Trying to make sense of all the new workouts out there—like Peleton, Orangetheory, Barre, and trampoLEAN, to name but a few—can feel like a workout in itself. Each have their pros and cons, but research shows you’re more likely to stick to a workout plan that is easy, efficient and shows results quickly.
You’d be forgiven for just wanting some simple exercises, and to understand which make the most impact—fast.
We asked more than a dozen fitness experts across the country to tell us which exercises boost your health the quickest—and none require an expensive trainer or fitness-studio membership. Here’s what they told us. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
Both men and women should get in the habit of doing kegel exercises, but too few of us do. Kegels help strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor, including the uterus, bladder, small intestine, and rectum, all of which can start to weaken as we age. Keeping them strong has a host of benefits: Preventing incontinence and improving sex, for two.
Recommendation: According to Harvard Medical School, a kegel involves squeezing the muscles you’d use to hold in urine or gas. Hold the contraction for two to three seconds, release, and repeat 10 times. For the best results, do them four to five times a day.
Resistance Band Side-Steps
“These work hips, glutes, and legs in a manner that very few movements or exercises do,” says David Barbour, co-founder of Vivio Life Sciences. “After about a week or two of regularly doing resistance band side steps in the gym, at home, or really anywhere you will start to feel sturdier in your stance, your balance will improve, and the power in your legs will increase.”
Recommendation: Place a resistance band just above your knee and stand wide. Bend slightly at the waist. Keeping tension in the band, take small steps to the side while keeping your pelvis level. The goal is to keep the band tense and prevent it from slipping. (Check out this video.)
Rocky’s favorite warmup has become a key part of trendy modern fitness regimens, and for good reason: It’s an incredibly effective cardio workout. According to research published in the Compendium of Physical Activities, a 10-minute session of jumping rope can burn as many calories as jogging at an eight-minute-per-mile pace.
Recommendation: Check out this beginner jump rope workout and 10-minute complete jump rope workout.
Continuing on the classic tip, remember those ab wheels beloved by old-school hardos? “This is a variation of the ab rollout that doesn’t require any equipment,” says Julia Hickman, a certified personal trainer based in Morristown, New Jersey. “It’s one of my favorite movements that works the whole body, while focusing on the core.”
Recommendation: Start in a standing position. Bend knees and shift down to the ground by walking hands out while engaging the core so that hands are directly underneath shoulders and body is in a straight line. Then walk hands back in toward feet and stand up. It can be modified by performing it while kneeling, says Hickman.
This classic calisthenic exercise from elementary school PE is worth revisiting at any age: The squat thrust is a great full-body exercise that stokes your metabolism and burns fat as it works your arms, chest, legs, back and core.
Recommendation: Here’s a video with proper form and helpful tips.
“When done properly, this can be a total body exercise, with emphasis on the whole posterior chain, or back of your body,” says Ali Greenman, NASM, personal trainer and founder of Final Straw Fitness. “Do a few sets of swings for your workout, and your heart and muscles will be feeling it.”
Recommendation: Stand with legs slightly outside shoulder width. Holding a kettlebell or weight between your legs, bend slightly at the waist and bring the kettlebell back, then swing it forward to shoulder height, tensing your butt. You can vary the motion to achieve different benefits: “One example is to go heavy, with smaller, quick swings for a killer cardio workout while torching your hamstrings and glutes,” says Greenman. “Another option is for bigger swings either to chin height or all the way over your head. Either one will also take a cardio toll, but they bring more muscles into the mix.”
Harvard Medical School considers this one of the best exercises you can do, period. It’s a traditional Chinese martial art that combines movement and relaxation and has been called “meditation in motion.” It also improves balance, which can start to slip as we age.
Recommendation: Take a class to help you get started and learn the proper form.
Fitness experts say that when it comes to strengthening your abs, back and core, the plank reigns supreme. “Core conditioning is so important to your health, because the core is the link to everything you do physically on a daily basis,” says Jamie Hickey, personal trainer and nutritionist at Truism Fitness. “Think of it as a sturdy central link connecting your lower and upper body. Everything from bending to put on your shoes, picking up a package, looking behind you, sitting in a chair or simply standing there are just a few of the mundane actions we take for granted that utilize our core muscles.”
Recommendation: Start on all fours. Place your elbows and forearms on the ground, with your heels off the ground. Raise your hips until your back is straight. Hold the position for 30 seconds, or as long as you can. “The greatest benefit of the plank is that it’s a multi-compound exercise,” says Hickey. “Holding the position takes strength and endurance in your abs, core, glutes and hamstrings. It also supports posture and improves balance.”
Remember these from gym class? “The helicopter is a great exercise due to how it works your lower and upper abs and your side obliques—it really is an all-around ab exercise,” says Hickey.
Recommendation: Lying flat on the floor, put hands on your lower back or the floor, and raise your ankles toward the ceiling. Rotate your legs in a circular motion. “You can also modify it to make it harder, by having your palms face upward instead of being against the floor. This makes the exercise much harder, because it takes your balance away. This is beneficial to people that already have a developed core and needs a more challenging move.”
A simple stroll can do wonders for your physical and mental health. “Walking is simple, yet powerful. It can help you stay trim, improve cholesterol levels, strengthen bones, keep blood pressure in check, lift your mood, and lower your risk for a number of diseases — diabetes and heart disease, for example,” says Harvard Medical School. “A number of studies have shown that walking and other physical activities can even improve memory and resist age-related memory loss.”
Recommendation: Start with walking for about 10 to 15 minutes. As you acclimate to it, you can walk farther and faster. It’s ideal to walk 30 to 60 minutes every day.
Compound strength training
Experts are unanimous—you should add some form of strength training to your workout routine, at least two days a week. “The best exercises that boost health fast are compound weightlifting movements that use the major muscle groups such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and bench press,” says Robert Herbst, a personal trainer and 30-time champion powerlifter. “They’re great because they raise the metabolism for 48 to 72 hours afterward, so they help to burn fat, build muscle over your entire body, and they stress the spine and long bones so they improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis. It’s a win-win all the way around.”
Recommendation: Read on for variations of those exercises that you can do at the gym — or anywhere, just using your own bodyweight.
Swimming is a low-impact, full-body cardio session that Harvard Medical School calls “the perfect workout.” Why? The water supports your body and takes the strain off your joints. Researchers have found that swimming can also improve your mood.
Recommendation: “If you’re looking for a low-impact workout that boosts your health, swimming is the place to start,” says Caleb Backe, certified personal trainer and CEO of Maple Holistics. “It promotes your circulation and increases your heart rate without putting unnecessary pressure on your joints. Swimming regularly can release tension in your muscles and improve your aerobic health.”
“Most people typically lack the posterior chain strength that can not only improve general athletic performance but also alleviate and prevent low-back pain,” says James Shapiro, NASM, CES, PES, of Primal Power Fitness in New York City. “You don’t even need a gym to perform the bodyweight version and you can progress/regress the motion with ease. It works the glutes and slight bit of hamstrings from the bottom position.”
Recommendation: Begin with your shoulder blades pushed back into your surface of choice, like a bench or couch. Sit upright as much as possible. With your legs slightly outside shoulder width, bend your knees, with your toes slightly turned out. Brace your core, tuck your chin into your chest, and push from your heels to thrust up. Lock out at the top (imagine your back is a table). Return to the starting position with your core braced. For the weighted version, just add a barbell or dumbbell below your waist, just at the hips.
Several studies show that HIIT, or high intensity interval training, is the most effective cardio method for weight loss, heart health and more. A study published in the Journal of Obesity found that HIIT outperformed traditional steady-state cardio for fat loss, and a review of research printed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that in a group of people with heart disease, HIIT was almost twice as effective as moderate-intensity cardio at improving cardiorespiratory fitness.
Recommendation: On a treadmill, walk or jog slowly for one minute. Then run as fast as you can for one minute; your goal is to get your heart rate up to 80 percent of its maximum. Then return to the slower pace for another minute.
Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and an expert on the effects of resistance training on the human body, told the New York Times that the squat is the best exercise a person can do. That’s because it “activates the body’s biggest muscles, those in the buttocks, back and legs.”
Recommendation: It’s an easy one—no weight rack required. “Just fold your arms across your chest, bend your knees and lower your trunk until your thighs are about parallel with the floor,” said Phillips. “Do that 25 times. It’s a very potent exercise.”
The classic ab exercise is still a must-do: It strengthens your core and improves mobility and flexibility.
Recommendation: Lie flat on the ground with your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands behind your head, with your elbows to the side. Lift your shoulders, neck and head off the ground. Hold for a moment and return to position.
Fitness experts consistently say the push-up is one of the best exercises you can do because it works a ton of muscle groups at once: Chest, triceps, shoulders, core and back.
Recommendation: Get on all fours with your hands placed shoulder-width apart and heels off the ground. Lift your hips and keep your arms straight, and bending at the hips to form an upside-down V. Bend your elbows, lowering your head until it touches the floor. Push yourself back to the starting position.
Like the push-up, the pull-up is a perennial favorite of fitness experts because of the numerous muscle groups it works: The biceps, shoulders and large muscles of the back.
Recommendation: You can do it on a machine at the gym or (carefully installed) pullup bar, like this one. Here’s a video that illustrates proper form.
This staple of elementary-school PE is worth revisiting. It’s one of the easiest ways to get your heart rate up and blood pumping.
Recommendation: You probably remember. (But check out this video for some handy tips.)
“If you left me alone on an island with only one exercise to keep me strong, mobile, balanced and well circulated, I would choose the Turkish Get-Up,” says Aaron Alexander, LMT, cPT, founder of The Align Method. “It combines strength along with mobility of all your major joints, full-body integration through various ranges of motion, connects your breath with movement and gives your body some much-needed floor time.”
Recommendation: Lying flat on the ground, you raise yourself to a standing position in a series of coordinated movements, with your arm extended toward the ceiling. You might see people doing this at the gym with a kettlebell or weight, but you don’t need either; it’s effective with just your own bodyweight. Check out this video to see how to do it.
The burpee a staple of trendy workouts like Crossfit, Orangetheory and various bootcamps, and there’s a good reason why: This variation on the squat thrust—adding a jump as the final motion in the sequence—works your entire body and gets your heart pumping, providing huge cardio benefits.
Recommendation: This instructional video shows you the proper form and variations.
This easy exercise lets you work your abs by lying down, strengthening your core, muscles of the lower back and hip flexors. All will help you improve your stability.
Recommendation: Lie flat on your back with your arms at your sides and your legs extended. Lift your legs slowly toward the ceiling, keeping them straight, until your butt is off the ground. Slowly lower your legs until they’re just off the ground and hold. Repeat.
Like squats, lunges work the major muscles of the lower body: glutes, quads, thighs, and hamstrings. Any exercise that involves the legs can help with core strength and stability and back strength—and it will really get your heart pumping.
Recommendation: Take a big step forward, keeping your back straight. Bend your front knee to approximately 90 degrees, keeping the weight on the back toes. Lower the knee of your back leg toward the floor. Bring yourself back to the starting position. You can do this with just your bodyweight, or by holding small weights.
This stretch and strengthening exercise is an insurance policy against the aches and pains that come with getting older. “This is a safe exercise to improve your glute activation and endurance, reducing the risk of lower back pain, as well as hip and knee pain,” says Dr. Andy Barr, DPT, founder and CEO at Innovate Performance.
Recommendation: Lying down, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips up as high as you can, elevating your entire back up off the ground. Imagine you’re extending your knees forward, toward the wall in front of you. Lengthen your hips and keep your back straight.
Seriously. If you can do nothing else, try to stand more. A 2018 review of research at Stanford University confirmed that a largely sedentary lifestyle slows your metabolism and raises your blood sugar, increasing the risk of a variety of maladies like heart disease and diabetes.
Recommendation: Take a break at least once a day, and walk around the office or around your block. Have standing/walking meetings instead of sitting around a conference table. And since you’re up: The Stanford experts recommend 30 minutes a day of exercise—walking counts. Or buy a standing desk (and use it!). As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.