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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Cost-effective exercise strategies

We have repeatedly emphasized the essentiality of exercise for disease prevention and healthspan as we age, but the reality is many people have serious limitations on their access to exercise. Whether it be their location, schedule, mandatory commitments, or financial restrictions, at times it seems a privilege to exercise. While this list is by no means comprehensive, I have generated a few ideas to help one exercise without exhausting resources.

1. Adaptable/versatile equipment

While equipment can be exorbitantly priced, especially after the home-exercise reckoning of the pandemic, there are certain things that may be worth the investment due to their versatility. Pull-up bars support exercises far beyond their namesake, working muscle groups from the back to the abdominals. Additionally, exercises on this bar work wonders to promote grip strength, which is actually one of the fitness metrics most strongly correlated with longevity. Though just upsettingly expensive, adjustable dumbbells can be used for a remarkable range of movements, and allow one to progress appropriately and incrementally. Lastly, resistance bands are perhaps the most versatile of all. Exponentially cheaper than adjustable dumbbells, these too can be adapted to a vast range of movements, and the resistance can be easily titrated to one’s desired level of difficulty.

2. Bodyweight exercises

There’s so much that can be done without any additional equipment at all. Focusing on bodyweight movements, typically at high repetitions, can be surprisingly effective. For instance, abdominal exercises can be done almost exclusively using only bodyweight to maintain significant activation. For cardiovascular fitness, the possibilities are vast: running, jumping jacks, burpees, etc. Use gravity as a form of resistance with explosive plyometric movements like jump squats, or common exercises to counter your own weight like pushups.

3. One-time investments

Given the expensive price tag of most exercise equipment, if you do choose to buy some, opt for reliable choices guaranteed to last and serve you well throughout life. While many machines can lose functionality over time, limit the movements you can perform, and therefore have limited overall benefit from their purchase, things like free weights will never really “age,” and are almost sure to be just as useful and relevant decades from now. Focus on fundamental, impactful tools that you are bound to use for as long as you can, where you might as well invest on the front end so you never have to again: a barbell, a pull-up bar, resistance bands, weights. Though of course one must pay mind to the up-front cost of all these things, it is also critical to view them as lifetime investments that will prevent you from covering long-term, recurring expenses like gym memberships, not to mention the lifetime costs of health consequences that would result from sacrificing sufficient exercise for other priorities.

4. Find public spaces to get moving

If it is not a reasonable proposition to make space for workouts at home or join a gym, go take on the outside world. Find public parks, tracks, workout spaces (granted, we should have more of them), trails, pools, lakes, beaches, stairs, etc. near you, and simply get moving. Of course, the more creative you can be to switch things up, the better. Perhaps these spaces will provide more room for you to do a greater variety of bodyweight exercises, or you’ll find different ways to use objects or areas to work other muscle groups. However, a perfected, all-encompassing exercise regimen may not be attainable, or even necessary. In studies of cardiorespiratory fitness for longevity, the biggest jump in benefit comes in going from “no exercise” to “some exercise.” So, even if all these public spaces allow you to do is get outside every day and get your heart rate up, that is still a major positive compared to being pent up with restricted movement inside.

Figure 1: Survival probability over time based on an individual's cardiorespiratory fitness level, as measured by VO2max. At all time points, the biggest jump in survival probability between groups comes from moving from "low" to "below average" (Image: Mandsager et al., 2018).

5. Work smarter, not harder

This has arguably been the most important point for me in improving my health and fitness, which is that it does not require running yourself into the ground. Instead, think about what actually matters and does not matter to make a difference. Let the data and the evidence guide you on what the minimum effective dose of a certain exercise or type of exercise is, and stick to that. For example, it appears that the minimum effective dose of zone 2 exercise to enhance mitochondrial function is in the ballpark of at least three hours a week, divided into 45-minute to one-hour sessions. If you only have a certain amount of time to exercise, prioritize this particular kind of cardio in its proven-effective time chunks rather than 15-20 minutes here and there, which may or may not provide much benefit. Instead, maybe dedicate those extra 15-20 minutes to getting additional strength training that you may not have otherwise done, especially considering that strength training can require just a few sets to remind your neural circuits to preserve strength for that movement. Or, maybe if you have 15-20 minutes to spare on cardio, make that your time to get a quick high-intensity interval/VO2max-based workout to preserve your capacity for all-out efforts that don’t require much time, but a lot of intensity. Lastly, if you don’t sense much benefit from a certain exercise having tried it a considerable amount, there’s no problem with switching it for something you know works better for you. Instead of hammering away on things that don’t seem to be working, focus instead on what the evidence suggests will.


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