The “best” workout is subjective, but your best bet is one that challenges you yet you enjoy doing.
The following workouts are in no particular order, and they all can help you expand your repertoire and reach your goals:
Interval Training Interval training makes you work harder than the person cruising along on autopilot on the treadmill or elliptical next to you, but you’ll also be working smarter. You may even be done with your calorie-scorching workout before that other person breaks a sweat. Intrigued? Interval training is a ratio of “work” and “rest” periods and is designed to push you outside of your comfort zone. The goal is for you to become faster, stronger and more efficient over time. An ideal ratio could be between 1:3-1:5 work to rest, meaning that you would push yourself at a high intensity for as long as you can hold that pace, then you would recover at a lower intensity for 3-5 times as long. Any popular form of cardio activity can be turned into an interval, including walking, running, elliptical, stair climber, cycling and swimming. Start with 1-2 sessions a week, but keep some days that you perform longer, lower intensity activities to have some variety. You will burn more calories in a shorter session, and you will notice with continued training that you can hold longer work intervals or higher intensities while decreasing the rest interval. You will get closer and closer to becoming a finely-tuned machine!
Yoga/Pilates Yoga and Pilates are mind/body exercises that increase body awareness and mindfulness while improving strength, endurance and flexibility. Yoga is the best active way to improve range of motion, but it’s more than just chanting and holding poses. Vinsaya, hatha and asthanga yoga focus on “flow,” which is linking poses together more quickly to build heat in the body, and some of the classes may incorporate power moves (think push-ups.) Expect to burn between 300-600 calories for an hour class, depending on your gender and body size. Bikram, or “hot yoga,” is performed in a room heated to up to 105 degrees (probably sweating just thinking about it!), and can burn an extra 100 calories compared to other styles. Pilates, created by Joseph Pilates, focuses on the “powerhouse” of the body, which is the torso/abdominals/core, hips and thighs. He considered it a form of “contrology” because the focus is on quality over quantity with fewer but more controlled repetitions while maintaining proper spinal and pelvic alignment. The breathing is also important and follows an inhale-inhale, exhale-exhale pattern. Basic classes involve seated and lying mat work, and more advanced classes can involve small, hollow balls, a Pilates ring, or the Reformer system which involves cables. Pilates is more of a lengthening, toning and flexibility workout, but you can still burn 100-300 calories per class. People who engage in mind/body exercise experience other mental and emotional benefits such as improved body image and impulse control (goodbye, cravings!) and fewer automatic negative reactions, such as taking a deep breath instead of cursing during a traffic jam. Yoga is gentle enough and soothing for pregnant women, but pregnant women should avoid Pilates after the first trimester due to many positions lying on the back.
Muscle Confusion/Plyometrics Muscle confusion and plyometrics are higher intensity workouts that people who are already exercising regularly or have hit a plateau can use to take their fitness to the next level. A basic exercise principle called progressive overload states that our bodies adapt to challenges and must be challenged by increased loads to continue to progress. Muscle confusion workouts are designed to “keep your body guessing” and introduce new moves that you have never tried (or maybe never even thought of!) Plyometric movements typically involve jumping, throwing, or other explosive moves (hopping, skipping, etc.) Stretching the muscle first before contracting it creates more power. Feel the difference between trying to jump from straight legs versus squatting down and then springing up. Congratulations, you just did a squat jump, which is a plyometric movement! Due to the high-impact nature of this type of workout, you should ease into it with lower repetitions once a week until your body adjusts, and then upgrade to no more than two or three sessions a week. The P90X DVD training system is an example of muscle confusion and some plyometrics, while the Insanity DVD training system is much heavier on both principles. Depending on body size and how hard you push, you can burn roughly 400-800 calories for an hour of these activities.
Circuit Training Circuit training sneaks cardio bursts into a strength training program. Any callisthenic type movement will do, but grab a jump rope if you are coordinated and burn 10-12 calories per minute. If you don’t have the equipment or can’t stop tripping over the rope, try jumping jacks, jogging in place, side shuffles, punching or kicking, or mountain climbers (hold a push-up position and quickly alternate bringing a knee toward your chest and back to start.) If coordination is not your thing, focus on moving from one exercise to the next with the absolute least time in between as possible to keep your heart rate and metabolism revved up. You’ll improve your endurance, burn more calories and gain cardio benefits is less time than a traditional strength routine with either of these methods.
Swimming There are more perks to swimming than not being able to feel yourself sweat, although that ranks right up there with wearing a bright, funky-patterned suit for me. The water’s buoyancy helps hold you up and takes pressure off joints, so you can do practically any movement without gravity pulling you down. Because of the non-weight bearing, low-impact nature, swimming and other water workouts are ideal for people with arthritis, limited mobility, excessive weight, lower body injuries, or exercise-induced asthma because warm, humid air helps open up airways. That doesn’t mean you won’t get a workout, though. You’ll get a total body one, in fact, because the water around you provides about 12 times as much resistance as air does. Stroking through it and against it will improve muscular strength and endurance in all major muscle groups and improve cardiovascular fitness.
Zumba This one is a bonus, but I had to put it in because if you have any rhythm at all (or can fake it), this is a workout disguised as a fun dance party. Beto Perez created the program in his native Columbia in the mid-90s and brought it to the US in 2001 as a Latin dance and aerobics fusion class. The styles of dance and movements range from salsa, merengue and mambo to belly dancing, hip hop and squats and lunges. This type of workout is ideal for someone who wants a high energy experience and likes a social atmosphere. Oh, and someone who doesn’t mind burning about 500 calories while learning some new moves!