consideration of individual lifestyles and time-constraints. The schedule provided below assumes the need for maximal time-efficiency and has been shown to be effective in improving aerobic performance and generating significant health gains in several studies. This schedule involves three sessions of high intensity interval training (HIT) workouts (of about 30 minutes or more each) each week, plyometrics following each HIT session, one longer lower intensity (Long) exercise session (about 1 hour or more), two easy recovery sessions (of about 30 minutes) each week, and one day off each week. These will be explained in more detail below.
This is an “at the least” type of schedule and doing more exercise in the form of more numerous or longer sessions is encouraged. If using a periodization approach, this schedule would be most applicable in the “build” or “peak” phase, depending upon your baseline fitness. If high intensity training is new to you, start with 1-2 sessions per week and build up to three. Few athletes can benefit from more than three high intensity sessions per week as recovery is essential. More elite athletes can simply increase intensity (same exertion but greater work output) and/or increase duration of the sessions. An example schedule may look like this:
|Type||Long||Off||HIT or Tempo||Recovery||HIT or Tempo||Recovery||HIT or Tempo|
|+/-Economy||+Plyometrics||+/- Economy||+Plyometrics||+/- Economy||+Plyometrics|
Form of Exercise
The types of aerobic exercise explained below can be performed during any type of activity or hobby, including cycling (mountain or road), running, walking, hiking, swimming, roller blading, Nordic skiing, stair climber, elliptical trainer, rowing, etc. etc.
Variations in intensity are important for maximizing the physiologic response to exercising and allowing for adequate (full) recovery and adaptation. Intensity can be measured in a number of ways including heart rate, pace or speed, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE), and respiratory gas exchange parameters. The following chart relates these entities. For simplicity sake, we will refer to RPE as this requires no equipment other than body-awareness. Pay attention to the breathing characteristics at a “modified” RPE range of 7-9 as this is the intensity range used in the interval workouts. An RPE of 5-6 is typically used for “tempo” workouts.
Exercise Session Types
High Intensity Interval Training (HIT or HIIT) Sessions: These sessions are the most potent form of exercise in regards to health optimization, disease prevention, and performance enhancement. These sessions increase VO2max, lactate threshold, and fatigue resistance as well as maximize the secretion of human growth hormone and 24 hour fat metabolism. They can be relatively short (30 minutes) and consist of a 5-10 minute warm-up, 2-5 minute “intervals” of high intensity exercise followed by 2-5 minute easy recovery periods. The goal for the intervals is to reach an RPE of 7-9 followed by recovery periods at an RPE of 2-3. The goal for the recovery periods is to return to a comfortable baseline from which you feel ready for another interval. When cycling, running, walking, or etc. on variable terrain and not using an exercise machine, track, or pool, regular “intervals” are harder to achieve. In these settings, intervals can be accomplished by doing hill repeats (repeatedly going up the same hill at an RPE of 7-9 and recovering on the downhill) or making every new hill an interval and climbing at an RPE of 7-9.
Examples 30 minute interval workouts:
Tempo Sessions: As an alternative to HIT sessions, tempo sessions can be used to increase lactate threshold and exercise economy. It is recommended that at least 1-2 HIT sessions be performed each week with only 1-2 of them replaced by tempo sessions intermittently. These workouts use velocities (pace or speed) which place the athlete at or just above lactate threshold. The effort feels like “race pace” and is both hard yet sustainable. Ideally, this level of effort will leave the athlete out of breath and fatiguing near the end of the session, with most of the session requiring heavy but rhythmic and only slightly uncomfortable breathing. Talking at this level of effort is possible, but limited to short sentences or a few words. The RPE level is a 5-6 and, after a brief warm-up, this level begins at the start of the session and is held steady until the end of the session. It is not uncommon to need to increase the intensity (pace or speed) slightly once into the session to really settle into this lactate threshold region.
Plyometrics: Plyometrics involves very intense, burst-like movements which are intended to increase explosive power, speed, and exercise economy. These exercises condition the stretch-shortening cycle which is critical for maximizing running economy. The explosive power and increase in fast-twitch (type IIa) muscle fibers which results from these sessions enhance both road and mountain biking performance, not to mention performance in fast paced sports such as basketball, soccer, tennis, football, and so on. These sessions can be very short (i.e. 10 minutes) and only require 2-4 sets. For time efficiency, they are best performed after a brief recovery period following the high intensity workouts. I recommend performing each set to the point that form begins to deteriorate (often near exhaustion of the muscle group involved). For example exercises and much more scientific information on plyometrics, see the books “High-powered plyometrics” by Radcliffe or “Jumping into plyometrics” by Chu.
Recovery Sessions: Light activity is the key to a fast and full recovery from harder workouts. “Active recovery” can consist of relatively short (30 minutes) easy exercise sessions of the same form (eg. cycling, walking, stair climber, etc.) as used for interval workouts, or participation in an active hobby such as playing basketball, hiking, tennis, etc.. Yoga is also a nice form of active recovery. Longer recovery sessions in the order of 60 minutes or more are fine as well. The key is that these sessions involve constant motion and a low intensity level (RPE of 1-3). “Passive recovery” in which one remains sedentary and take the day completely off from activity actually slows the recovery process.
Long Sessions: Longer low intensity (RPE of 3-5) sessions are important for improving the body’s efficiency in using fuel sources (eg. burning fat), increasing VO2max and cardiovascular function, and improving the efficiency of movement (exercise economy). For health and training purposes, these sessions are best done without carbohydrate (energy drink/gel) intake and may even be done after an overnight fast (i.e. before eating breakfast). When done later in the day, eating low glycemic meals and avoiding pre-exercise sugar is important. Post-exercise replenishment should be low-glycemic and contain moderate protein. These workouts can simply be 60 minutes or more of lower intensity activity in the same form as your interval sessions, or you may use a different form. Note that the intensity is relatively low, but not as low as your recovery workouts. The effort is just below that of the tempo sessions and is sustainable but effortful for long time periods. Talking is possible in full sentences but breathing remains moderately heavy.
Economy Sessions: Exercise economy (the efficiency at which energy becomes movement) is a critical component of optimal athletic performance. It is well documented that the only performance parameter to change for Lance Armstrong between his early career and late Tour de France winning career was his cycling economy. Economy can be improved by high cadence and high velocity training. For running, this means high pace and high foot strikes per minute running (i.e. 200 steps per minute, 100 per single foot). This can be incorporated into high intensity, tempo, or long sessions. For cycling, this means high rpm spinning (i.e. 100 revolutions per single foot). Typically, you want to find the pedal rpm at which you begin to bounce in your seat, then work on making that pedal stroke smooth to where the bouncing stops. Another useful tool for improving cycling economy is rollers. Using rollers requires smooth and efficient pedal strokes to avoid “jerky” and “lurching” movements. These high cadence cycling workouts can be incorporated into high intensity, tempo, long, or recovery rides.