How can I achieve optimal fitness?

Each month, leading integrative health expert, Dr Andrew Weil, gives his definitive answer


How can I achieve optimal fitness?

I am a firm believer in the importance of sensible, moderate exercise for maintaining optimal health. Regular physical activity is vital for cardiovascular health, but its positive effects on body and mind are far-reaching.

Benefits include weight management, improved sleep, reduced stress, enhanced energy and endurance, strengthened immunity, improved control of blood sugar, and enhanced mood. In fact, regular exercise is one of the most effective treatments for mild to moderate depression.

A good fitness regimen should include both aerobic exercise and weight-training, but media coverage of the latest fitness information is often contradictory.

The latest fitness craze, high intensity interval training (HIIT), is intriguing, and supported by sound research. The idea behind HIIT is to alternate short bursts of near-maximal physical activity, typically 30 to 60 seconds in duration, with periods of gentle activity or rest, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

An entire HIIT workout can be completed in as little as seven minutes, and the health benefits have been shown to match those of longer, more leisurely workouts.

This approach is appealing to those with busy schedules; however, a 30-minute daily bike ride outdoors is far more attractive to many, and less intense exercise is often the best option for those with health issues. HIIT is fast and effective, but it is also very hard and potentially stressful.

I recommend doing something aerobic every day at a moderate level of exertion – some activity that makes you break a sweat and breathe a little faster. My personal favourite is a brisk walk, but I also enjoy swimming. Gardening, DIY and housework can be aerobic, too, as long as you exert yourself to some degree.

Start slowly – even a few minutes of activity is better than none at all. Gently work up to 30-45 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise on most days to experience full benefits.

Research suggests that while HIIT can improve various measures of health and fitness in a time-efficient manner, sustained aerobic exercise may be best for your brain. Strength-training is important for all age groups to help maintain muscle and bone health and mobility. Weight training also increases muscle mass, which contributes to the maintenance of optimal body weight – the more metabolically active muscle you have, the greater your ability to burn calories.

Strength-training should be performed at least twice a week. If you’re new to it, first meet with a certified trainer who can help you learn to avoid injury.

A brief word of caution – if you have been sedentary or have never worked out before, get a medical check-up before you begin an exercise programme. Once you get the green light –go for it, and ensure you choose something that you enjoy!

Read more from Dr Weil at You can also follow him on twitter: @drweil

Photograph: iStock

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