Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Feb

The Best Exercise There Is, Hands Down

EquipmentThrow reality out the window for a second and entertain a hypothetical. Imagine you can only do one exercise for the rest of your life. If you had to choose a single exercise to do for the rest of your life, right here today, what would it be? It’s a popular question with a divergent set of answers depending on who’s being asked, and for the most part I see where everyone’s coming from.

If you ask the AARP, it’s the plank, which is easy on the joints, involves every body part, strengthens the core which can help prevent falls, is very safe for seniors (the intended audience of AARP), and you can do them anywhere without equipment. I have no fault with the plank.

If you ask the NY Times to ask various experts, it’s the squat, or maybe the burpee, or maybe sprinting uphill. These are all exercises that stress the entire body, that can be performed with high intensity to elicit the highest possible training effect in the least amount of time. You could do a lot worse than squatting, doing burpees, or sprinting.

If you were to ask Mark Rippetoe, I’d imagine you’d hear “the low-bar back squat” because it supposedly elicits the greatest hormonal response, builds oft-neglected posterior chain strength, makes your entire body stronger, and simply “makes a man outta ya.”

If you ask Rich Froning (top CrossFit athlete), it’s the barbell thruster, a fairly simple to learn “two in one” exercise combining a squat with an overhead press.

If you ask Charles Poliquin, it’s the snatch grip deadlift done on a platform, which increases the range of motion over the regular deadlift and builds overall strength and size better than any other exercise he’s seen.

Those are good candidates. A person could get and stay very strong, fit, fast, and healthy doing any one of those exercises for perpetuity, even to the exclusion of all others. But a thruster isn’t the best exercise there is, hands down. Nor are squats (of any kind), deadlifts (of any kind), or planks. Sprints are cool, but they aren’t the best.

The single best exercise there is, hands down, is the one you’ll do.

If I were giving a talk, this is where I’d pause until the eye-rolling, scoffing, and guffawing stopped. Go on, I know you’re thinking it. “The best exercise is the one you’ll stick with!” is a cheesy, cliche answer that you’ve heard a thousand times before.

But it’s true. By the most objective definition, the most effective exercise is the one you’ll do. Because heavy squats are fantastic for strength, unless you don’t do them. Because sprinting makes you lean and fast, unless you’re not sprinting. The same is true for everything. It only works if you do it.

One reason is consistency: adherence begets success. You don’t get stronger or fitter or leaner because of a single workout. You get stronger or fitter or leaner because of the cumulative effect of many, many workouts done on a consistent basis. Search the literature for research on exercise adherence and you won’t find much about the “benefits of exercise adherence” because the benefits are accepted as basic law. They’re implicit. You will instead find dozens of studies that seek to figure out the best way to promote adherence in various populations, because adherence is the most important factor in an exercise program’s effectiveness.

The key is figuring out which exercise you’ll actually do. And I don’t need scientific references for the notion that you’re more likely to do a physical activity that you actually enjoy doing. It’s a fundamental law of nature.

To me, the reason doing something you like is the best exercise isn’t only because it’ll promote consistency in your workouts. It’s also because doing things that you legitimately enjoy doing benefit you in other ways. This is called voluntary exercise – physical activity in which you willingly and readily engage. Certain animal studies confirm that voluntary exercise is more beneficial than forced exercise:

While some research has found forced exercise to be more beneficial in certain conditions like Parkinson’s disease, that’s probably because those conditions are inhibiting or preventing any meaningful amount of voluntary exercise. A mouse with Parkinson’s disease isn’t going to use the treadmill much at all unless you force him to. He needs forced exercise because voluntary exercise isn’t good enough due to his condition. In healthy people, though, without physiological impairments that directly impede the initiation of voluntary movement, doing exercise that you legitimately enjoy doing will be more beneficial.

Consequently, what many people do “voluntarily” for exercise looks pretty forced to me. Forcing a hamster to run on its wheel for a couple hours by using the threat of electric zaps isn’t so different from willing yourself to the gym, the influence of those break room donuts on your waistline hanging over your head. Most animals (and certainly not lab rats) can’t and won’t perform unpleasant tasks unless they absolutely have to; they won’t decide to do them because “it’s good for them.” Humans however can act as authoritative enforcers looming over their meat bodies, directly overriding the natural inclinations for the “greater good” of the organism.

When you’re summoning the willpower to grimace your way through a miserable workout routine, you’re not doing “voluntary exercise.”

When you dread your workout and feel physically ill at the prospect of going to the gym, you’re not doing voluntary exercise.

When you either love what you’re doing or feel a powerful calling to it – even if it’s physically grueling and not exactly “pleasurable” – you are doing voluntary exercise and the benefits will likely be greater than if the reverse were true.

I submit my non-peer reviewed N=1 experiment: when I started doing what I actually enjoyed, like playing Ultimate, going on hikes, stand-up paddling, running the occasional sprint, and lifting weights for about an hour a week, my health, fitness, strength, and body composition improved immensely. This jibes with the current research showing that finding an activity you enjoy doing and doing it consistently likely promotes adherence to other forms of general physical activity, too.

There’s just something about fully committing to an activity with every fiber of your being that elevates it above other activities and even makes it more effective.

You see this in the Olympic weight lifter that lives and bleeds for the sport, who’s really only at home and at peace with a cloud of gym chalk dust swirling around his head. You see it in the dancer making the immaterial material, the basketball player pulling off impossible moves even she didn’t see coming to weave through the lane, and the cyclist reaching the summit just as the sun comes up. You see it in  the bodybuilder who can trigger and engage specific muscle fibers by angling the weights a little differently and who likens the post-workout pump to really good sex. And you see it in the elderly but sprightly woman you see walking her elderly but sprightly dog every morning, noon, and night like clockwork by your house.

Would the cyclist be better off in a spin class doing intervals set to Lady Gaga songs (that happens, right?)?

Should the bodybuilder lay off the isolation exercises and focus on “real strength”?

Would I be better off doing CrossFit instead of playing Ultimate on the weekend?

No. These are people doing their thing. These are people who have chosen wisely, who’ve found it. And it doesn’t matter what it looks like, or what it involves, as long as you’re doing the thing. Even if, according to gym lore or the latest research, the exercise isn’t quite as “effective” as another one.

Of course, this is a hypothetical. A thought experiment to help you take stock of your fitness life. Are you currently mired in an involuntary workout routine that you read about on a legitimate training blog? If so, consider switching gears. Try something else, something fun, something you’ve always wanted to do or maybe once did but for various reasons (“growing up”?) stopped doing. Try it for a month and deemphasize your previous routine. Find your thing.

Once you do find it, you won’t look back.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great article! I might add that while it may be true the best exercise is the one you will do, a variety and planned program will get you the results you desire. Don’t be stuck in a rut, doing that one favorite exercise. Plan it, change it and do it on purpose!

    Nicole King wrote on February 26th, 2014
  2. WOW! Didn’t see that coming…..but you are ABSOLUTELY right!

    dotsyjmaher wrote on February 26th, 2014
  3. Thank you for saying it this way!

    “The single best exercise there is, hands down, is the one you’ll do.”

    It is cliche, but that’s almost a synonym with truth, right? 😉

    We’ve over-complicated things so much by giving arbitrary “facts” about what’s better, etc, that many people are frozen in confusion, putting off doing anything when they’re not sure who to listen to.

    Cindy wrote on February 26th, 2014
  4. TWO THUMBS UP !!!

    “the best exercise is the one you will do”… Mark nails it again… LOL…

    MR PALEO wrote on February 26th, 2014
  5. Hey Mark, you really know how to capture my attention with your headlines, then throw me for a loop. Love your writing and your perspective on life! I guess in my case I can only totally agree with you on this one….my husband and I have been retired for 10 years now( we are both 60 this year!). We ski (downhill, cross country and back country) for 4 months every year, then spend spring and fall in Mexico…snorkelling, beach walking, desert hiking. In the summers we grow a huge garden with organic veggies and fruit, preserving, pickling, dehydrating and fermenting and then go mountain biking, swimming, hiking in the nearby lakes and mountains.
    We love our lives and intend to continue all of the above well into our Golden Years!

    Gypsyrozbud wrote on February 26th, 2014
  6. Totally agree with this post. I have a few CrossFit friends who have encouraged me to try it over the past few years. Not my thing! Too regimented, too artificial, too…inside. Going for a walk or skating outside on a rink or hiking in the mountains or playing in the ocean or climbing with kids at the park? I’m in. I add a little bodyweight workout in my living room a few times a week and feel just fine :)

    Em wrote on February 26th, 2014
  7. Word!
    I’d like to recommend to Mark and all Apples (if you haven’t seen him already) “Ido Portal”.
    Look it up on YouTube.
    This guy is epicness embodied!
    He has a very primal approach to “exercise” too.

    Nathan P wrote on February 26th, 2014
  8. Great idea Mark! The best exercise has to be something that will continually get people moving. For me it varies, but I’d go with dancing!!! With this exercise I can twist, lunge, squat, handstand and generally get my groove on anytime anywhere.
    Let’s get the world grooving and moving again!

    Sean wrote on February 27th, 2014
  9. Hollow rock is the single best exercise you can do. Forget the plank.

    David wrote on February 27th, 2014
  10. Every morning I get up, drink my morning bpc and then I do at least 15 burpees before I walk or bike 4 kms to work. During office ours I will go outside and do 15 more a couple times a day. Its the only cardio workout I do. Burpees are incredibly intense and on top of that they give you some psychological benefit in the postures involved. Its a winning, cheerful move that leaves you feeling cool and on top of things, best way to describe it.

    Anders Emil wrote on February 27th, 2014
  11. Best article I’ve read all month.

    I hate running, mostly because I had a severe knee injury as a kid and it’s painful. I have involuntarily, and painfully, tried to become a “runner” because people are constantly telling me “I should”, and “it’s the best”.

    I’ve been attempting to train for a 10k this year, and honestly dread every moment and it’s draining me. Not too mention the stress and exhaustion I feel after running has caused me to be sick, or skip a few days of working out. And then I feel like a failure because I don’t like it.

    You know what? I’m over it.

    I love cycling, Zumba and cross training. These things energize me and make me want to go back daily! I’m happier when I get done, than when I started. It’s stress relief and I love it!

    Part of life is knowing who you aren’t, and being happy with it.

    Awesome, awesome article Mark. Thank you.

    Eugenia wrote on February 27th, 2014
  12. I started to sprint consistently, twice a week, and it is amazing. Same results as 100 miles on the bike without the pain associated with that. My C reactive protein score was 12.3.. Every joint hurt. I feel like I am cheating. I bike now only slowly and in beautiful places. Grok on. Gary

    Gary Simons wrote on February 27th, 2014
  13. This article made me happy.

    Joy Beer wrote on February 27th, 2014
  14. Some really great points. As a health and triathlon coach I find it fun to “geek out” on the latest news, whether it’s research or someone’s take on a particular. As a chiropractor, I’ve made it my business to know the in’s & out’s of some of these movements my patients are performing. Having said that, it’s not everyone’s job or passion to be trying out the latest exercise routine. Love your advice of just getting out there doing something they love.

    Chris Frykman, DC wrote on February 27th, 2014
  15. Parkour, hands down. It’s not even exercise. It never feels like a chore. But it is a workout.

    Fritzy wrote on February 27th, 2014
  16. Hi great topic. I prefer exercise with KBs in Pavel Tsatsouline style because it works for me and it´s fun. If I had at least two options for exercise I would definitely pick up TGU and KB Swing for sure. :)

    Ondra wrote on February 28th, 2014
  17. Hi
    Excellent article; I haven’t been to a gym in the last 6 months, due to where I was relocated to work. I adjusted my routine and started a work-out regime which included long brisk walks, sprints, running distance in the park with hills, calisthenics, and yoga at home (supported with 7lb hand weights). I also engaged many of the stand-alone “home” training exercises suggested by Mark Sisson and the dynamic Gabby Reece and Laird Hamilton, and have also been using a book which explains and guides how to practice pilates at home. Mixing things up and shaking things up have put me into the best shape of my life. At the drop of a dime, I can go out and run a 15km, and my flexibility has quadrupled. I haven’t felt this great since I was 19, and with that, now see “gym culture” as a limited space. I’ve saved money and also have more free-time on my hands.

    Monika wrote on February 28th, 2014
  18. Is it just me or do other people find it hard to stomach all the experiments we inflict in the name of science. Just thinking about a hamster running to prevent being electrically shocked is pretty harsh and upsetting to think about. We may be learning everything we can about health but there’s a moral cost to pay as the guardians of this planet. I think I’ll practice my favourite exercise of walking in nature- enjoy yours. I ain’t no animal fanatic but I thought that point needed making when we are all in the Prime of our health.

    Kevin wrote on February 28th, 2014
  19. Your article is enlightening…can’t make someone do anything unless they want to and ready for it. Sometimes a life situation makes one change.
    I did not like gyms, looked like a mesh of clinking steel equipment, musty smell, and unbridled testosterone. I like structure; doing something with a trainer; having a purpose for the “torture”.
    10 yrs ago ( at 50) I started Alpine ski racing. 6 months on the snow; 6 months of summer – hiking, walking, short distance running. 2 yrs ago (at 58), had a bone scan and was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis (lumbar and left hip areas). Life changing; threatened the future on skiing (I am 5’3, 105 lbs Asian)
    A friend told me about the excellent trainer/training at the Crossfit gym. I had to change my perception of Gyms.
    Except for double unders, I ENJOY and look forward to each structured session!
    At 60 (March 13), I am stronger and healthier and still ski racing. (a followup bone scan showed an great improvement)
    Whatever inspires a person’s body to MOVE is what is best.
    Thanks for your article.
    P.S. love the Primal Fuel

    lors wrote on March 1st, 2014
  20. If your body is sick, you don’t FEEL like doing any exercise, there will be nothing you like. So IMO, it needs to start with diet. Otherwise, you will always be trying to flog a weak and sick body into action, and no surprise the outcome will not be as beneficial as hoped. IMO, a big reason why exercise and health are correlated is because healthy people naturally have more energy and feel liking getting up and moving around. They like it because they feel energetic. I have been on both sides of the coin so I’ve seen it from both viewpoints.

    Eva wrote on March 1st, 2014
  21. Its all about being versatile, usually I do a lot of gym strength training, recently i started riding bike which i totally love, if i travel and there is no decent gym around i do sit ups and push ups and jog whatever it takes to keep moving and even if its only for 30 minutes

    easy to do and easy not to do but a small simple error in judgement will lead to disaster –

    thanks for providing great information

    Cisco wrote on March 2nd, 2014
  22. I love changing exercice routine, although I always stick to at least an hour of Zumba a week and a long run while my girls are on their bike….then I play it by the season. I live in Switzerland – meaning water and mountains. I truly feel blessed to alternate cross country skiing, down hill with swimming in summer and some trekking….shame I still have to seat in front of a computer 6 hours a day….but at least I have great outdoor options to keep me moving.

    Cécile wrote on March 3rd, 2014
  23. What a lovely read! I am a fitness instructor and I try to give this emphasis of “enjoying” and “taking enjoyment” in the exercise(s) my clients and I are experiencing together. If a newcomer is nervous or reluctant as to whether participate I comment “my class is focused on enjoyment…come and give it a go…if you ENJOY yourself embrace that and let it become part of your lifestyle. You can then start to feel motivated, confident and more content with yourself.”
    I also believe that it’s great to try new and challenging activities …keeps the mind and body alert. If an exercise feels boring or becomes dull etc…move on and get stuck into something new and paramountly ENJOYABLE !
    Thanks for some great articles 😉

    Stephie b wrote on March 4th, 2014
  24. I train really hard and I am relatively new to the Paleo way of eating (approx 6 months). Initially I lost weight but have found that I have now gained about 3kgs and cannot get rid of it.

    I also tend to carry most of my weight around my belly. I am trying really hard to get my belly down and dream of a six pack but unfortunately nothing seems to be working.

    I run 10km twice a week and do crossfit type training four days a week for about 45mins.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for me?

    Dominique wrote on March 4th, 2014
    • Belly is always the last place to loose it from & the first place it goes back to, so look for improvements elsewhere first.

      Use a tape measure, body fat analyzer and a mirror to track your progress rather than a scales. I dropped 4kg in the first few weeks of going primal but I am now back at the same weight. However I have dropped a jean size & 2% body fat, (probably would be more but for my intermittent biscuit (cookie) weakness!).

      Also that’s quite a lot of high intensity, cardio heavy training. Before I started, I was training 1 hr, 6 days a week; a mix of weight’s, swimming, running & martial arts. Now I train 15-20mins a day, same mix – Stronger, faster & not constantly tired. I would guess my endurance is less but you don’t need it for everyday tasks so I’m not bothered.

      Try easing off & add some low intensity for a few weeks – see how that works.

      WelshGrok wrote on March 4th, 2014
      • Thanks for the suggestions/tips I will give it a try :)

        Dominique wrote on March 4th, 2014
  25. It sounds like you share the same values as me. I too believe fitness should be all about doing something you love, whether its hiking, playing golf, or lifting weights. Everyone has something they enjoy that keeps them active. Sometimes it just takes some experimenting and creativity to find what you enjoy. I think it’s important to focus your efforts on these things because not only will your body benefit more, you’ll perform better and enjoy yourself in the process. It’s a win-win-win.

    Tim wrote on March 4th, 2014
  26. Your posts help me make small changes that really add up and keep me motivated. Thank you Mark:) -Alisha

    Alisha wrote on March 4th, 2014
  27. Add me to the rebounding crowd. I used to do a lot of walking but now that I have a torn meniscus, rebounding is the only form of exercise I actually enjoy and am consistent in doing. And rebounding to music is even better.
    I just turned 68. A week before my 61st birthday my 7th & 8th grandchildren were born (twin boy and girl) and I did a LOT of babysitting before they went off to kgn. Believe me–that’s the ultimate workout for a so-called senior!

    Leslie wrote on March 5th, 2014
  28. I’m always pointing my clients in the direction of recreation. Finding enjoyable activities is the ultimate way to maintain consistency and strength. However, for many, the strength to play pain free and injury free is lacking and that’s where a little routine comes in handy.
    Traditional fitness needs to bridge the gaps for people from deconditioned to sufficiently conditioned to play, and if there is then a desire for it, strong enough to perform or compete at higher levels.
    I think its important to reference the enjoyment of the voluntary exercises to reinforce the need for certain supportive exercises for the gap from sedentary to fit.

    Brian the Primal Strongman wrote on March 23rd, 2014
  29. I used to go to gyms and enjoyed them years ago. Then they got boring and too noisy as I got older, so I joined a BUG group (Bicycle User Group) and cycled all around the countryside with a bunch of people I enjoyed being with. I even went on a cycling holiday with 1800 people and we cycled 560 km over 8 days. It was a great atmosphere and a great way to see the country. I really got to know where the hills were! Now I’m in a different location with very long winters and haven’t done so much exercise. Until recently. I discovered the mini trampoline. What fun! with music. I couldn’t agree more, the best exercise is the one that you will do, that you actually enjoy!

    Iris Ztarr wrote on July 1st, 2014
  30. Stationary bike 3 days a week in temperatures below 40 at LA Fitness otherwise outside on a real bike works for me all year long.

    Watching others workout in every imaginable way while not actually moving is entertainment, otherwise actually moving is engaging enough.

    I enjoy bicycling wouldn’t you say

    Wayno wrote on January 1st, 2015

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