The most effective workouts for the casual exerciser

By Alistair Gardiner
Published November 18, 2020

Key Takeaways

Attention all couch potatoes, lethargic loungers, and leisure lovers: You probably need a little more physical activity in your routine. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy a gym membership, join a running club, or take up some extreme sport. If you like to take things slow or prefer the comfort of your own home (particularly during pandemic times), there are a number of exercises that might be closer to your speed.

You may even be surprised to learn that some of these more gentle forms of exercise can provide a great boost to your physical health. According to a study published in The Journal of Physiology this year, even passive stretching can provide health benefits. The study examined how 12 weeks of passive leg stretching affected vascular function and arterial stiffness. The authors found that this simple stretching regimen led to increased vascular function and arterial remodeling and a general decrease in arterial stiffness. In short, stretching improved blood flow mechanisms leading to better cardiovascular health in study participants.

So, instead of focusing on peak performance, pushing yourself to the limit, or “feeling the burn,” here are four other exercises that have been scientifically proven to produce serious benefits without a serious commitment.


The aforementioned study was far from the first to point out the cardiovascular benefits that come with regular stretching. Regular yoga sessions, for instance, may be a boon to health in a number of other ways.

Regular yoga practice can help reduce inflammatory markers. This is important because high levels of inflammation are associated with all-cause mortality. The authors of one study of more than 200 participants found that inflammatory markers (TNF-α and IL-6) linked to coronary heart disease, depression, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer disease were all lower in those who were regular yoga participants.

Additionally, cholesterol levels were significantly lower in those who practiced yoga. Other studies have also noted marked lower levels of cholesterol in those who practice regular yoga, including one study that found just 1 year of yoga reduced cholesterol levels by almost a quarter.

Various studies have found that yoga lowers blood pressure, helps the regression of coronary lesions, and offers a range of other physical benefits, as well as promoting mental well-being.

In fact, one review of more than 80 studies concluded that, in most cases, yoga interventions appear to be equal or even superior to physical exercise in improving a variety of health-related outcomes, including heart rate variability, blood glucose, blood lipids, salivary cortisol, and oxidative stress. Yoga practitioners also report improved measures of fatigue, pain, and sleep. With a number of free resources, like YouTube channels, to help get you started, yoga may be the perfect way for the workout-averse to look after their health.


Of course, the idea of twisting like a pretzel on a yoga mat won’t appeal to everyone. Perhaps you’re feeling cooped up and need a change of scene, but you don’t feel like tackling a 10K run just yet. Well, walking may be your answer.

For decades, studies have linked even low- to moderate-intensity physical activities, like walking, to important cardiovascular health benefits and the prevention of heart disease. Studies have shown that simple brisk walking can help reduce anxiety and tension, promote weight loss, improve cholesterol levels, and slow the progression of osteoporosis.

This line of inquiry remains ongoing. Last year a study looked at the effect of walking on the risks of all-cause mortality in older women. After analyzing the walking habits of over 16,000 people, researchers found that as few as 4,400 steps per day was significantly related to lower mortality rates. Mortality rates further decreased with up to 7,500 steps per day.

With study after study finding associations between regular walks and boosts to cardiovascular health, there’s no time better than now to start finding the best local trails or parks in your area. Some studies suggest aiming for 150 minutes of walking per week or having a target of 10,000 steps per day.

Strength training

Don’t panic—strength training doesn’t have to mean bodybuilding or aiming for a six-pack. If you’re a beginner, strength or resistance training can start slow, with as little as 20 minutes per session when you start out. The key is not to push yourself to the max, but to find a comfortable level of working out and being consistent with your routine. This means completing reps with some effort but not to the point where you’re grunting or straining.

Strength training can be done in your own home and doesn't require you to run about and get out of breath (though your muscles will ache a little). It also offers a number of health benefits, some of which may surprise you.

You know, of course, that resistance training can help build muscle, burn fat, and increase metabolism. Likewise, strength training can improve cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and promote healthy bones by reducing certain aging factors in skeletal muscle. Also, having stronger, denser bones is particularly important for aging populations and can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.

But, did you know that a number of studies have also demonstrated that this kind of training can improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity, and help in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes?

Other studies have established a link between strength training and improved cognitive abilities. A study published in Molecular Psychiatry examined whether a 6-month strength training regimen would have any impact on 100 older individuals who were at risk of developing dementia. The authors found that the training led to a thickening of grey matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, a key part of the brain that is affected in the early stages of Alzheimer disease. They concluded that resistance training could be a key part in helping to combat the effects of aging as well as Alzheimer disease.

But, again, the key is to find a routine and stick to it. If you do, you should experience noticeable gains within 4 to 8 weeks.

Tai chi

If strength training seems a bit too gung-ho, there are far more peaceful ways to address your fitness levels. For those who prefer to take things a little slower and more gently, tai chi could be the perfect activity.

While it won’t leave you out of breath, tai chi can improve muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and even aerobic conditioning. Due to the unsupported arm exercises involved, tai chi can be as good for upper body strength as resistance training when practiced regularly.

One review article of randomized clinical trials concluded that “consistent, significant” evidence exists that tai chi can provide a number of health benefits. The authors found that these benefits relate to a number of physiological areas, including bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness, immunity, and balance.

Another study looked at 30 college students and the impact that 3 months of regular tai chi had on their overall physical and mental health. The addition of tai chi was found to significantly improve a variety of aspects of participants’ health, including general health, levels of bodily pain, vitality, and mental/emotional health.

So, if you’re interested in improving your cardiorespiratory health, musculoskeletal function, or immune system, find some time for tai chi in your routine.

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