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How to Match Your Workout to Meet Your Needs

Updated on March 22, 2017

You know that physical activity is good for you. What you may not realize is just how much of a game-changer it can be.

In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers looked at ten pairs of male identical twins in their 30s who were similar in most ways, right down to their eating habits—except that one twin in each pair had stopped exercising regularly in adulthood.

Despite the fact that the less active twins had the same DNA as their fit brothers, after just three sedentary years, they had begun to develop insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes). They also had more body fat and lower endurance—and, perhaps most notably, less gray matter in the brain regions responsible for motor control and coordination.

While the study was small, its evidence that exercise may have as large an effect on your health as your genes do.

Of course, when you're debating whether to respond to two dozen unopened e-mails or go for a jog, "good health" can become an abstract concept to be worried about on another day. A simple way to make exercise more pressing—and desirable—is to take a goal-oriented approach. Research shows that certain forms of physical activity are especially effective for specific objectives, and getting results will motivate you to lace up your gym shoes again and again.

Here's how to match your workout to your needs and tap into the power of movement.

For More Energy, Exercise Three to Four Times a Week

Regular exercise increases energy and reduces fatigue in adults of all ages with various health conditions—even the kinds that cause exhaustion, like fibromyalgia—and in people who are healthy, too, according to a 2006 University of Georgia review.

The study authors found that just 20 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity activity (including cardiovascular exercises, like biking, walking, strength training, or stretching) a few times a week improved energy in as little as four to six weeks. Exercise evens out your fluid and salt balance, helps your body use sugar [in the bloodstream], and burns fat. It fundamentally helps you feel better.

What's more, physical activity increases the size and number of your mitochondria, which are the cellular powerhouses that help your body operate efficiently

To Limit Your Doctor's Visits, Wear a Fitbit

Yes, sitting is the new smoking: Research shows that the less you move, the higher your risk of, well, just about every health problem. A hundred years ago, Americans spent their waking hours doing physically demanding tasks. Today the average person sits at work all day, then goes home and sits in front of the television.

But you don't need to join CrossFit to undo the ill effects of an office job and live a longer, healthier life. Instead, try to move more. Also consider using a fitness-tracking device, like a Fitbit or a Garmin watch. The device will give you a reasonably accurate estimate of how active you are by logging your steps as you do activities like gardening, cleaning, and taking bathroom breaks. Any number over zero is good, but 7,000 steps a day and you're vastly improving your health

And, yes, all movement counts. According to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, people who did short bursts of physical activity—for example, raking leaves or pacing while talking on the phone—for a total of 150 minutes a week were as healthy as people who logged similar amounts of aerobic fitness (like biking). They had similar blood pressure, cholesterol levels, waist circumferences, and levels of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker found in the blood that is linked to health problems such as heart disease and arthritis).

The fact that exercise enables you to take better care of yourself and those around you is as much reason to do it as disease prevention.

To Spend as Little Time as Possible Exercising, Go All-Out

No doubt you've heard of the magical seven-minute workout, the three-minute workout—even the one-minute workout. These high-intensity interval training (HITT) routines, which typically alternate bouts of intense and less intense exercise, aren't all hype.

A 2014 study from McMaster University in Ontario found that overweight adults who biked at high intensity for just one minute while also doing nine minutes of moderate-intensity biking three times a week increased their endurance capacity by an average of 12 percent—a significant improvement, say researchers. Study subjects lowered their blood pressure and improved their levels of biochemical substances that increase mitochondria, too.

The key is to exercise hard—but not so hard that you hurt or over-exert yourself. A 2014 study published in the journal PLOS One found that people who did HIIT workouts on a daily or near-daily basis had worse endurance than individuals who did the same workouts just three times a week. To give your body a break, intersperse quick-and-hard sweat sessions with enjoyable day-to-day activities, like walking.

To Ease a Chronic Health Problem, See a Pro and Go Slow

When you're dealing with an ongoing health issue, it may seem tempting—safer, even—to avoid exercise, but that's precisely the time you can most benefit from movement. Exercise eases the symptoms of many chronic conditions, such as arthritis. And in the case of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, it can even reverse them. It also reduces pain by increasing blood flow and promoting the release of feel-good brain chemicals, like endorphins.

To avoid injury and burnout, begin slowly. Start with 10 minutes, or even five, several times a week. You want to build strength and endurance over the course of several months. Get your doctor's OK before starting a new exercise program, but keep in mind that many physicians have little or no fitness expertise. A physical therapist or an American College of Sports Medicine—certified physiologist or personal trainer can help you create a personalized plan.

To Lose Weight (or Keep it Off), Combine Strength Training and Cardio

Sad yet established fact: Exercise alone usually won't take the extra pounds off; you have to curb your calorie intake for that to happen. That's why a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that most sedentary women who did three weekly, vigorous-intensity treadmill workouts for 12 weeks but didn't change their eating habits were not able to lose weight.

However, data from the National Weight Control Registry—an ongoing, decades-long research study of people who lose a significant amount of weight—shows that those who successfully maintain a substantial loss do so in part by exercising most days of the week. You should be doing a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training. Aerobic exercise burns calories that would otherwise be stored as extra pounds. Strength training builds and preserves muscle mass, which can offset age-related muscle loss, keeping your metabolism revved, even during menopause.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week. But if you do high-intensity workouts, like running or Spinning, you can cut that amount in half. Do at least two weekly strength-training sessions, too, by lifting weights or doing Pilates, yoga, or resistance exercises (think planks and push-ups).

To Reduce Stressed or Depression, Exercise Regularly but Not Too Hard

The real reason to get excited about exercise is that it makes you feel great. Women who get regular physical activity tend to have less stress and anxiety and higher self-esteem than do those who are inactive, even during what can be tough times.

If you are blue or have been diagnosed with depression, aerobic exercise is a particularly effective mood booster. But other forms of exercise, such as yoga and strength training, can help, too. Perhaps the best example is a now famous Duke University study published in 1999, which found that depressed adults who did 45 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week improved their mood as much as did those who took the prescription antidepressant Zoloft instead of exercising.

Exercise takes you out of your head; it's harder to worry when you're focusing on where you're walking or whether you can hit the ball. It also increases mood-boosting brain chemicals, such as serotonin, and endorphins, which ease pain and increase pleasure while lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

But steer clear of any form of exercise that feels painful or uncomfortable while you're doing it (such as sprints or a punishing Spinning class) Though a negative experience during training is temporary, it may be enough to keep you from going back and doing it again. Even "light" exercise, like walking, will help you feel better, provided you do it most days. When it comes to mood, the effects of exercise may only last about 24 hours.

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