For the past 18 years, the Experience Life team has interviewed top fitness experts, reviewed countless exercise studies, embarked on individual fitness journeys, and talked with our readers about their own healthy endeavors. In doing so, we have archived a trove of collective knowledge that forms the foundation of EL’s fitness philosophy: Everybody can access, embrace, and personalize movement in some way, regardless of size, shape, skin color, ability, skill, or fitness level. It is not reserved for an elite few.
To create our fitness manifesto, we collected the training advice that is most emblematic, educational, and inspiring. These informational nuggets not only sum up what we believe real fitness is all about, but they also form the backbone of any effective fitness regimen.
This manifesto includes exercise in all its beautiful forms: indoors and out, team sports and solo endeavors, yoga, Pilates, running, cycling, free weights and machines, martial arts, dance, and more. It also covers nutrition, recovery, goal-setting, tracking, intuitive training, and prefab fitness plans. And it’s all designed to empower you to build the kind of program that moves you toward your healthiest, happiest, most satisfying fit life.
There are no “shoulds” here. Choose what suits your fitness level, experience, and preferences — and enjoy!
Mind Your Mindset
The first step toward transformation is getting your brain onboard. This is not about buckling down, logging time working out, and pursuing a goal or regimen that breaks your body down more than it builds you up.
What we mean by “mindset” is clarifying your why — the reason you’re seeking change — and starting where you are today, right now, in any given moment. Assessing (and periodically reassessing) what you want, why you want it, and what you can realistically achieve can mean the difference between success and failure.
This process not only maintains your momentum toward meaningful goals, but the insights you glean can also provide reassurance when things don’t go according to plan. (Learn more about setting goals at “Plan for Success.”)
The following tools and tips can help keep you on track and adaptable, whatever comes your way.
Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better
Self-help books often suggest that change is instantaneous. Overnight, they promise, you can discard old behaviors (obsessing over social media, eating sweets) and adopt new ones (jogging, eating more veggies). But things rarely work out this way.
Instead, behavioral change is a multistage, nonlinear process, as renowned psychologist James Prochaska’s transtheoretical model (TTM) of change asserts:
- Precontemplation: You don’t recognize the need to change — and may resist it.
- Contemplation: You understand that you need to change.
- Preparation: You’re ready to take action and begin planning.
- Action: You implement your plan.
- Maintenance: You consolidate the gains you’ve made.
- Termination: Your new behavior is habitual.
You might skip from one phase to another and back again several times before making it to the termination phase. Many people interpret this as a failure of willpower — and perhaps further evidence that they aren’t cut out for exercise. But falling off the wagon is part of the process. Revisiting some or all of the phases offers more opportunities to learn what works for you.
Shake Up Your Story
Before you take action, consider your exercise mindset: Are you excited by the prospect of working out? Feeling overwhelmed? Guilty? Are you ready to start tomorrow, or would you rather not think about it at all?
Try describing your feelings about exercise in a quick, five-minute, stream-of-consciousness burst. This list can help identify what phase of change you’re experiencing.
It can also reveal the stories that might be hindering your progress. You may discover that you think you’re smart but not athletic, or funny but physically hopeless. Over time, and with practice, you can change the stories you tell yourself — and, ultimately, change your life.
Many of us feel out of place or intimidated in the health club or gym. Luckily, there are ways to face your fears.
- Start where you are. Heed your fitness level and unique skills, and gradually progress to advanced exercises and lifting heavier weights.
- Keep it simple. Basic, multijoint movements — think pushups, squats, lunges, and rows — will form the backbone of your workouts, now and forever. Do 10 reps of each, rest, and repeat for a simple DIY workout.
- Show up. Carving out the time and energy to work out can feel like a Herculean task, but consistency has a domino effect. Commit yourself; over time, showing up for your workouts will feel like second nature.
- Don’t go it alone. If you’re unsure about where to start, or you simply need some added motivation and accountability, there are many solutions: Hire a coach or personal trainer, find an accountability group (in person or online), or enlist a friend or partner as your workout buddy.
Find Your Fitness Motivation
Mindset and motivation go hand-in-hand. Your goals and the why that you identify as part of your mindset are major motivators, but chances are they’re not your only ones.
Extrinsic motivation originates from outside of ourselves. These are usually goals or desires that drive us to gain an external reward or avoid some punishment. While extrinsic goals aren’t bad — striving to win a competition, for example, can be hugely motivating — many experts warn against relying on them exclusively. Instead, try to view extrinsic motivators as occasional treats to be used in moderation.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within ourselves and is connected to our deeply held values. This may include exercising to manage chronic conditions like back pain and diabetes, pursuing lifelong mobility to play with children and grandchildren, boosting self-confidence, or simply having fun. Intrinsic motivators tend to be more powerful and sustainable over time.
As your fitness improves and your movement practice grows, ask yourself what (or who) is motivating you and why. Here are a few to consider.
Do It for Your Body
Regular exercise is undoubtedly a form of body maintenance: The benefits extend to your cardiovascular system, muscles, bones, joints, connective tissues, and even your skin.
Moving your body can be a source of joy during the exercise itself, while also offsetting unhealthy practices (such as prolonged sitting at a desk or in a car) and allowing you to do other activities you love. Moreover, staying fit helps you age well, maintaining mobility, independence, and quality of life.
Do It for Your Brain
When you’re exercising, your brain is usually not what’s on your mind. But that activity is building your gray matter in myriad ways, making you more alert, creative, motivated, and perceptive. It’s helping you learn better, remember more, and combat stress. It’s boosting your mood, reducing anxiety and depression.
In sum, exercise keeps your brain healthy. Try movements that simultaneously challenge your cardiovascular system and your mind, such as tennis, yoga, dance, Pilates, karate, and ice skating.
Do It for Your Workout Buddies
We are social animals, and interacting with others can yield real benefits. Individuals who are active in fitness communities often find they can reach goals faster and blast through plateaus more quickly.
The boom in fitness communities has its roots in popular group fitness classes and training programs, such as Life Time’s Alpha and GTX. And the digital landscape also offers ample opportunity to connect with like-minded fitness enthusiasts. Through apps, hashtags, forums, and private Facebook groups — including EL’s Real Fitness group at ELmag.com/realfitnessfacebook — people are finding accountability, support, and camaraderie.
Do It for a Better World
For decades, endurance athletes have run, walked, swum, hiked, and danced for causes as varied as cancer research and environmental stewardship. The barriers to participation are few: Pay the entry fee, rally your community to raise money, and show up the day of the event to put one foot in front of the other.
Whatever your sport, activity, or movement practice of choice, you can find a philanthropic event that benefits you and your community.
Fitness is For Every Body
Conventional thinking about fitness tends to conjure certain prototypical images: lean, young, white, straight, and able-bodied. In the real world, however, the physically fit vary widely, including people of diverse abilities, body sizes, skin tones, gender identities, adaptations, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Each of us has a right to take up space and move our bodies in whatever way is manageable and pleasing.
If you have ever doubted whether your body is “right” for yoga, dance, weightlifting, running, or any other activity, you’re not alone. Rewriting that script can be difficult. (For help, see “Shake Up Your Story,” above.)
It’s not as simple as flipping a mental switch to suddenly embrace gym time as a revolutionary act of health, self-reliance, and pleasure, but the EL team is here to remind you that, with time and practice, you can.
We all can.
In your teens and 20s, the workout world is your oyster. Young people are primed to soak up the rewards of physical activity, and exercising in early adulthood is your first step toward preventing osteoporosis, a major risk factor for fractures and frailty.
Moreover, strong bones and muscles, fewer injuries, quick recovery, and naturally high levels of anabolic hormones allow you to make faster progress than at any other point in your life.
So, do you want to take up sprinting, Olympic weightlifting, contact sports, rock climbing, martial arts? Go for it. All of it.
You’re Never Too Old
It’s a timeworn excuse: “I’m getting too old for that!” It’s easy to buy into myths of diminishing function long before they become a reality. But once you stop challenging yourself, you start aging a whole lot faster.
Worse, as you lose muscle, agility, and balance, you run a much greater risk of succumbing to health problems and injuries that can markedly reduce your quality of life. No matter your age, a holistic approach is your best bet: Build strength, endurance, energy, flexibility, and balance.
At any age, and particularly as we get older, too much rest may do more harm than good. Once prescribed almost universally for back pain, illness, and discomfort of all kinds, bed rest has been associated with reduced strength and endurance, changes in soft tissue, bone loss, joint disease, high blood pressure, and weakening of the cardiovascular system. It’s one reason falls are often fatal for the elderly: Injuries may heal, but the health complications of an extended bed rest can be irreversible.
Physical activity also may decrease the likelihood of cognitive decline and dementia.
Remember that throughout your life your body remains adaptable. And if you exercise consistently, what may have seemed impossible can become possible — even easy and enjoyable.
Yes, You Can
Every body is a yoga body, or a lifter’s body, or a dancer’s body. No matter your size, shape, race, ethnic background, fitness level, or physical or cognitive adaptivity, movement is a human birthright that is yours to claim.
Master the Basics
“Just tell me what to do!” is a common plea from novice exercisers — the implication being that, with a plan, success is imminent. But until you know why you’re putting in the work (and we all know getting and staying fit is work), it’s less likely you’ll do it consistently for the long term.
And unless you understand your body and how to do the exercises, following directions creates a lack of agency. Self-sufficiency contributes to sustainability.
Knowing your body gives you a say in how it is challenged. And grasping basic workout programming and foundational exercises allows you to create your own routines and modify moves to suit your needs and preferences without sacrificing results.
Focus on Functional Fitness
Functional training emphasizes how your body operates — what it can do and how you can learn to do it better. It’s a broad, progressive, and health-centered approach that’s flexible enough to address anyone’s needs. The goal is all-around physical capability that carries over from the gym to your everyday life.
Include the following moves and their variations in your workout plan to begin feeling and seeing the rewards of this whole-person approach.
Squats work your lower body, core, and upper back. They’re ideal movements for building muscle, losing fat, and improving athletic performance and general well-being.
Deadlifts are full-body pull exercises that work the entire posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, calves, lats, and spinal erectors, as well as core and grip. The proud chest and hip extension required to complete the move also help counteract the effects of sitting and aging.
Upper-body pulls, including pull-ups and rows, strengthen the middle and upper back, lats, and shoulders. They also enhance mobility through the scapulae and improve stability in the thoracic spine and deep abdominals.
Planks offer a crunch-free way to work the unseen muscles of the core, including the deep-lying abdominal muscles, back extensors, diaphragm, hip flexors, and pelvic floor.
Crawls are a primal body-weight move that develops strength and stability while improving mobility, balance, and cross-body coordination. They also relieve and prevent lower-back pain.
Kettlebell swings boost power and dynamism, improve body awareness and cardiovascular fitness, and burn fat while increasing strength.
Work Hard . . .
Exercise is stress — good stress, but stress nonetheless. During a workout, muscles and other tissues break down, triggering processes that build strength and resiliency.
This stress response isn’t just physical: Mental and emotional growth occur as well. By challenging yourself physically and allowing for adequate recovery (for more on that see Recover Harder below), you hone new skills and develop more confidence.
To deliver these benefits, however, exercise has to be challenging — at least some of the time. Our experts advise two hard workouts a week. “Hard” is subjective: Think of a workout that gets you sweating, out of breath, tired, and possibly a little sore a day or so later. (Hard does not mean wrecking yourself: If you can’t recover from a workout, it’s not a positive stressor.)
For most people, hard workouts include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), heavy strength training, or engaging in a pickup game of the sport of your choice. Keep in mind that fitness is a spectrum — meet yourself where you are right now.
Make a Plan
Showing up to the gym with a plan is often the difference between making progress toward (and eventually reaching) goals and giving up on fitness. Working with a coach or a personal trainer, even occasionally, is a great way to learn new exercises, challenge yourself consistently, build accountability, and raise your self-confidence. You can also follow expert-designed programs targeting a variety of goals, including these from EL:
- Get Your First Pull-Up: Our 30-day program will help you lift your chin over the bar, once and for all. Visit “How to Get Your First Pull-Up.”
- Easy Strength: This two-month routine focuses on building strength without wrecking your body. Find it at “The Easy-Strength Workout.”
- 8 Weeks to Strong: This powerbuilding guide combines powerlifting and bodybuilding to strengthen and sculpt your entire body. Visit “The Workout: 8 Weeks to Strong.”
- Strong, Fast, and Fit: A robust six-month program that offers varied strength-and-conditioning routines. Visit the “Strong, Fast and Fit Program” landing page.
- 3 Months to Your First 5K: This running plan is a realistic, beginner-friendly approach to tackling the 5K distance. Visit “3 Months to Your First 5K.”
- Triathlon Strong in 6 Weeks: A quick, effective strength-training program to improve your overall fitness, prevent injury, and help you cross the finish line in record time. Visit “Triathlon Strong in 6 Weeks.”
Choose Your Weights
Use these guidelines for matching poundage with goals:
- Light weights are loads you can lift 15 or more times; they help you improve endurance.
- Medium weights are loads you can lift eight to 12 times; they help you build a combination of muscle mass and overall strength.
- Heavy weights are loads you can lift fewer than eight times with good form; they help you increase strength.
Pregress as Needed
At EL, we downplay regressions, which make an exercise easier but can create a sense of failure or backward movement. Rather, we emphasize pregressions, modifications and variations that match the intention of an exercise with your unique skill and fitness level.
High-intensity interval training is a well-documented way to improve your fitness. HIIT burns fat and improves metabolic flexibility. It can be adapted to nearly any activity — including running, cycling, swimming, and strength training — and anyone’s fitness level.
Exercise as vigorously as you can (90 to 100 percent of maximum capacity) for a brief, set time period (usually two minutes or less), then back off for a predetermined rest interval (usually three minutes or less), and repeat the cycle four times or more. Try it up to three times per week.
Fine-Tune Your Impact
Pushing your intensity doesn’t necessarily involve high-impact moves like box jumps and burpees. Low-impact exercises that spare achy joints can be plugged into any interval-training format for a LIIT session — low-impact interval training. Some ideas: Swap swimming for running, step-ups for box jumps, and med-ball slams for burpees.
Also known as autoregulatory training, this approach is based on the idea that every stressor — no matter how big or small — affects how we move, feel, and perform. Monitoring fluctuations in range of motion, heart-rate variability, and heart rate can help you determine your readiness to train and live up to your body’s fullest potential on any given day. (Learn more at “How to Use Intuitive Training.”)
Recover Harder . . .
You can’t build your fitness without recovery. Exercise breaks your body down; nutrition, sleep, and active-rest techniques build it back up.
If you perform two hard workouts each week, try to include low- to medium-intensity movement on your off-days — preferably something that includes mobility work and a new skill while eliciting some level of joy. There’s no reason to include a day of doing nothing; but something doesn’t have to be strenuous to be worth your time. In fact, easy but intentional movement will support your goals for the long run.
Eat and Sleep
The two keystones of recovery are nutrition — whole foods that replenish your fuel and nutrient stores — and sufficient, uninterrupted sleep. If either of these components is missing from your training plan, your workouts (and goals) will suffer.
Focus on Protein
You need protein (and its various amino acids) to help your body repair cells and make new ones. To improve your endurance, eat 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day; to build muscle and strength, aim for 0.6 to 0.9 grams.
Consuming 20 or so grams of protein, regardless of body weight, shortly after a workout supports muscle growth and recovery.
Drink Plenty of Water
Water is essential to cellular function, helping to transport oxygen, break down nutrients and waste, regulate cell temperature, and determine cell shape and size. Staying hydrated, then, directly affects your athletic performance and recovery. Aim for a steady intake of water throughout the day — whether you’re working out or not.
Resist the urge to sit on the couch and binge-watch TV on off-days: Moving around at a lower intensity will help your body rejuvenate and keep your muscles limber. Leisurely walks, gentle yoga, and other low-intensity activities are beneficial options for all fitness levels.
The cycle of muscular damage and recovery is the basis of fitness training: You break your body down, and it responds by rebuilding itself stronger than before. But if you’ve been putting your body through its paces without time to recover, or if you’ve been under additional physical, mental, or emotional stresses, you may not be giving your body a chance to restore itself. Here are four common indicators that you need to take a step back:
- You’re feeling tired and crabby.
- You’re sick — again.
- You’ve hit a plateau.
- Your workouts aren’t making you happy.
Seek Out Pleasure
It’s a common refrain: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” This and other quips that equate fitness with punishment, displeasure, or shame are as sad as they are erroneous.
At EL we have a rule against the word “should.” There is simply too much variation in bodies, health, and goals to prescribe what anyone should do. But we make an exception for three should nots:
- Exercise should not make you hurt.
- Exercise should not make you miserable.
- Exercise should not make you sick.
Our bodies are made to move. Movement is a human right and it is vital to exercise it (pun intended) in a pleasurable way.
There’s a misconception that what feels good must be bad for us and that to succumb to pleasure means dismantling fitness efforts — for instance, sitting on the couch eating chips or cookies. But there are many other things in this world that feel good and benefit us, too.
Getting off the couch to go for a walk isn’t a battle that must be waged against our bodies’ desires. It can be a pleasure in and of itself. (Please, go ahead and insert any movement of your choice if a walk isn’t for you.)
Movement is about connection — to ourselves, to other people, and to nature and the world around us. If you ever wonder where to start or where to go, seek out connections that feel good, and let the rest — your health, your goals, your confidence and sense of satisfaction — fall into place.