What is the absolute bare minimum exercise I can do?

Well isn’t that the million dollar question…

I get asked this question in one form or another, day in and day out. While there is no one simple answer – because we all have very different nervous, immune and endocrine (hormone) systems – I will do my best to answer this from the perspective of what works for me and what can be simply adapted to suit any individual.

The first note I’ll make here is that this (loose) routine does not in itself meet the exercise guidelines BUT all of the other incidental activity I do is still activity, and it still counts so on balance, this works for me. If you live a more sedentary life at work and home you may need a little more, or if you do a more physically demanding job you may need a little less. The important thing is to be thoughtful about what you need and to seek qualified help and advice if you’re not sure or if your routine isn’t working for you.

I enjoy my exercise; in fact a long slow workout is one of my favourite things to do but the realities of life make this a rarity so my routine ends up looking like the bare minimum done day to day with the odd extra session crammed in where I can fit it. Juggling a family and a business can mean I struggle to find the time and energy for exercise, so this is what my bare minimum looks like:

Cardio

I walk and run… about 15 minutes walking and I finish with about 5 minutes of running. It’s not much but enough to huff and puff and a little and to bust a sweat. I do this on my way to work on workdays or when walking the dog… these are both activities I must do regardless, so I am not actually chewing up much in the way of extra time and energy.  I aim to do this at least 3 times per week and I can obviously switch it up to suit my mood and energy levels sometimes it’s a straight run and sometimes it’s just a meandering walk but either way it’s something and something is ALWAYS better than nothing!

Function and strength

If you google functional fitness, you’ll be drowning in a sea of (often over-complicated) recommendations. I simply choose a different prime move or lift each day and I do three sets to fatigue… now depending on how tired I am that may be 12 reps or that may be 5 reps but whatever. These sets are not always the same and when I’m tired there can be a big difference between when I reach fatigue in my first, second and third sets but even if I manage 10, 8, 5 – I’m happy that I’ve done something. Again, something is always better than nothing and even a little something each day adds up to a very big something over a lifetime.

I do this within my usual weight range with the lightest weight in the first set and the heaviest in my last. Sometimes I don’t even bother with weights and just work with my body weight but again, something is better than nothing.

My go to moves are the basics:

  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Deadlift
  • Chest press (push-up)
  • Plank
  • Row or pull

This allows for a simple structure that I don’t have to think too hard about that can be easily adapted on a daily basis to suit my life at that point in time. And of course, it’s a structure that I can mix a heap of variation into (to prevent the inevitable boredom) without losing the overall balance.

This means I can sub in single leg squats and mix in front, back or overhead squats as I feel. Lunges can be static, travelling, with trunk twists and/or arm reaches, and planks can be side or reverse planks, with arm or leg lifts etc. This is obviously not exhaustive, but you get the picture – there’s a basic structure with almost endless variation on a theme.

Now I’m no spring chicken…

I’ve lived a full life with lots of illnesses and injuries along the way, so pain is a regular part of my life (as it is for many people) so what do I do when I have pain?? Well, it depends… On what you might ask… so, there are 2 key things my activity depends on in the context of pain:

1 – do I have evidence of tissue injury? Meaning was there a new trauma or illness

2 – does my pain increase or decrease with movement and exercise

If I have reason to think I’ve injured something then I give my body adequate time to rest, recover and rebuild tissue integrity. This means that I rest the injured area but continue to exercise other areas so that I create a better internal environment full of tissue growth and repair factors that will drive a speedier repair process and that will also stimulate my body to produce all those lovely pain reducing chemicals like endorphins etc. that not only help me feel better but mean I have less pain while my injury recovers.

When it’s time to reload the injured area, I then move on to my second assessment point to determine what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Does my pain increase or decrease with the movement and exercise?

Now let me be clear here… there is no need to avoid all pain – pain does not mean necessarily mean you’re damaging the injured area further but it obviously could so again we need to be thoughtful. Our pain is often a warning or protective mechanism so it’s completely normal to have some pain and discomfort when returning to activity. Our bodies want and need to remind us to be sensible so often pain will ease once our brain is confident we’re not doing anything too risky. Put simply, if my pain eases (or even stays the same if it’s at a low level), I keep going.

If pain escalates then it is usually a good indicator that our brains have assessed the activity as high risk and even if pushing on doesn’t cause damage, it’s likely to bring more pain. Again, this isn’t a reason to stop, it just gives me pause to think about how I can reduce the risk and therefore reduce the pain so, before I change the exercise itself, I will try decreasing the load (gravity and/or weights), doing the exercise slower and then decreasing the range of the movement so maybe a half squat or half push up etc. If I can’t find a point I can tolerate in reasonable comfort, then I’ll give it away and choose something else. Then of course I’ll come back to it in a week or two and try again.

The last key thing I try to achieve in my overall routine is good movement variability and flexibility… What can be better or simpler than yoga? So, to top off my routine I try to do just 2 or 3 yoga poses on my non walking/running days. This keeps me feeling more limber and ensures I regularly take just a few minutes to breathe and calm my often over-worked and over-stimulated nervous system.

Again, I’m not at all rigid here – sometimes it’s 2 or 3 poses and sometimes (if my child is in bed) it might stretch out to 6 poses but it’s simple, requires no equipment and can be done on the loungeroom floor in front of the tv. And again there is almost endless variation to keep me interested and tackle any area of stiffness or tension I might be feeling at the time.

These are some of my favourites:

  • Thread the needle
  • Childs pose with a twist
  • Cat tail pose
  • Happy baby pose
  • Puppy dog pose
  • Resting frog
  • Tree pose
  • Forward bend with rotation

So overall the wash-up looks something like this:

MONDAY

TUESDAY

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

SATURDAY

Walk/run

Yoga

Walk/run

Yoga

Walk/run

Yoga

Squats

Plank

Push-up

Row/pull

Deadlift

Lunges

Sunday is whatever I want, sometimes its lazy and sometimes it’s an hour and a half of pilates or kettlebells, or a long walk with the family.

All in all, its about 20-30 minutes of varied movement a day which is enough when you live generally active lifestyle of somewhat physical work, kid wrangling and puppy play.

As they say, there are a thousand ways to skin a cat so this is definitely not the only way – there are lots of other strategies that can work – but this is what works for me and it’s also the basic framework that informs my advice to my patients.

Chop and change at will but the key messages here are:

  • Move most days
  • Do a variety of things that you enjoy and that achieve different health outcomes
  • Keep it simple and sustainable so that you move more over the span of your life
  • Aim for slow and steady progress without the boom and bust cycle
Need help getting or staying active? Our Osteopaths can help!

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