What’s the best exercise to stay healthy?  

A few months back I was standing in the never ending line at the bank.  I struck up a conversation with the friendly security guy.  Our talk turned towards fitness and training (as it not-so-coincidentally does quite often in my life).  He was a fairly fit gent at 40 and happily proclaimed that he could do a whole bunch of pushups, heavy deadlifts, squats, etc, etc.  Knowing my profession, he thoughtfully asked “If you could only pick one exercise to do for the rest of your life to be healthy, what would you pick?”

No doubt he thought I would say 3 sets of 10 barbell squats and you’ll outlive your grandkids! But to his surprise, I  replied “Although I can’t  narrow it down to just one thing, I would say run fast, jump up and down, climb, throw things and roll on the ground.  If you want to stay feeling young, I would be wise to do things that young people do.”  

What is good health anyway?

What exactly does ‘being healthy’ in the physical sense mean?  Is it the absence of disease?  Running a 7 minute mile?  Carrying your groceries to the kitchen all at once?  All of those can be the result of good health, but none encapsulate what it means to have physical health.  

Let’s chunk it down.  It’s helpful if we think of our body as an organism composed of several interrelated systems, each with a specific job to do to keep us alive.  Our nervous system, skeletal and muscular system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, etc. all have specific functions that keep us alive and doing human things.  Good health would entail that each system is efficient, antifragile (they become stronger when stressed to a certain degree) and they all work harmoniously together as an organism.  

What’s the best way to achieve good physical health?

Now that we’ve defined physical health, the question is: what’s the optimal way to achieve it?  Our bodies are built and function the way they do because the environment we evolved in demanded them to be this way.  Nature pressured us, and over a long stretch of time molded our bodies into what we are today.  If we couldn’t withstand and grow stronger/faster/more efficient from the pressure, we would die.  The survivors had a harmonious balance with nature. They could withstand the stresses nature dished out and bounce back better.  

How we keep each system and the whole healthy comes down to a simple recipe based on our relationship with our environment:  


To maintain robust physical health, it’s best to mimic the stressors we would encounter in our natural environment.  

How do we act naturally in an unnatural environment?

Although modern life seems normal to us, it is a far cry from our natural environment.  In fact, we live in an extremely unnatural environment.  Think about it, when was the last time you had to hunt your food?  Gather wood and build a fire?  Walk, run and climb to gather edible treats like some delicious honey?  Likely never (unless you go camping for fun).  In modern society we have an abundance of mental stress, no doubt, but a distinct absence of necessary physical stress in our lives.  

Those of us who want to stay ‘healthy’ try our best to mimic the stresses of nature in our gym routine.  Unfortunately this often goes off the rails in a few different ways.  Some get buried in a sea of information and give up.  Others find the small fitness niche we enjoy most and focus on that while ignoring other capabilities.  Bodybuilders rarely run, jump, throw and climb.  Distance runners aren’t picking things up and putting things down.  Yoga class people miss high tension, high intensity activities.  Even those who exercise regularly usually miss out on the variety of stresses that keep our human body healthy.  

How should we implement well rounded stress for good physical health?

Given our equation of 


Let’s see how we can best physically stress ourselves.  We’ll need to know: 

What to do?

How Much?

How Often?

What type? and 

At what intensity?

Going back to our system’s view of the body, we can find the right stress for each one.  Instead of giving very specific programs or protocols, let’s look at this in simple, practical terms.  

Cardiovascular System

For a healthy heart and lungs we need to do things that get us a little out of breath for a while, about 30 min to 90 min.  Cyclical activities like walking, jogging, running, cycling and swimming work well. If we can do this a few times a week, sometimes at a lower intensity, sometimes a bit higher, we can maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.

Skeletal System

For a healthy skeleton we need to do things that will put some load on your skeleton for about 30-60 min about 3-5 times a week.  Carrying things, holding things, even jumping up and down at a medium to high intensity will stress our bones so they will rebuild stronger.

Muscular System

For healthy muscles and tendons it’s a good idea to push, pull and lift things off the ground..  Some things can be medium weight, some heavy-ish (often it can just be your own body).  If you can do this for 20-60 seconds at a time with some short breaks in between for a total of 20-60 min, 3 days per week you’ll have a healthy muscular system.

Facial system

For healthy connective tissue, it’s best to move your body in a variety of ways and moving all the way to the end range of motion.  You can walk, crawl, climb, throw things, roll on the ground and stretch.  10-30 minutes at low to moderate intensity a few times a day on most days of the week will keep this facial system healthy.

Nervous System

For a healthy nervous system, it’s best to do some things really fast or move something really heavy for a short time.  The fast things could include running, jumping, or throwing something light.  You could also lift, push or pull something really heavy.  The intensity should be high with a short duration, perhaps 10 seconds or less.  Rest a few minutes and try it again.  If you do this for 20-60 min a couple times a week, you’ll keep the nervous system working pretty well.

There are plenty of other bodily systems we could discuss (endocrine, lymphatic, digestive, reproductive, etc) but this article would become a really long book, and I’m sure you’re really busy.  And of course there is quite a bit of overlap in these adaptations.  I just separated them for simplicity and so we don’t get caught in the slippery slope of “I can get everything I need from lifting weights”.

Rest and Nourishment

Now, we still need to answer the same questions regarding rest and nutrition (How much? How often? What type?) but we’ll save some fun for another post.  

Now we have a recipe for physical health in the simplest possible terms.  Stress each bodily system a few times a week to maintain and enhance physical capabilities.  No fancy protocols necessary, just get out there and move like a human. Happy training!