The True Secret to the “Best” Exercise

Everyone wants to know which exercise is “the best.”

I think I’ve discovered exactly what it is. And I think what everyone else has been heralding as the best is totally wrong.

The general advice is this: Any exercise you actually enjoying doing and can keep doing is the best exercise for you. Different people enjoy different types of activities. So some people are die-hard marathoners and other people are die-hard yogis. Those exercises are both the best—for those people. (And the rest of us wish they would stop acting as if their favorite exercise is the only exercise.)

So good for those die-hards who religiously stick to the same fitness regimen. They’ve got it figured out and are set. They’ve truly found the best exercise, right? I don’t think so.

Why “Do What You Like” Is the Wrong Advice

If you only do what you like, you’ll miss out on other opportunities to learn, grow and get stronger. Sure, mastering one activity can be extremely rewarding, like when you cross that marathon finish line or nail that tough yoga pose. And yes, there are always ways to push yourself to the next level, like running that marathon faster next time or holding that pose for longer.

But you’re missing out on a lot by sticking to just one activity. Both running and yoga challenge the body and mind, but in two entirely different ways. And if you only stick to the thing you like, you’ll never experience the benefits of any other sorts of exercise. How could you? You’re too busy doing what you like to try anything new.

My Advice: Do What You Hate

I followed this “do what you like” advice for a long time. In high school I ran cross country and long distance track. Running’s always been my jam. I ran my first marathon at age 18 and have run several more since. Even if I haven’t run for months, it’s easy for me to pick back up and get into long-distance running shape relatively quickly.

I’m pretty good at running. I like it. So is running the best exercise for me? It was for a long time. But not anymore.

I’ve got amazing endurance from all that running, but I’m horrible at sprinting or short bursts of high-intensity exercise. I would rather run a long, slow mile then sprint for 30 seconds. Not exaggerating. Every time I sprint, I feel like I’m dying and I’m going to fall over at any second. It’s crazy how long 30 seconds can feel when you’re in the middle of them. When an instructor shout “15 seconds to go!” that feels like an incredibly long time.

So when I hit a fitness slump, was the solution to find another half-marathon or marathon to run? Nope. It was time to do more of something I’m really NOT that into.

I just signed up for the new 30-minute Tabata class at Bucktown. It’s a High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T) workout that lasts four minutes. The format is like this:

  • Push yourself as hard as you can for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10 seconds
  • Do this 8 times

Sounds not to bad, right? Wrong. Those four minutes can feel like the longest of my life. I really hate tabatas. Any time a fitness instructor throws them into a class (and this is usually at the end of class when I’m already really tired), I curse that instructor in my head. Tabatas are so super painful and unfun.

So why am I paying extra each month to do something I hate? Because I’m a firm believer in challenging yourself in new ways to make progress. I don’t for one second believe that doing more tabatas will make me like them more. But I do believe—in fact, I know—that doing more tabatas will not only kick my butt, but also kick my fitness into high gear.

I believe the “best” is exercise starts with identifying what you’re the weakest at. You don’t have to like it. But doing more of your weakest exercise will make you stronger. And you have to like that!

betsy picBetsy Mikel is a freelance copywriter whose passion is telling the stories of entrepreneurs, brands and businesses that challenge the status quo. When she’s not biking or running all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria, you can find Betsy on Twitter at @betsym |