One exercise only to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking my fellow fitness enthusiasts if they had to pick just one, what single exercise would they do for the rest of their lives. I received a lot of interesting responses including popular movements like squat, deadlift and push-ups. The fact of the matter is any exercise is good for the body so from that perspective any exercise is better than no exercise at all. But lets say, hypothetically, we could only perform one exercise for the rest of  our lives, which one would take precedence? Are there certain movements that are more impactful on the body than others?

Without a doubt!

Compound movements will obviously be favored because of their multi-joint actions. But as all-encompassing as compound movements are, they  don’t engage all muscle groups. Regardless, a few muscles will be left unworked. So how does one select the ideal exercise to perform for the rest of their lives?

I can make a case for 4.

1) A Case For The Deadlift: If you deadlift on a regular basis, you know it is one of the most whole-body engaging movements. Its functional impact on the body also makes it a staple in every workout program. The entire posterior chain gets worked from the upper trapezius muscles to the lats, erector spinae, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings. There’s also emphasis on the anterior core, quads, biceps, forearms and grip enhancement. Very few movements offer a barometer for strength like the deadlift due to its biomechincal physiology. The term ‘dead’ in deadlift essentially means picking up a dead weight from the ground which requires a great deal of effort and precision. It is why so many people hurt their backs when picking up items from the floor because their kinetic chain isn’t mechanically aware and alert enough. The deadlift corrects and addresses the problem while strengthening the body over time.

Although the chest, triceps and shoulders don’t get a lot of work, the fact that two-thirds of the body is engaged during this movement makes it an ideal exercise to perform for life.

2) A Case For The Squat: Widely considered as the premier exercise, the barbell back squat remains an essential component for weight loss, strength and lean muscle. It remains an assessment tool for many fitness professionals. Though I’d argue that the deadlift can and should replace the squat in assessment protocols due to the fact that preexisting knee and back ailments can affect a person trying to perform the latter. But I digress. The squat and deadlift are by far the two most functional movements in fitness, partly due to to their hip-hinging similarities  and identical muscle groups that are used. There are over 600 muscles in the body and squat is known to work about half of them! That alone is a good incentive to pick the squat as the ideal exercise to perform. Glutes, quads hamstrings, anterior core and upper back are some of the engaged muscles.

The only drawback, which I mentioned earlier, is knee and back pain can make back squatting difficult and unable to perform. Compressive forces from a loaded barbell on a weak lumbar spine could discourage an exerciser from doing squat. Although variations like the front squat (an ideal replacement for those with knee and back pain) and single-leg squat exist, they require near-perfect precision and execution and can take a while to master (the Bulgarian Split Squat being the exception). All things considered, the squat remains a great exercise and in my estimation, one of the two most important exercises (the deadlift being the other).

3). A Case For The Push-Up: By far the most popular exercise and best for working the upper body, the push-up is as ancient as Greek gods and is here to stay. Simply put, no exercise targets the pecs, anterior core, shoulders and triceps like the push-up. Keep in mind that the traditional bench press is a derivative of the push-up so both exercises are essentially the same. But unlike the bench press, the push-up requires no equipment and no set-up and can be done virtually anywhere so from that standpoint, it is more advantageous to many exercisers. Variations like the one-hand push-up, feet elevated push-ups, plyo push-ups, T-push-ups, atomic push-ups and band push-ups make for unique and interesting challenges, one disadvantage with the bench press.

There is little to no engagement of the lower body during a push-up which could come as a detriment later in life to someone who choses to make it their only exercise. That’s the only case against the push-up. Aside from that, it is the ultimate upper body builder.

4). A Case For Walking: As impactful and popular as the push-up is, not many people can perform it well or do enough of them. Walking is the one activity everyone can relate to. Barring any chronic knee or ankle condition, walking is the simplest and easiest physical activity to do. It is why so many health experts and professionals recommend it as part of an exercise regimen to lose weight, lower blood pressure and high cholesterol and promote a healthy lifestyle because all it requires is for you to just get up and move. Simple! So many people enjoy walking and have reaped benefits via weight loss, mood and overall positive state of mind. Believe it or not, walking can also be made challenging and walking programs do exist for its lovers. For an in-depth look at these programs, take a look at this blog post I wrote a while back.

As ubiquitous as it is, walking just fails to address many of the musculoskeletal needs of the body. While fat loss can occur via walking, so can lean muscle. Power, muscle mass and raw strength cannot be achieved through walking, regardless of the distance covered. On a more encouraging note, walking is the only activity that has the lowest risk for injury and can be done by people of all ages.

Walking The Walk

In an age where exercise is as mainstream as ever and science continues to show us new and easier ways so stay active, walking remains the oldest and simplest form of physical activity. Not only is it inexpensive, it is the the most ubiquitous form of exercise available to everyone in the world. According to science research, some of the benefits of walking include fat loss, reduction of the the risk of cardiovascular diseases, treatment and lowering of high blood pressure, improvement of HDL and lower resting heart rate.

Fortunately for me, I live in a city where walking is an integral part of the lifestyle and is inevitably encouraged. If you live in New York City or have visited before, you know how essential walking is, regardless of your areas of destination. According to, a website company that ranks walkable cities with access and proximity to and around neighborhoods in United States, Canada and Australia, New York City is ranked number one. It is for this reason that New Yorkers living in New York City get a good portion of their aerobic activity via walking, covering as far as even two miles a day!

But as great as that sounds, you can make walking a much more challenging cardio activity. Brisk walking, which is how an overwhelming majority of us walk, is generally the preferred pace the body will adhere to. This is because at higher intensity work, the body will rely on carbohydrate for fuel as opposed to fat which is used for lower intensity, long-duration activities. Because carbohydrates are limited in the body (via depletion of glycogen stores as exercise intensity elevates), the body will naturally use fat for brisk walking.

However, using high intensity interval training protocols (HIIT), you can make walking fun and challenging while burning tons of fat calories. Here are 5 ways to incorporate HIIT into walking:

1. Aerobic Interval Training: In this method, a 4-minute aggressive, challenging walk is followed after by an easy, light 2-minute walk and repeated 8 to 10 times. As a way to gauge intensity, use the Rating Of Perceived Exertion Scale with the work portion at Hard to Very Hard and the recovery portion at  Light.

2. Sprint Interval Walking:  Note that the term ‘sprint’ here doesn’t mean an all-out run. It should be a near-maximal walk on a treadmill. It should be fast enough so you feel you’re just about to slide off the treadmill but not quite. Using the RPE scale, combine a Very Hard 30-second ‘sprint-walk’ with a Light 4-minute walk. Aim to do 4 to 6 total intervals.

3. Four-Minute Interval Walking: This method calls for an increase in RPE every 4 minutes. Start at a moderate-pace walking speed on the treadmill and increase the walking speed to a much more challenging one after 4 minutes. The process is repeated until a specific number of interval is completed or a set time is achieved. For example, a sample workout could start out at a walking speed of 2.0mph on the treadmill. At the 4-minute mark, the speed is increased to 2.5mph. At the 8-minute mark, the speed is increased again to 3.0mph. The workout is terminated at the 20-minute mark when 5 intervals are completed. The workout can also be terminated after a certain amount of time, say 35 minutes. This workout can be done using an incline walk or a combination with a treadmill speed.

4. Near-Maximal Interval Walking: This method combines a 5-minute near-maximal ‘sprint-walk’ with a light 5-minute recovery walk. The near-maximal walk should be performed at a ‘Hard’ or  ‘Very Hard’ level on the RPE scale while the recovery walk should be Light. 6 to 8 total intervals should be performed or at least 60 minutes.

5. Supramaximal Interval Walking: This may be the the most adaptable and likeable walking HIIT workout. A 90-second ‘sprint-walk’ is combined with a 30-second easy walk. The ‘sprint-walk’ should be performed at a ‘Very Hard’ intensity while the recovery walk should be Light.  An ideal number of intervals to aim for is 12, although 8 would suffice.

Keep in mind that if you’re an elite athlete or possess higher-than-average fitness levels, these forms of walking may not present a challenge for you and can be deemed boring. But even if you can run a mile in 6 minutes, you can embrace a different challenge and give your joints a break occasionally by performing one of the aforementioned workouts. Those suffering form ankle and hip chronic conditions may have a very hard time doing these workouts. Tendonitis, arthritis and bursitis of the knee and hip can make walking very difficult, let alone walking at higher intensities. If you have a chronic condition of any of the joints of the lower body, brisk walking at a moderate-pace is enough for a challenge. Be sure to walk at a RPE intensity of at least Hard.