7 Most Effective Exercises
Experts offer their favorite moves for making the most of your workout time.
By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Experts say there is no magic to exercise: You get out of it what you put in. That doesn't mean you have to work out for hours each day. It just means you need to work smart. That said, experts agree that not all exercises are created equal. Some are simply more efficient than others, whether they target multiple muscle groups, are suitable for a wide variety of fitness levels, or help you burn calories more effectively.
So what are the best exercises? We posed this question to four fitness experts and compiled a list of their favorites.
1. Walking. Any exercise program should include cardiovascular exercise, which strengthens the heart and burns calories. And walking is something you can do anywhere, anytime, with no equipment other than a good pair of shoes. It's not just for beginners, either: Even the very fit can get a good workout from walking. "Doing a brisk walk can burn up to 500 calories per hour," says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Since it takes 3,500 calories to lose a pound, you could expect to lose a pound for every seven hours you walk, if you did nothing else. Don't go from the sofa to walking an hour day, though. Richard Cotton, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, says beginners should start by walking five to -10 minutes at a time, gradually moving up to at least 30 minutes per session. "Don't add more than five minutes at a time," he says. Another tip: It's better to lengthen your walks before boosting your speed or incline.
2. Interval training. Whether you're a beginner or an exercise veteran, a walker or an aerobic dancer, adding interval training to your cardiovascular workout will boost your fitness level and help you lose weight. "Varying your pace throughout the exercise session stimulates the aerobic system to adapt," says Cotton. "The more power the aerobic system has, the more capacity you have to burn calories." The way to do it is to push the intensity or pace for a minute or two, then back off for anywhere from two to -10 minutes (depending on how long your total workout will be, and how much time you need to recover). Continue doing this throughout the workout.
3. Squats. Strength training is essential, the experts say. "The more muscular fitness you have," says Cotton, "the greater the capacity you have to burn calories." And our experts tended to favor strength-training exercises that target multiple muscle groups. Squats, which work the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals, are an excellent example. "They give you the best bang for the buck because they use the most muscle groups at once," says Oldsmar, Fla., trainer David Petersen. Form is key, though, warns Petersen. "What makes an exercise functional is how you perform the exercise," he says. "If you have bad technique, it's no longer functional." For perfect form, keep feet shoulder-width apart and back straight. Bend knees and lower your rear, says Cotton: "The knee should remain over the ankle as much as possible." "Think of how you sit down in a chair, only the chair's not there," suggests Gotlin. Physical therapist Adam Rufa, of Cicero, N.Y., says practicing with a real chair can help. "Start by working on getting in and out of a real chair properly," he says. Once you've mastered that, try just tapping the chair with your bottom, then coming back up. Then do the same motion without the chair. Gotlin sees lots of patients with knee pain, and says quadriceps weakness is the cause much of the time. If you feel pain going down stairs, he says, strengthening your quads with squats may very well help.
4. Lunges. Like squats, lunges work all the major muscles of the lower body: gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings. "A lunge is a great exercise because it mimics life, it mimics walking," only exaggerated, says Petersen. Lunges are a bit more advanced than squats, says Cotton, helping to improve your balance as well. Here's how to do them right: Take a big step forward, keeping your spine in a neutral position. Bend your front knee to approximately 90 degrees, focusing on keeping weight on the back toes and dropping the knee of your back leg toward the floor. Petersen suggests that you imagine sitting on your back foot. "The trailing leg is the one you need to sit down on," he says. To make a lunge even more functional, says Rufa, try stepping not just forward, but back and out to each side. "Life is not linear, it's multiplanar," says Rufa. And the better they prepare you for the various positions you'll move in during the course of a day, the more useful exercises are.
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