There are thousands of different workout programs and methods to approach becoming more fit. These range from at home workout videos, to aerobic or yoga classes, to bootcamps and group functional training workouts. Methods, benefits, and risks/drawbacks could be debated until our last breath and often are amongst many fitness professionals. One thing I’ve come to learn thus far in my 22 years in this industry is that dogmatic approaches rarely pan out, and you are better off steering clear of anything or anyone who claims any one method of training is optimal and a cure all for everyone under every circumstance. I do believe that there are some universal habits that will vastly improve one's fitness and overall health though.
To know what habits will best improve long term outcomes, we must first define the term. There are 3 definitions of fitness. The first (and newest, brought on by the growth of the fitness industry) is “the condition of being physically fit and healthy.” This definition misses the mark as it uses the root of the word in it, and doesn’t really tell us anything. The second definition is “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.” This definition is a little bit better. We can see here that the fitness required to be an NFL offensive lineman, and the fitness required to run the Ironman in Hawaii is much different. This still doesn’t get to what most of us think of when we describe someone as being fit though. The third definition, and the one I find to be most relevant to the general population, is “an organism's ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment.” Put differently, your ability to reproduce and pass your genes onto the next generation. At first glance this may seem like a poor definition. If we remove ourselves 100-500 years to a time where modern technology and medicine couldn't “fix” everything, this definition is ideal. If someone is over or underweight they struggle with fertility. If someone has major health complications, injuries, etc. they would have a hard time attracting a mate, defending themselves/home, or feeding themselves. Certain lifestyle choices will absolutely reduce fertility rates (smoking, drinking, stress) therefore decreasing one's fitness. Operating with the biological definition of fitness, I find that the following 6 habits will set you up for a lifetime of greatness.
Walk and Move daily
This is so simple, yet like many things in life the simplicity of this simple habit causes it to get overlooked or ignored. This is by far the most common habit amongst fit individuals. Don’t over think it or complicate it. A good minimal target is to walk 1 mile each day. Walk with purpose at a slightly faster pace than you would normally select, and move your arms. It doesn’t have to be super strenuous or difficult. When looking at the small number of individuals who are successful with long term weight loss, researchers have seen that doing 4-5+ hours/week of planned exercise/activity is a staple. This comes out to 30-60 minutes per day. In addition to regular walks choose leisure activities that involve movement. Ride a bike, kayak, paddle board, golf (skip the cart if possible), hike. Do these things at least half as much time as you surf social media or binge watch shows on netflix. Just get off your butt and move around at least 30 minutes each day. It doesn’t have to be all in one shot, but make it happen, and make it intentional. Daily movement helps manage stress, regulate hunger, and has big cognitive benefits as well. The only stipulation I would be here is to avoid activities with high risk of injury. Afterall, if you get substantially injured it makes daily movement a bit more difficult.
Strength is probably one of the greatest indicators of longevity and quality of life that we have. How strong is strong enough will get you different responses depending on what strength coach you talk to and what population we are talking about. However, one thing is for certain. You can almost always get stronger at something, and there is virtually no drawback to being stronger. Most people will be best served by having 5-6 movements that they focus on getting really strong at, and keeping those in their training plan for 6-12 weeks at a time. I typically recommend picking one movement from each movement category (Squat, Lunge, Hinge, Push, Pull, and Carry/Crawl) and getting as strong as possible on that given movement. For this purpose we want to pick movements that you feel comfortable with, are pain free, and you have maximal range of motion. Stick with 2-6 repetitions, 3-5 sets, for 2-4 strength training sessions each week.
Sleep and Recover
Make sure you are getting 7-9 hours of high quality sleep each night. Sleeping in a cooler room, with maximal darkness, and sometimes a white noise machine can help with this. As well as limiting blue light (the kind emitted from phones, tv, and computer screens) 1-2 hours before going to bed and dimming lights around the house. If we don’t get enough sleep stress levels tend to increase, our mood tends to be worse, and we don’t recover as well as we could.
Hydration requirements vary from person to person, based on body size, activity level, temperature, etc. But in general shooting for about ½ ounce per pound of bodyweight is a good place to start for daily intake. If you are far off from that, or forget to drink water start small and gradually increase intake overtime. Optimal water intake will help with recovery, keep you full longer, assist your body in performing vital intracelular chemical reactions, as well as aiding in removing toxins/waste from your body.
Eat Protein at Every Meal
One of the most common shortfalls I see in many new clients diets (especially women) is a lack of protein in the diet. Shoot for 1-2 palm sized portions at every meal or 4-6 per day. As you get older this number likely goes up as elderly people tend to be anabolic resistant to the protein synthesis stimulating effects of protein. Each meal should include some sort of lean protein (more protein than carbs of fat).
The other big nutritional deficiency I see with clients is vegetable intake. Veggies are chalked full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other phytonutrients that a multivitamin simply can’t replicate. There is a huge correlation with vegetable intake reduction of cancers, and other life threatening diseases. Shoot for 1-2 fist sized portions at each meal or 4-8 servings per day. Try to avoid adding unnecessary calories in the form of breading, excessive butter, or ranch dressing. Try to steam, roast, saute, or eat raw as much as possible.
Wrapping it all up
Move daily walking or doing something. Strength train with full body movements 2-3 times per week with a focus on getting stronger (while keeping good form, full range of motion, and avoiding pain). Get consistent, and high quality sleep most nights of the week. Drink plenty of water and consume protein and veggies at each meal. If you’re missing out on any of these things then pick one thing to work on. Break it down into smaller more manageable steps if needed and take action. It’s not what we know that dictates our success, but what we do.