The benefits of exercise are boundless, even if your capacity to actually fit a workout into your schedule has limits. But carving out a balance between the gym and the library can help you score physical, mental, and even academic gains. You probably know this already…so what’s holding you back?
Whether you’re a bona fide athlete or just starting a new gym routine, figuring out a new workout plan can be intimidating. Are you looking to flex your running muscles or unleash your inner yogi? Take a whack at high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or try your hand at some heavy-duty lifting à la CrossFit? There are so many choices, so much sweat, and so little time.
To help figure out what workout will work for you, we’ve created a science-backed, no-sweat guide to four popular workouts. Experts weigh in on how to get the most out of each rep, stretch, or mile so you can make the smartest choice for your sweat sessions.
What it’s all about
Considering you can do it pretty much anywhere, anytime (with the right shoes and weather-appropriate gear), running remains one of the most popular exercises. According to the officials at Running USA, the largest online directory of races, race results, and running clubs, 7.6 million people ran a 5k race (that’s 3.1 miles) in 2015. Thirty-seven percent of college students count running as their go-to exercise, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
Just like each rep with weights helps strengthen your muscles, each minute of cardio helps strengthen your heart and lungs. “Cardio exercise will help to ‘build’ the cardiovascular system as the body increases the number of blood vessels in response to the exercise and helps it become more efficient [while strengthening the heart],” says Dr. Shane Rogers, a professor at Edith Cowan University in Australia who’s studied the effects of exercise on well-being. “Additionally, it strengthens the respiratory system as your lung capacity increases.”
These cardiovascular effects are great for your brain, too, he adds. Students who started running just 30 minutes a week for three weeks boosted their sleep quality, mood, and concentration in class, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Here’s how it works: “A stronger cardiovascular system, kept in shape via exercise like running, can more efficiently deliver the glucose and oxygen that the brain requires to power the electro-chemical transmission of nerve cells in the brain,” says Dr. Rogers. That helps improve everything from learning to sleep, he adds.
“There are also benefits to the musculoskeletal system, such as increased strength and power in the leg muscles and increased bone density,” says Stacy Ciarleglio, head athletic trainer at the Westminster School in Connecticut.
According to Dr. Rogers, one of the biggest risks in adopting a running routine is overdoing it by pushing too hard or ignoring an injury. In fact, 40–50 percent of runners get injured every year, according to a 2010 report published in Current Sports Medicine Reports. “It is better to take the necessary time off to heal up and then get back into it [little by little, once you’re healed], rather than pushing through injury,” he says.
“Often, the overuse injuries that occur during running are in part a result of lack of strength in the legs,” says Ciarleglio. “Focusing on building up these muscles either prior to starting a running routine or in conjunction with running can be helpful in preventing injury.”
To avoid injuries and get the most out of your run, it’s essential to warm up and stretch out, says Ashley Borden, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). If you can get one at a sporting goods store or online, “focus on using foam rollers, especially on your shins and calves,” she says. Check out the guide below, or if you don’t have a roller, stretch your legs the old-fashioned way—carefully and gently.
If you’re a running newbie, don’t be afraid to do a little walking, says Noam Tamir, CSCS. “Run for one minute, then walk for one minute. This way you will be able to sustain more distance,” he says. Whether you’re just starting out or building up your running practice, aim for a goal of three runs per week—two fairly light runs and one longer run that’s a challenge for you—to build up your distance.
“Running is an ultimate release for me. I sweat, I get tired, and I accomplish something every time I get back from a run. It adds schedule and routine to my day and pushes my body to its limits.”
—Thomas C., third-year undergraduate, Berea College, Kentucky
What it’s all about
Yoga has been around for over 5,000 years. Meaning “to join” or “yoke,” the practice is all about bringing together the mind and body through a series of “asanas,” or poses. In other words, it’s just as much about getting your brain into shape as your body. Twenty-one million adults are tapping into the ancient workout’s benefits, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Dr. Donna Wang, an associate professor of social work at Long Island University in New York, followed students at four New York City schools who practiced yoga for a year and found positive results. “People generally report feeling immediately calm and relaxed. The physical benefits include increased flexibility and reduced pain, and increase in range of motion and physical abilities,” she says. She and her colleagues also found that students said they were “able to better manage relationships and difficult situations” after practicing for a year, according to her 2016 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Yet another reason to get your om on.
Adding yoga to your class schedule isn’t just about the emotional and physical benefits—research shows it produces actual brain changes. Posture-based yoga and meditation can increase your brain wave activity, gray matter, and frontal cortex and amygdala activity, which can improve your ability to make decisions, form memories, and regulate your emotions, according to a 2015 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
The major drawback of yoga is that data on its pros and cons is lacking. “A lot of the concepts are extremely difficult to measure,” says Dr. Wang. But you don’t necessarily need measurable facts and figures to feel the effects, she says. “I believe that even if it’s all self-perception, it is worthwhile. Frame of mind and perspective is critical in well-being.”
Physically, most yoga classes don’t get your heart pumping the way a session on a treadmill or HIIT class would, so it’s important to make sure you complement your yoga practice with cardio and strength training to stay balanced. Caveat: Some studios offer power yoga or faster-paced vinyasa flow classes that can get your heart pumping; just make sure you’ve mastered proper form and technique before taking these on.
If yoga is your go-to, you may also want to add some additional strength training to keep your workout routine well-rounded, says Borden. “The thing that’s missing from yoga is the pulling aspect, which is important for balancing your posture.” In other words, for every round of yogi push-ups, you could also benefit from bicep curls to keep muscles balanced.
“Yoga has changed my life. I feel better, more energized, stretched out, stronger, have an easier time digesting and eating well, and can get my heart rate going while still finding time to meditate and center myself.”
—Madison G., first-year graduate student, Utah State University
What it’s all about
Hard-core strength training has surged in popularity thanks to gyms like CrossFit®, which have helped break down some of the old stereotypes that lifting was only for big, meaty guys. A third of college students are into pumping iron, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey, and last year, more than 320,000 adults competed in the 2016 CrossFit® Open, according to the official organization report.
According to the experts, it’s easy to see why this often-stereotyped workout has gained recent popularity. “Weight lifting has been shown to not only improve muscle tone and mass but deliver rapid strength and endurance gains, improved perception of body image, weight loss, and reduction of physical fatigue,” says Dr. Brian Giordano, an associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Rochester in New York.
Taking up an old-school workout routine like weight lifting might also have mental benefits. Researchers found that CrossFit® participants were more intrinsically motivated and excited about their workout than people who were simply lifting weights with a trainer, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. That might make you more likely to stick with it in the long run.
The intense types of heavy-duty strength-training workouts promoted by CrossFit® and its companions can lead to injury. But it isn’t necessarily more dangerous than any other type of exercise, according to a 2014 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. “In our study on the epidemiology of CrossFit® injuries, we showed that the relative injury prevalence is very similar to many other forms of exercise, including running, gymnastics, Olympic-style weight lifting, and generalized sporting activities,” says Dr. Giordano, one of the study’s authors.
In the survey of almost 500 CrossFit® athletes, 20 percent got injured from the exercise, which Giordano says can usually be chalked up to bad form. “If a younger athlete is interested in participating in a high-intensity fitness program or strength and conditioning program, proper supervision is critical to prevent breakdown in form and technique.”
Perhaps the biggest downfall of all, though, is that programs like CrossFit® can be crazy expensive. For a more cost-friendly alternative, sign up for a weight-lifting class on campus or in your community, or talk to an athletic trainer about learning how to lift safely.
“Leave your ego at the door,” says Borden. “You aren’t trying to be a hero in these classes. Start light and learn the movement patterns.”
More than anything, nailing that perfect form is key. “Learning the movement patterns is the most important thing—then you can start worrying about [how much weight you’re lifting] and personal records,” Borden says. Finally, give your body some TLC after a tough CrossFit-style session—this is another opportunity to get familiar with a foam roller. “You have to make sure that you recover,” says Borden. “I would highly suggest that you add alternative classes [to your schedule] that have less impact on your joints.”
“I love weight training because it allows me to be strong and feminine, to challenge myself and push my boundaries, to build my body and perform the way I’d like.”
—Victoria P., second-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario
What it’s all about
No matter what your workout is, “we all want the most bang for our buck,” says Dr. Giordano. That’s why high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is such an attractive sweat session. By rotating short bursts of give-it-all-you’ve-got exercises with short periods of recovery exercises, HIIT delivers a massive dose of strength and cardio training in less time than it would take to watch an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s how it works: For anywhere between five seconds and eight minutes, you give the exercise all your effort and recover with an exercise that only takes about 50 percent of your maximum effort. According to a Student Health 101 survey, it’s the go-to exercise for 16 percent of college students.
Hardcore HIIT sessions can improve your bod by increasing your aerobic fitness, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, where students showed greater aerobic capacity (aka VO2 max) after 12 HIIT sessions. It’s also been shown to increase total workout output and power, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. And finally, a 2017 study published in Cell Metabolism suggests that HIIT workouts might actually help fend off the effects of aging—a group of young adult participants showed a 49 percent increase in their cells’ ability to produce energy, which helps keep your bod in tip-top shape over time.
The mental benefits of HIIT are also worth noting. One study among young adults published in Neuroscience Letters found that HIIT exercise improved functioning in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of your brain responsible for things like planning, decision making, social behavior, and even personality, as compared to participants who didn’t exercise. HIIT also increased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a chemical that helps boost mood, learning, and memory.
HIIT also has a bonus benefit—it’s called the EPOC effect, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. Because these workouts are so intense, they keep your body working hard even after you’ve hit the showers, giving you a little more bang for your buck, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
HIIT has the word “intensity” in its name for a reason. These workouts can be tough, which might make them less enjoyable for some people. College students assigned to a HIIT workout routine for eight weeks were significantly less likely to enjoy their sweat sessions compared to students doing moderate-intensity interval or steady-state training, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. On top of that, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in physical gains between the high-intensity interval group and the other exercise groups. In other words, you might be able to get the same results from a less intense sweat session. This, however, is still up for debate. Several studies have shown that HIIT can be more effective than moderate-intensity exercise.
Researchers also note that because most HIIT exercises use your whole body, you might be at greater risk for overdoing it. “Like any form of exercise, high-intensity interval training is associated with a non-negligible injury rate,” says Dr. Giordano. “Moderation and attention to whole-body wellness are key to long-term success.”
HIIT only works if you’re being honest with yourself, says Borden. “You need to really push as hard as you can in the intense intervals.” Since these workouts are short, give it your all from start to finish.
To get the most out of a HIIT session, look for a circuit that has compound movements—moves that use your upper and lower body and pushing and pulling motions, such as a kettlebell swing. “This means you are using multiple joints rather than doing isolation exercises—the heart rate goes up and you get more bang for your buck,” says Tamir.
“I feel like HIIT and yoga complement each other nicely, and mixing the two of them during a one-hour workout is something I really like to do.”
—Ryan S., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick, Canada
“HIIT is best for people who get bored easily, are crunched for time, or don’t necessarily like the idea of spending forever doing cardio.”
—Sonya M., fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
Ultimately, keep two things in mind when planning the perfect exercise routine. The first is that it’s all about balance. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, heart-pumping aerobic activity per week (or 75 minutes if that activity is intense), and moderate- to high-intensity strength training twice a week. In other words, make sure your workout routine includes both cardio and muscle boosters.
Secondly, remember that even a little physical activity is better than none, so find whatever works for you and feel good about it! If putting your favorite playlist on and getting your heart pumping while you jam out can double as some cardio, by all means, rock on.
Get help or find out more
Ashley Borden, CSCS, fitness consultant, Los Angeles.
Brian Giordano, MD, associate professor of sports medicine, University of Rochester, New York.
Shane Rogers, PhD, lecturer, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.
Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder of T.S. Fitness, New York.
Donna Wang, PhD, associate professor of social work, Long Island University, New York.
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