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June 13, 2024

Does the perfect workout really exist?

Does the perfect workout really exist?

The first time Olympia Cure tried a pair of rebound boots—a ski-boot-like shoe with a flexible, plastic oval attached to the bottom—she “felt like a kid on a trampoline.”

Soon after, Cure, a fitness enthusiast and part-time roller skating instructor in Chicago, launched Chainless Movementsa group rebound class that resembles step aerobics on space-age stilts. Since December, she says, she’s lost five pounds, and her endurance has increased.

A 2019 ClassPass survey found that participation in non-traditional fitness classes, such as trampoline workouts, bungee fitness, and dance cardio, increased by 82 percent compared to the previous year.

But to some, classes like Cure’s—plus a swath of other trendy group workouts like bungee fitness, trampoline jumping, and drumstick routines—have become the subject of ridicule. On sites like YouTube and TikTok, millions have posted videos with the running joke, Middle Aged Women Doing Anything But Working Out.

Traditionalists sometimes view unconventional workouts as fads lacking scientific backing, while proponents argue that these new methods can enhance motivation and make exercise more accessible and enjoyable.

Yet, with a glut of information and limited time, choosing the best way to work out can be daunting. Research alone suggests one should forego the flying bungees. But what about exercisers disinclined to hit a weight bench or intimidated by CrossFit? Is there any such thing as a perfect workout? Here’s what the experts say.

It’s all about exercise “buckets”

Though there are few large, high-quality studies on trampolining and other fitness trends, the studies that do exist suggest it improves balance, cardiovascular fitness, and pelvic floor musculature. It is also gentler on the joints and often has a lower perceived level of exertion since it is generally more fun.

However, the value of weightlifting and high-intensity cardio for weight loss has been around for years. A recent study found that lifting reduced women’s cardiovascular mortality by a whopping 30 percent.

(Lifting heavy weights is for middle-aged women too.)

But Mike Roussell, author of Strength: The Field Manual and a nutrition expert, says it’s more about ticking certain fitness boxes than one particular workout.

“You need cardiovascular training, and you need resistance training, and having both is the ultimate fitness résumè,” he says.

In the cardio “bucket,” Roussell says, aim for low-intensity cardio—low enough to hold a conversation while you move—and bursts of high intensity. Low-intensity cardio strengthens parts of the heart, lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate. In high-intensity cardio, the heart pumps more intensively and forces the body to use different kinds of fuel, called metabolic flexibility, which boosts longevity and disease prevention.

Then there’s the resistance “bucket.” Building strength and power contribute to longevity, says Roussell, partly because lean body mass helps prevent falls and fractures later in life and makes it easier to maintain muscle later. “It’s just like your retirement savings,” he says. “You’re going to spend it, but at least you have it there.”

(Here’s what lifting weights does to your body—and your mind.)

As if that weren’t enough to make the barbell-averse reconsider, resistance training has also contributed to brain health.

“It’s like physical Sudoku,” says Stacy Simsan exercise physiologist with expertise in women’s athletics.“Wordle and Sudoku are good for neural pathways. But you could do resistance training and get a bigger bang for your buck because you get better muscles, better metabolic control, and brain health.”

Sims recommends thinking of resistance training in terms of three movement planes: quad-dominant/glute-dominant (think squats), push-pull upper body (bench overhead press), and posterior work (deadlifts and Cossack squats).

“Then you’re looking at the functionality of the different planes of movement and the different exercises that you can put in there, depending on what people are doing in their lives,” she adds.

Evolution of fitness trends

This isn’t the first time a trendy workout has faced criticism. In the early 20th century, calisthenics and gymnastics were sometimes considered too basic and rigid, unsuitable for all populations. The 1950s and 1960s brought home workouts into the spotlight, but programs like Jack LaLanne’s were criticized for their simplistic approach and lack of personalized guidance, potentially leading to injuries.

The aerobics boom of the 1970s and 1980s, popularized by Jane Fonda, faced criticism for its high-impact nature, which could cause joint injuries. At the same time, bodybuilding was scrutinized for promoting unrealistic body images and the use of steroids.

(The exercise phenomenon born in a prisoner-of-war camp.)

In the 1990s, step aerobics and spinning were noted for the risk of repetitive strain injuries, and yoga and Pilates were sometimes dismissed as too gentle or ineffective for weight loss. The 2000s saw the rise of functional fitness with CrossFit, which faced criticism for high injury rates and intense workouts, as did boot camps and HIIT for being potentially dangerous for beginners.

From the 2010s to the present, boutique fitness studios have sometimes been seen as elitist due to their high costs, while digital and at-home workouts raised concerns about a lack of personalized guidance.

Finding balance

For both Sims and Rousell, the best workouts are those that take real life into account. Roussell calls it “the gray area”—where fitness and nutrition goals meet things like business travel, parenting, and parties.

Instead, he says, the secret to success is embracing the nuances and realities of one’s real-life demands. Start with what you enjoy, and add whatever exercise components you might be missing.

(Walking is the sixth vital sign. Here’s how to do it right.)

“We have to look at that motivation component,” says Sims. “If someone likes to walk, I tell them to put a weighted backpack on because that’s going to give you extra load that you have to push against. You’re still doing what you love, but you are getting some resistance training component to it.”

For Olympia Cure’s rebound students in Chicago, the motivation factor has opened the door to regular fitness.

“A lot of the residents said they don’t have affordable fitness options around us that would trick the mind,” she says. “They want to do something that makes them think, ‘I’m not really exercising. I’m just having fun.’”

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