Published in The New York Times by Gretchen Reynolds on April 15, 2011.

Let’s consider the butterfly. One of the most taxing movements in sports, the butterfly requires greater energy than bicycling at 14 miles per hour, running a 10-minute mile, playing competitive basketball or carrying furniture upstairs. It burns more calories, demands larger doses of oxygen and elicits more fatigue than those other activities, meaning that over time it should increase a swimmer’s endurance and contribute to weight control.

So is the butterfly the best single exercise that there is? Well, no. The butterfly “would probably get my vote for the worst” exercise, said Greg Whyte, a professor of sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University in England and a past Olympian in the modern pentathlon, known for his swimming. The butterfly, he said, is “miserable, isolating, painful.” It requires a coach, a pool and ideally supplemental weight and flexibility training to reduce the high risk of injury.

Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

But when pressed, he suggested one of the foundations of old-fashioned calisthenics: the burpee, in which you drop to the ground, kick your feet out behind you, pull your feet back in and leap up as high as you can. “It builds muscles. It builds endurance.” He paused. “But it’s hard to imagine most people enjoying” an all-burpees program, “or sticking with it for long.”

And sticking with an exercise is key, even if you don’t spend a lot of time working out. The health benefits of activity follow a breathtakingly steep curve. “The majority of the mortality-related benefits” from exercising are due to the first 30 minutes of exercise, said Timothy Church, M.D., who holds the John S. McIlhenny endowed chair in health wisdom at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. A recent meta-analysis of studies about exercise and mortality showed that, in general, a sedentary person’s risk of dying prematurely from any cause plummeted by nearly 20 percent if he or she began brisk walking (or the equivalent) for 30 minutes five times a week. If he or she tripled that amount, for instance, to 90 minutes of exercise four or five times a week, his or her risk of premature death dropped by only another 4 percent. So the one indisputable aspect of the single best exercise is that it be sustainable. From there, though, the debate grows heated.

“I personally think that brisk walking is far and away the single best exercise,” said Michael Joyner, M.D., a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a leading researcher in the field of endurance exercise.

As proof, he points to the work of Hiroshi Nose, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of sports medical sciences at Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, who has enrolled thousands of older Japanese citizens in an innovative, five-month-long program of brisk, interval-style walking (three minutes of fast walking, followed by three minutes of slower walking, repeated 10 times). The results have been striking. “Physical fitness — maximal aerobic power and thigh muscle strength — increased by about 20 percent,” Dr. Nose wrote in an e-mail, “which is sure to make you feel about 10 years younger than before training.” The walkers’ “symptoms of lifestyle-related diseases (hypertension, hyperglycemia and obesity) decreased by about 20 percent,” he added, while their depression scores dropped by half.

Walking has also been shown by other researchers to aid materially in weight control. A 15-year study found that middle-aged women who walked for at least an hour a day maintained their weight over the decades. Those who didn’t gained weight. In addition, a recent seminal study found that when older people started a regular program of brisk walking, the volume of their hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory, increased significantly.

But let’s face it, walking holds little appeal — or physiological benefit — for anyone who already exercises. “I nominate the squat,” said Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and an expert on the effects of resistance training on the human body. The squat “activates the body’s biggest muscles, those in the buttocks, back and legs.” It’s simple. “Just fold your arms across your chest,” he said, “bend your knees and lower your trunk until your thighs are about parallel with the floor. Do that 25 times. It’s a very potent exercise.” Use a barbell once the body-weight squats grow easy.

The squat, and weight training in general, are particularly good at combating sarcopenia, he said, or the inevitable and debilitating loss of muscle mass that accompanies advancing age. “Each of us is experiencing sarcopenia right this minute,” he said. “We just don’t realize it.” Endurance exercise, he added, unlike resistance training, does little to slow the condition.

Resistance training is good for weight control, as well. In studies conducted by other researchers, a regimen of simple weight training by sedentary men and women led to a significant decrease in waist circumference and abdominal fat. It also has been found to lower the risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Counterintuitively, weight training may even improve cardiovascular fitness, Phillips said, as measured by changes in a person’s VO2max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that the heart and lungs can deliver to the muscles. Most physiologists believe that only endurance-exercise training can raise someone’s VO2max. But in small experiments, he said, weight training, by itself, effectively increased cardiovascular fitness.

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