As I’ve written over the years, there’s no doubt in my mind a comprehensive fitness routine is essential for optimal health. It’s important to remember fitness is a journey and you never really reach the end of the road. I believe it’s important to take stock of where you are and then to create goals, allowing you to push yourself to new heights.
At the same time, it’s also important to listen to your body and be willing to be flexible with your routine as circumstances change. Exercise benefits your body in a number of ways, including building strong muscles, improving the efficiency of your heart and maintaining healthy bones.
Your brain also benefits from physical exercise as it increases brain derived neurotrophic factor, important in promoting the development of new brain cells and essentially making your brain grow larger.1 Exercise also alters the way damaging proteins are used in the brain and triggers genetic changes, helping to slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
A state of the art gym in your home may not be feasible, but if you can clear a 6-foot by 6-foot area, you may be able to successfully achieve your fitness goals at home using these simple and inexpensive pieces of equipment, each costing less than $20.
Four Foundational Pillars to All Fitness Programs Can Be Done at Home
There are four foundational pillars to any fitness program.2 It’s important to balance these four activities to enjoy antiaging effects, reduce your risk for injury, improve your performance and improve your ability to do everyday tasks. Flexibility training is one important component as it’s linked with increase range of motion, injury prevention and a reduction in muscle stiffness.
There are two types of flexibility training: dynamic and static stretching. Dynamic stretching means you’re moving as you stretch and is ideal as the core of a warmup routine. It activates the muscles you use during your workout, improves your range of motion and helps improve your body awareness.3
Static stretches are held in a comfortable position, usually between 10 to 30 seconds. Many consider static stretching less efficient than dynamic stretching for improving range of motion, including sports activities or for daily living.4 For this reason, experts suggest using dynamic stretching to warm up and static stretching to cool down.
Balance is an activity during which you activate your core muscles for stability and control. These activities are often promoted for older adults to reduce injury and falls. However, athletes find balance improves performance,5 and research suggests it may also improve your cognitive performance.6 You can reduce your risk of having balance issues as you age by incorporating these exercises in your physical activity beginning today.
Regardless of your age or gender, strength training is integral to any well-rounded program. While many ignore it, fearing they will gain bulky muscle, you can put such worries to rest as muscle growth is controlled by your genes and food intake. Few have the potential to look like Mr. Universe.
In reality, strength training has mental, emotional and physical benefits. It may help reverse diseases triggered by a sedentary lifestyle, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, for example.
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, is likely the most common way people think of exercise. This involves maintaining an increased heart rate using any movement that fits this definition, such as kickboxing, swimming, hiking, dancing and jump rope.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention7 recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity exercise for adults each week that can be broken down into 30 minutes five days a week.
Warmup and Flexibility Reduces Risk of Injury
While warmup exercises and stretches may be done without any equipment, these tools may help motivate you to include these important exercises and help improve your body position during the stretches. Improving your mobility can radically improve your fitness and improve pain relief.
• Stretch strap — This tool allows you to perform isolated active stretching, going beyond your typical static stretch. According to Brad Walker, director of education at StretchLab, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in training and certifying experts in flexibility and stretching:8
“[It’s] used to enhance flexibility and range of motion so you can bend, turn, reach and stretch with greater freedom of movement. The stretch strap allows you to use the leverage of the strap to go a little deeper into the stretch position and take your flexibility to the next level.
It can also be used on any muscle group in the body, so it’s a great stretch tool to compliment any workout, whether it’s running, swimming or working out in the gym.”
• Foam roller — This little tool is used for self-myofascial release and has transformed what used to be a mysterious technique used by professional therapists and athletes to a practice you can do every day, at any level of fitness. Self-myofascial release is a term for self-massage releasing tightness or trigger points in the muscle.
By applying pressure you aid in muscle recovery and enable them to return to normal function, elasticity and health. These inexpensive therapeutic tools also increase blood flow through your skin and muscles, engage muscles to build strength and increase your range of motion. Discover how to use one appropriately in my previous article, “5 Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid.”
Cardio and Strength Training Improve Physical Function
Cardiovascular and strength training are both essential to your fitness program. Strength training increases load-bearing and improves your insulin sensitivity, reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome, lowers inflammation and reduces perimenopause symptoms in women.
Interestingly, strength training also improves your cardiovascular fitness, so the two work hand in hand. While strength training programs may incorporate fitness equipment, you can create a program at home done only with your body weight. Discover a simple and easy to do program in my previous article “No Time for the Gym Today? Try This at Home.” Here are a few helpful tools you may consider adding to your home gym:
• Sliders — These gliding discs are about the size of a paper plate and can be used on different surfaces. Although they help with balance, as they change your surface into an unstable environment, they also recruit core muscles and develop stability in your entire body.
More immediately, you’ll feel the muscles in your inner thighs and underarms begin to fatigue as you work hard. The tool is very versatile and easily packed into a suitcase so you can use it on the go.
• Jump rope — Brian Bott, certified functional strength coach and co-author of “Get With the Program,” believes jump ropes may be one of the most underrated forms of exercise. He says:9
“When running, it’s very easy for motivated trainees to push to run further and longer at the expense of their form. This is what leads to many common overuse injuries you see with running. The jump rope, however, doesn’t allow for this. Once you get tired and you aren’t maintaining the right posture, you’ll mess up and be forced to rest.”
• Ab Roller — In 1994 Don Brown invented the Ab Roller and changed the way people did crunches.10 His goal was to help his club members perform crunches properly and limit stress and strain on the neck and lower back. Twenty years later, the Ab Roller is still a popular exercise product.
Bott calls it11 “One of the only late night infomercial products that actually works.” As a beginner, it’s recommended you set up near a wall and roll out until you hit the wall, gradually moving further away as you become stronger to increase the difficulty level.
• Resistance bands — These are often used by physical therapists as they are capable of giving you a full body workout without a machine or other equipment. You can use them at home, while traveling and even at work. Bands also help you increase flexibility, develop strength and isolate core muscles.12
Each of these factors helps to improve your mobility, agility and coordination. You’ll find a fitness routine for your home gym in my previous article, “I’m With the Band: Mastering Resistance Band Workouts.”
• Kettlebell — These are cast iron weights that look like a cannonball with a handle. They allow for ballistic movement and swinging motions you can’t get with traditional weights. The tool dates back to the 1700s, when they were used to measure grain at Russian festivals and vendors began swinging them to show their strength.13
Kettlebells develop power in your hips, legs and glutes as well as strength, flexibility and stability in your back and shoulders. Different weights help to add resistance to momentum base movements and force muscles in your core to activate and stabilize. The handle is easy to hold so you won’t feel like it will slip easily.
Kettlebells can be used in high intensity interval training, allowing you to get an intense workout in a short amount of time. Research shows participants burn calories quickly14 and help users to improve muscle strength,15 postural reactions and reduce pain in your neck, shoulders and lower back.16
Be sure to watch your form while using a kettlebell to reduce your risk for injury. I share a fitness routine for beginners through advanced in my previous article, “Build Strength and Power with Kettlebells.”
Balance Enhances Performance and Cognition
The importance of integrating balance into your fitness regimen is only underscored by the number of studies linking it to improve cognition and a reduction in injury. Researchers find a relationship between balance and cognition in participants who suffer cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.17
Other studies demonstrate an impact cognitive training has on balance and gait,18 reducing the risk of falls and improving memory and spatial cognition in healthy adults.19 These simple and inexpensive fitness tools help strengthen and integrate muscles important to your balance.
• Swiss ball — This large oversized ball helps improve your balance and flexibility. Some coaches believe the exercise gives you a noticeable advantage over other tools. By adding instability, the ball helps recruit your major and minor muscle groups and also offers resistance placing extra stress to build strength and muscle power.
The ball can be used simply as a chair, offering you an unstable foundation against which you must balance. You can also use it as a foundation while performing other strength training exercises with bands or handheld weights. It’s important to use proper form so you don’t increase your risk of injury.
• Magic Circle Pilates ring — These rings were invented by Joseph Pilates. The circles challenge the adductor muscles of your inner thighs and underarms and the abductor muscles in your outer thighs and upper arms and shoulders, depending upon how you hold and use the circle.
According to Vanessa Huffman, director of education for Club Pilates, some clients refer to the circle as “the torture device,” which she translates to:20 “It’s really good at turning up the volume on any move!”
Add the Nitric Oxide Dump
Your home gym workout wouldn’t be complete without using the Nitric Oxide Dump, which requires no equipment for beginners and may be used with light weight kettlebells as you gain strength and endurance.
The exercise takes no more than three to four minutes, one two three times a day. As a high intensity workout, it helps improve your mitochondrial health and slows down age-related muscle decline. The Nitric Oxide Dump releases nitric oxide into your bloodstream from epithelial cells, supporting healthy blood flow as your veins and arteries dilate.
In turn, this allows oxygen and nutrients to flow more freely. Nitric oxide also plays a protective role in mitochondrial health. Dr. Zach Bush developed the workout, specifically designed to stimulate the release of nitric oxide for muscle growth and much more. You can read more about this simple exercise and its benefits in my previous article, “Incorporate the Nitric Oxide Dump.”