Building the Perfect Fitness Routine, Element by Element

Getting back into top physical shape could be one of your most important self-development projects. A comprehensive, well-rounded workout routine can push you higher and farther than you’d ever imagined was possible, leaving you in peak physical, emotional and psychological condition.

An ideal workout routine should incorporate a broad range of fitness-related activities, covering five essential categories: aerobic fitness, strength training, stretching for flexibility, core muscle strengthening and balance training.

Let’s take a closer look at each element, to learn more about what each will contribute to your overall health:

Aerobic Fitness

By adding variety to your workouts, you give muscle groups a chance to recover on their days off and you can maintain steady progress.”

Denise Austin

Aerobic fitness practices should form the core of your all-inclusive exercise routine. Aerobic exercise trains your heart and lungs to function more robustly and more efficiently, which will help you develop better stamina and endurance. Aerobic activities will raise your heart rate to twice its normal rate or more for extended periods of time, stimulating your cardiovascular system to work harder and become more resilient.

A stronger cardiovascular system will help you stay vigorous, active and energetic, avoiding a decline in vitality that people wrongly associate with age. It is inactivity that leads to a loss of fitness and endurance, not age, and aerobic exercise practiced diligently can be an effective remedy for that problem.  

To ensure a solid level of fitness, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity each week (and if you can do more, that’s even better). Ideally, you should spread this exercise out over several days and avoid taking more than one day off between aerobic fitness sessions if at all possible. If you’ve been inactive for a long time, you should take it slow at the beginning and gradually build up your level of activity over the course of a few weeks.

One of the marvelous aspects of aerobic fitness is that you can attain it while performing pleasurable activities. Cycling, running, swimming, skating, cross-country skiing, dancing and even brisk walking or hiking are just a few of the enjoyable pursuits that can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness.  Exercise machines built for continuous motion are excellent as well, but you might become bored if you try to rely on them completely.

In general, it’s a good idea to diversify your aerobic fitness routine.

“I believe you should do different types of cardio exercises during the course of a week, if possible,” says Denise Austin, the long-time host of the ESPN workout show “Getting Fit with Denise Austin.” “The thing to remember is that too much repetition will fatigue muscles and you will plateau, which will slow your results down. By adding variety to your workouts, you give muscle groups a chance to recover on their days off and you can maintain steady progress.”

While outdoor activities and high-quality fitness machines can help you stay in shape, you can enjoy the same cardiovascular benefits from home workouts that don’t require any special equipment.

Videos

Fun, Low-Impact Workout for Total Beginners

30-Minute Standing Cardio Workout

Strength Training

Resistance training protects muscle mass and joint integrity, while also helping maintain bone density. There’s a strong correlation between muscle mass and longevity in older adults

Cliff Edberg

In the minds of many, strength training is synonymous with body building. But strength training actually has much more to offer.

Regular strength training increases bone density, improves flexibility and mobility, prevents injury, contributes to better performance in sports and other types of exercise, and keeps the heart and organs healthy by controlling blood sugar levels and lowering LDL cholesterol counts. And of course, it can make you much stronger as well, which is an important benefit in and of itself.

A good resistance workout increases your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption

Neal Pire

One unique advantage of strength training is the significant impact it has on your baseline metabolism, which determines the rate at which you burn calories and exerts a strong influence on your ability to lose weight.

“A good resistance workout increases your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” explains Neal Pire, CSCS, an exercise physiologist who serves as the Director of Wellness Services for Castle Connolly Private Health Partners in New York City. “Strengthening exercise keeps your metabolism active after exercising, much longer than an aerobic workout.”

Strength training

Research indicates that your percentage of lean muscle mass will peak at age 30 and decline by three to eight percent each year after that—unless you take action to halt that trend. Whole-body strength training, which includes exercises that target different muscle groups on different days, can counteract this loss of muscle mass. It can also help reverse age-related loss of bone density, which makes us more vulnerable to osteoporosis and broken bones from falls as we get older.

There are many options you can incorporate into a muscle-building plan. Weight machines, free weights, resistance bands, homemade weights that use water or sand, or the use of your own body weight (while doing pull-ups, pushups, squats, etc.) are all acceptable alternatives, depending on your budget, personal preferences and fitness goals.

In their publication Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults perform moderate to intense strength-building exercises that target each major muscle group two times each week.

Strength training is vitally important for older men and women in particular, many of whom don’t realize how much they need it.

“It’s so critical,” says Cliff Edberg, a personal trainer and fitness coach from Life Time, Inc. in Minneapolis, who works with many elderly clients. “Resistance training protects muscle mass and joint integrity, while also helping maintain bone density. There’s a strong correlation between muscle mass and longevity in older adults.”

Videos

Whole-Body Strength Exercises for Seniors (No Equipment Workout)

30-Minute Full-Body Strength Training Workout with Weights

Stretching for Flexibility

A lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily

David Nolan

Most people who practice sports or aerobic activities drastically underestimate the importance of stretching. Adding muscle flexibility through stretching will increase your range of motion, reduce stress and strain on the joints, protect you from injury and allow your muscles to function more smoothly and efficiently.

Stretching will improve your mobility and agility—you’ll stay lithe, limber and lively, while others your age who aren’t stretching will gradually stiffen up, as their muscles contract and tighten over time.

Periodic stretching won’t do the trick, however.

“A lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily,” declares David Nolan, a physical therapist who works at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It takes weeks and months to get flexible, and you’ll have to continue working on it to maintain it.”

Stretching

Contrary to what many people think, stretching exercises should not be performed as a warm-up routine before aerobic activity or before playing a sport. Stretching cold muscles can cause strains or other injuries, and will actually decrease your muscles’ capacity to perform as designed. Stretching exercises should be mixed in with other forms of exercise and should be performed only after your muscles are warm from use.  

Areas that benefit from regular stretching include the calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, neck, shoulders and lower back. Stretching exercises should be performed from a stationary position (without bouncing), in 20- to 30-second intervals for each muscle or muscle group being stretched. Holistic health practices that promote whole-body flexibility, like yoga and Tai Chi, can be valuable additions to your menu of wellness practices as well.

Videos

Beginner Flexibility Routine (Stretches for the Inflexible)

Real-Time Full-Body Stretching Routine – Ask Doctor Jo

Core Muscle Training

One major development in fitness has been a renewed emphasis on the importance of core strengthening exercises, which target muscles in the abdomen, pelvis, hips and lower back. Core exercises aren’t designed to build bulk, but will strengthen muscles that surround the spine and which occupy the transitional area that separates the upper body from the lower body, where forces are transferred from one half to the other.

“Your core muscles are the base of support for your entire body,” explains Meredith McHale, a regional clinical director for East Coast-based Professional Physical Therapy. “A strong core helps keep a more upright and erect posture, whether you’re being active or just sitting at your desk.”

Research into human physiology has shown that core muscles are the first to fire when you perform any movement. This means that your physical power and mobility actually originate in the central section of your body. Consequently, any fitness routine that doesn’t include core strengthening activities will be woefully incomplete.

Weakness in the core can have a cascading effect. It will slow your movements and put excess strain on underdeveloped muscles, which in turn reduces your endurance and causes you to become fatigued more easily. Your overall performance will suffer as a result, regardless of what type of physical skill you’re attempting to learn or master.

It will also compromise your safety.

“A weak core is the number one risk for potential injuries [during exercise], especially lower back injuries,” says Kristina Jennings, a certified strength coach at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Boston.

In recognition of the foundational nature of the core, the American Council of Exercise’s Integrated Fitness Model recommends that those who are new to exercise concentrate on strengthening their core muscles first, before moving on to other types of fitness activity.

Core strengthening exercises consist largely of dynamic movements performed from partially static positions that force you to rely on your core muscles for support. They can be done with or without supplemental equipment, and home routines are relatively easy to choreograph.

Videos

Easy Core Exercises for Beginners Home Routine

Professional Trainer’s 60-Minute Core Workout (No Equipment)

Balance Training

There’s one more element of a well-rounded, whole-body fitness routine that even many fitness fanatics overlook, and that is balance training.

Having good balance means you’re able to maintain proper positioning while performing all types of movements. With superior balance you’ll stay agile and in control when exercising or during normal activities—over time balance exercises will increase your coordination, functional strength and joint stability.

Like many human capacities, your sense of balance is subject to age-related degradation.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four individuals over the age of 65 will suffer a fall each year, and deteriorating balance is a significant causal factor in many instances.

A study at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine found that older men and women who practiced balance exercises for three months regained levels of stability equal to someone 3–10 years younger. It seems that improved balance can be obtained within a relatively short period of time, if you make sure to give balance exercises a prominent place in your fitness portfolio.

“We lose balance because we don’t challenge ourselves,” explains Ryan DeWitt, the owner of DeWitt Physical Therapy in Santa Cruz, California. “Just like challenging our minds with crossword puzzles, we need to challenge our balance with new ways of moving.”

Balance can be improved while standing still (static balance) and also as you move through space (dynamic balance), and your list of balance exercises should include activities that address both. Balance exercises are not physically strenuous and can easily be added to a workout routine during your resting times.

Videos

Top 10 Balance Exercises for Seniors at Home

10 Best Balance Exercises (Advanced)

The Amazing Benefits of a Comprehensive Fitness Routine

A well-rounded, all-inclusive fitness routine is your key to a healthier, happier future. The benefits you’ll enjoy if you embrace a fitness-oriented lifestyle include:

  • A reduced risk for chronic diseases. Conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancer and dementia thrive in unhealthy bodies. But they’ll struggle to gain a foothold if you stay fit and strong.
  • Better immune system functioning. You’ll be much more resistant to viral infections of all types, and get over them much faster, when you follow a well-designed exercise routine.
  • Improved mental health. During exercise, the brain can produce copious amounts of endorphins, a mood-enhancing neurochemical that functions as a potent antidote for depression, chronic anxiety, insomnia and other stress-related conditions. It also increases your self-esteem and self-confidence, which makes you feel better about your life and the world.
  • Enhanced weight control. Exercise can undoubtedly lead to weight loss, as long as it is combined with healthy dietary habits. A multilayered fitness routine will burn plenty of calories and keep your metabolism elevated, even when you’re resting.
  • Sustained flexibility and mobility. You’ll be more flexible, agile and coordinated if your exercise routine includes all five of the vital elements. Even as you age, you’ll retain your independence and freedom of movement.
  • Fantastic cardiovascular health. As you exercise more, your heart will get stronger—the relationship is clear and indisputable. With regular exercise, your blood pressure and bad cholesterol readings will remain low, while your stamina and endurance will leave your less fit friends and family members struggling to keep up.
  • Freedom from pain. Chronic pain is often caused by inflammation, or by imbalances in strength and functioning between muscles and joints. A well-rounded fitness routine can cure these imbalances while keeping inflammation at bay.
  • A longer life span. Regular exercise will increase your longevity, and just as importantly it will help you preserve a high quality of living.

Before starting a new fitness routine, you should first see your doctor, who can give you a complete physical and let you know if there are any health risks that might prevent you from practicing certain activities. Once you get the go-ahead to begin, you can start as slowly as you like, and increase your level of exercise at a pace that feels comfortable.

If you’d prefer the support and input of a professional, you can work closely with a certified personal trainer, who will help you design a comprehensive, multilayered fitness routine that will help you achieve all your fitness goals. Or, you can create your own personalized routine, using videos, books, Internet articles and your own past experiences with exercise as a guide. Either method will produce results, as long as your motivation to stay fit remains strong.

Perfect fitness is a potent vehicle of personal empowerment. While no one lives forever, a well-rounded fitness routine is the closest thing to a fountain of youth you could ever hope to find.

Videos

Power of Fitness Vincent Lam (TEDxRanneySchool)