Food and fitness go hand in hand, and while you can’t outrun a bad diet, you can improve your health and add a new layer to your wellness journey with effective movement. For me, I’ve truly learnt to make exercise a fun, enjoyable habit with plenty of variation that makes me want to keep coming back to it.
I love feeling as though I have options, and each different type of exercise has a different set of benefits. It also makes it simpler to stick to the routine, because there’s always some style of movement that caters to my time restrictions, mood, and energy levels (and yours, too!). Any which way you choose to sweat it out is good for heart health, mood, muscle development, and so much more. Here are my five favourite activities and why they’re so good for the body, mind, and soul.
Climbing is one my primary sport these days, and it’s a fantastic full-body workout that incorporates elements of strength, cardio, balance and flexibility. It also requires plenty of patience, strategy, and courage, and can put you in a complete state of flow!
While climbing isn’t quite as accessible as most other physical activities, I recommend hitting your local rock climbing gym to learn the ropes – no pun intended. You can start by taking a lesson in bouldering (climbing without ropes on shorter walls, where you fall on a soft mat) or top roping with a partner (rope climbing where you belay each other up the route). All rock climbing gyms will have special shoes and harnesses for hire.
If you like the sport and you want to do it regularly (I recommend at least 2 sessions per week to see real progress), it’s a good idea to get your own climbing shoes, a harness and a chalk bag. Once your progress, you can try lead climbing and that’s where that courage comes in handy.
PS. Climbing is best learnt from more experienced people before you take off to the big rocks. But don’t be intimidated by this sport! It’s safer than a lot of more popular sports, and you can start on easy routes at the gym instead of going outdoors.
Benefits of rock climbing:
Endurance. Rock climbing combines some cardio with strength training, but it’s all about endurance of your muscles and finger strength.
It’s a full-body workout. Many people think rock climbing is mostly focused in upper-body strength, but while you do rely on the back, shoulders and arms to lift you up some, it works the entire body and your feet really do the climbing. You can expect to feel the burn in your abs, obliques, delts, traps, quads, calves, and the forearems.
It’s a great teacher. Being high up on a rock wall pondering your next move is as much a physical experience as it is a spiritual experience for many. Rock climbing is a good teacher of balance, focus, determination, and how to overcome a challenge. Overcoming that fear as you move upwards is truly empowering, and you can expect to gain a lot of courage and mental strength as you continue to climb. I’ve had to overcome a lot of fear and doubts in climbing, and I definitely feel it has carried into my life as well.
Climbing takes you to places you couldn’t otherwise go, and opening up that door is a beautiful way to experience the world. Climbing gyms are more and more common these days, so you have no excuse not to try.
I also love Yoga
I love recommending yoga to any level. Yoga is great for someone who is otherwise sedentary and wants to begin with some gentle movement, as much as it’s important for someone who gets a lot of muscle stimulation from climbing or weightlifting and could really use a stretch. Yoga works on increasing flexibility, strength, and balance. Beyond just the physical body, yoga really works the mind.
Personally, I HAVE to do yoga to help with my posture and to open my chest and shoulders, because I spend so much time working on my computer, and I climb. My ‘work’ has led to some injuries in the past, but since I started doing 2-3 yoga sessions per week, I’ve been able to avoid these issues. I have also become more flexible and improved my core, which has been helping with other sports.
Benefits of yoga include:
Increased flexibility. Flexibility isn’t just good for range of movement. A lack of flexibility can lead to constant aches and pains – even if dull – throughout the body, and you can look forward to a consistent yoga practice really chipping away at those pains.
Muscle tone. Yoga is a great way to concentrate on building muscle all over the body. Muscle plus flexibility are the dynamic duo, helping to prevent injury, back pain, arthritis, and more.
Lowers cortisol levels. This is why yoga is so good for stress reduction. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and while we need a little here and there, we have to make sure it’s not a constant flow of cortisol. This will help manage adrenal health, ward off depression, regulate blood pressure, and keep the immune system healthy, too.
Improves circulation. Yoga will encourage blood flow and transport of oxygen to the cells. Inversions can be especially helpful for venous blood flow from the lower body to the back of the heart, where it is pumped to the lungs for fresh oxygenation. This can help poor circulation, swelling, blood clotting and more leading to reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
It makes you happy! There is a lot of research telling us that yoga can change the way we think. It can improve self-esteem, confidence, stress levels, depression, anxiety, and tons of other facets of the mind related to happiness. Mindfulness and yogic breathing can be very powerful tools in permanently shifting the way we think, and literally changing our brain chemistry.
You can get started with yoga by practising with free YouTube videos. I really like the 30-day challenges from Yoga With Adriene. I also recommend visiting a local studio to learn in-person where your instructor can fix your form until it becomes more intuitive. There are so many different types of yoga – restorative, hatha (breathing focus), Bikram (done in a heated room) – and the benefits are endless.
Going for a run or a jog is accessible to most people. You don’t need any equipment at all. You just need your own two feet and a good pair of joggers (or you can go barefoot!). Speed is not the goal here either. The main benefits of running and jogging come down to getting your heart rate up which naturally improves cardiovascular health.
Like with all fitness pursuits, running gets easier with time. You can go faster for longer without getting tired the more you work at it. There’s no denying the “runner’s high,” either. Once you get into it, you’ll feel those happy chemicals flowing through the body.
I got into running by accident. I was actually against running for a long time but then a friend of mine asked me to join her in a City2Surf fun run in Sydney. It’s a HUGE annual 14.5km run from the city to the beach. I had about 5-6 months to train and I decided to try it. I’ve been running ever since, and love doing fun runs. Colour Run was the most fun ever! Mind you, I don’t run every day but I love hitting the pavement or go off road once a week.
Benefits of running and jogging:
Improve learning abilities. This study shows that regular exercise improves cognitive functions and reduces risk of cognitive decline as we age. Don’t just do it for the body – do it for the brain! With that research, vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise. High-intensity running has the biggest benefits, but even a jog can increase proteins and neurotransmitters in the brain related to cognitive performance.
Sleep better. Running is a great way to normalise circadian rhythm. Research shows that with a consistent routine (you won’t see immediate benefits), you can expect increased alertness during the day which will naturally help you shift into sleepiness at night. Plus, regular exercisers got up to 1.25 hours more sleep per night!
Quick mood boost. Runner’s high is a real thing, and with that, you can expect immediate benefits. Getting your heart rate up and sweating it out will trigger the release of endorphins in the brain, giving you that feeling like you can do anything. It’s worth it just for that!
Healthy heart. Cardiovascular exercise is the best way to give your heart what it needs to stay healthy, next to real food, of course! We should be aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, but adding high-intensity bursts to the mix can improve cardiovascular health even more.
Kills cravings. From cannabis to junk food, whatever your addiction is, running can help curb those cravings that feel impossible to move past. Next time you’re feeling weak, resolve to run instead. A 30-minute treadmill session could help replace those bad habits with good ones.
Running can be intimidating. While it’s simple enough to put one foot in front of the other, you might feel discouraged when three minutes later feels like twenty. Start with a couch to 5k program and set small goals. Start on the treadmill at first if it’s easier for you, or run at a track. Grab a buddy to hit the track with you, or bring your furry friend. It’s all about finding that motivation and sticking with it!
Amongst my favourite ways to squeeze in a workout is going on a good hike. Hiking has a lot of great incentive, because if you put in the work, you end up in quite beautiful places sometimes. Plus, exercising outdoors has another element to it entirely, as being in the forest or surrounded by nature is healing in its own right. Once again, hiking caters to all levels of physical activity. From nature walks to mountain climbs, you can really create your own adventure. I personally love multi-day hikes where you really get to go off the grid for a few days.
Benefits of hiking:
Cognitive boost. One study looked at attention span and creative problem-solving after individuals were exposed to nature for four days with a 50% increase! You don’t need to spend four days in nature to reap the benefits. Simply unplugging helps the mind take a break from the constant stream of new information and multi-tasking to restore focus.
It burns a LOT of calories. Running wins in terms of burning calories, but many people aren’t going to run full-force for an hour. Hiking is a moderate-intensity activity that you can do for hours at a time. If you’re walking on an incline and carrying a pack, you can boost that number even higher.
Forest bathing. If you choose to take a hike in a particularly green space, you can also reap the benefits of Shinrik-Yoku, or forest bathing. A simple 15-minute walk in the forest can boost the immune system, lower cortisol levels, improve mood and energy, reduce blood pressure, and overall have you feeling refreshed and restored.
Lowers risk level. Of what? Just about everything! Like walking, hiking can reduce risk of heart disease, blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even cancer as it acts on oxidative stress.
John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” It’s true. Hitting the trail brings peace to the mind and the body, and you might even walk away with a few good panorama shots. Better yet, you’ll always leave with a great memory whether you hit the trail alone or with friends – dogs included.
There’s nothing quite like a relaxing dip in the pool but you can reap even more benefits by doing a few laps in whatever style you choose. Swimming is a really good choice for people who have a lot of joint pain and can’t comfortable or safely do other cardio. It provides a full-body exercise with focus on both cardiovascular benefits and strength-building. If you can locate an indoor pool, it also becomes a year-round exercise. Many gyms with indoor pools will have aerobic classes which helps get in more of that resistance training, too.
I was introduced to swimming by my parents when I was little, and for almost 7 years I hit the pool 5 days a week, training with a squad and taking part in junior races. So you could say I grew up swimming. I took a long break when I was a teenager (I discovered booze and cigarettes) but my love for water never disappeared and I started swimming again (more leisurely) in my twenties. When I lived by the beach in Sydney, I took up ocean swimming but these days, living in London, I don’t have that luxury so I hit our local indoor pool a few times a month, and swim outdoors in summer.
Benefits of swimming:
Low-impact. Some people aren’t cut out for high-impact. Swimming is a good fitness choice for those individuals. Some people’s main form of exercise is very high-impact, and they need a good supplementary routine that won’t make them prone to injury. Swimming is a good fitness choice for those folks, too. It’s easy on the joints.
Increases lung capacity. Want to work the lungs? Swimming is the answer. Because your face is underwater, your body will default to using oxygen more efficiently. This means you might experience benefits such as lower blood pressure, a lower resting heart rate, and a better ability to run.
Turn back the clock. One study claims a regular swimmer is, on average, around 20 biological years younger than they actually are. That’s pretty substantial! Tack on some years to your life. Swimmers will be healthy and vibrant later in life.
It increases blood flow to the brain. In short, this is making you smarter. Swim for the smarts!
It’s another full-body workout. Swimming really gets your upper body moving while still working the legs. The advantage of your arms being over the head is working unique muscles that don’t get as much attention – the lats, delts, and traps.
Finally, swimming is fun! Lakes, ponds, oceans… you name it. Swimming presents us with great opportunities to explore further. Find a pool where you can practise swimming laps, and get into a routine. Not only is it great exercise on its own, but it makes for good recovery from a hard hike or climbing session.
Tell me – what’s your favourite way to stay fit? I hope you enjoyed learning more about the benefits of my preferred exercises, and hopefully I have inspired you to try something fun, new and perhaps a little adventurous.
I saw your talks in the documentary “Love Paleo” and sought out more of your advise on this fantastic website. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. You’re helping people like me to take the first steps (which you make considerably easier) possible. Keep up the fantastic work. Best wishes, /Tavis/
Thanks Tavis! Appreciate your kind feedback and support. Irena x