Exercising Smarter: A Millennial's Guide to Working Out for Health
Reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Bonnet, MD, MPH
It’s safe to say that health consciousness is on the rise. Over the past two years, the pandemic has inspired millions of Americans to take their health into their hands in any way possible—including their physical fitness.
Though most adults know the importance of physical activity, few understand the specifics of how incorporating regular movement can benefit their health, and which exercises are optimal for building a consistent and diverse workout regimen.
Here, we outline the health benefits of exercise, which types of exercise you can do to optimize your well-being, and whether a specific post-workout meal can help support your goals.
What are the health benefits of exercise?
Let’s start with the basics: Strong scientific evidence shows that physical activity delays death from all causes. In other words, regular exercise can extend your lifespan—more movement equals more years alive on this earth.
But that’s not all. Research also shows that there are several specific health benefits that regular physical activity can offer:
- Cardiorespiratory health: One of the most extensively documented benefits of physical activity is on the health of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Evidence shows that physical activity strongly reduces both the risk of dying from and developing cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, regularly active adults tend to have lower blood pressure and better blood lipid profiles. Both aerobic workouts (including running, swimming, and cycling) and muscle-strengthening workouts can produce these benefits.
- Cardiometabolic health: Regularly engaging in moderate aerobic exercise (like jogging or hiking) between 150 and 300 minutes a week significantly lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And engaging in vigorous physical activity can lower your risk even further. But for those unable to engage in moderate or vigorous activity on a regular basis, just a single workout here and there can improve your insulin sensitivity.
- Weight management: Whether you’re trying to lose weight or keep your weight stable over time, evidence shows that regular physical activity is key. Specifically, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity is shown to best support weight gain prevention, though muscle-strengthening activities can also help to promote weight maintenance (but not to the same degree as aerobic activity). For people who want to lose more than 5% of their body weight or maintain a significant amount of weight loss, evidence suggests that more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week may be required.
- Bone and musculoskeletal health: Progressive strength-training workouts can help to preserve or increase muscle mass, strength, and power—which can be especially beneficial in later years.
- Brain health: Regular exercise can have a myriad of benefits on brain health over one’s lifespan, including improved cognition, mood, and sleep. Some of the benefits of physical activity on brain health can even be felt immediately, including reduced feelings of short-term anxiety. Which means in moments of acute stress, a quick workout can sometimes provide instant benefits.
- Lower risk of cancer: Regular physical activity can lower the risk of several cancers in healthy adults, regardless of weight. Research shows that regular exercise can reduce the risks of developing specific cancers such as:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Endometrial cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Pregnancy and postpartum health: Physical activity can support health during pregnancy. Benefits include lowering the risk of gestational diabetes and improving cardiorespiratory fitness without increasing the risk of negative pregnancy outcomes. During the first year after delivery, regular physical activity can also decrease symptoms of postpartum depression.
How much exercise do I need to be healthy?
Here’s the good news: you don’t have to wear yourself out to reap the health benefits of physical exercise.
In fact, research suggests that people who are active for just 150 minutes a week (which comes out to roughly 22 minutes of exercise per day, or three 50 minute workouts a week) have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who don’t workout or exercise regularly.
What’s more, the exercise you regularly engage in doesn’t have to be high-intensity or vigorous for you to experience health benefits.
Simply put, if you’re coming from a mostly sedentary or inactive lifestyle, moving even a moderate amount each week can offer significant benefits to your health.
Which types of exercise are best?
The truth? The ones you will actually do consistently.
In reality, there isn’t a single exercise that’s universally best for all types of people. Finding the right workouts for you will depend on your unique goals, abilities, and interests.
Some people may gravitate to moderate-intensity exercises, like walking briskly, tennis, or gardening, while others may love more vigorous-intensity exercises like running or spinning. (According to the CDC, moderate-intensity activities include any exercises that you can easily talk but would have trouble singing through, while vigorous-intensity exercises include activities during which it’s difficult to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.)
Ultimately, finding a routine that you enjoy is your best bet when it comes to committing long term.
Still, there are some overarching themes that can help you improve your physical fitness:
- Variety: Try not to get stuck in the same fitness routine, day in and day out. Though running three times a week will provide great health benefits, it’s even better if you can alternate between aerobic and endurance activities like running with strength training exercises. Ideally, you’ll also want to incorporate both impact and non-impact exercises (like running outside, using a bike, or swimming). Other types of exercises that are good to incorporate into your routine include core work, flexibility, balance, and resistance training.
- Progression: Once you reach a certain fitness level, it’s a great idea to challenge yourself by progressing to higher levels of physical activity. These small, progressive changes can help your body adapt to additional stresses while minimizing the risk of injury. (Making the exercise gradually more difficult over time to overload muscles is also critical for continued gains).
- Consistency: Avoiding inactivity is key. Regardless of how you move, getting some type of physical activity every day (or most days) will support your health in the long run.
How important is the pre-training or post-training meal?
If you’ve been working out for a while, you may have been advised about the best way to optimize the benefits of your regimen with certain meal types: Will eating carbohydrates before a workout increase my performance? Is a post-training protein shake really worth the hype?
Truthfully, the research on optimal pre- and post-workout nutrition is still somewhat in its infancy, and the studies that have been done have primarily evaluated men.
In most cases, pre- and post-nutrient timing only pertains to high-level performance in elite athletes. For non-professional athletes, these differences are unlikely to have a significant impact.
Still, there are some considerations non-professional athletes can make when planning their pre- and post-workout meals:
- There is little evidence that fasting before training will increase fat burning. So, if you’re hungry before a workout, a small meal will not negatively impact your performance.
- Eating carbohydrates before a longer duration exercise may improve performance, but not for a shorter duration exercise.
- Current evidence does not support the claim that consuming protein before or immediately after a workout significantly enhances strength. (For professional athletes or people who compete, it can also aid in muscle hypertrophy, or the increase in muscle volume and mass.) However, the total amount of protein you consume may be more important than when you consume it:
- The optimal protein intake for maximizing muscle hypertrophy is best accomplished by splitting protein intake across four meals.
- With this approach, the goal is to ingest 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per meal. So, if you weigh 150 pounds or roughly 69 kilograms, you’ll need to consume approximately 28 grams of protein per meal, or 112 grams of protein per day.
- There isn’t sufficient data to suggest that consuming more than 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day would be more beneficial.
If you’re training multiple times per day or for specific composition purposes, these guidelines may be helpful. But for the average person looking to incorporate exercise into their daily routine, nutrient timing and planning isn’t necessary. In those cases, just be sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water after a workout. If you’re engaging in an extra sweaty workout that lasts longer than an hour, it’s also useful to add an electrolyte replacement to your water.
The bottom line
There’s no getting around it: Working out and regularly moving your body can have a big impact on your physical and mental health.
If you’re unsure about where to start, experiment with different workout types to find the one that you enjoy the most. Once you’ve incorporated that into your routine, start building out your repertoire with a wider variety of exercise types that keep you feeling good.