Published on September 14, 2015
Suppose you want to live as long as possible. Suppose you also want to look as good as possible doing it.
Suppose you want to maximize your hormone balance, your libido, your fertility, your strength, your power and your cardiovascular capacity.
Suppose you want to step back, investigate every shred of exercise science research, and inject only the most highly effective and proven strategies into your life – even if it's not for the primary sake of preparing for masochistic sufferfests like triathlons, marathons, obstacle races or other feats of physical endurance – but rather simply because you want to maximize longevity and look good naked.
Whether it’s total food intake, exercise, sunlight, protein, or work habits, we often think we need to do way much more than we actually need to do to get the results we want. But why crank out those extra reps or put in those extra few hours if you don't actually need to? After all, failing to heed the minimum effective dose can often cost you money, time, and mental real estate.
Sure: if you want to do an Ironman triathlon or a multi-hour obstacle race or be competitive at the Crossfit games you certainly need to put in some extra hours and do some more athletic, sport-specific training, but as I've written about before, all that extra volume isn't necessarily good for you, and it certainly isn't necessary for being as fit as humanly possible while simultaneously maximizing your lifespan.
So what would an exercise program look like if you do just want to look good naked and live longer? What would things look like if you decided that being the first person to the finish line of a triathlon wasn't as important to you as looking and feeling like a million bucks for as long as possible? While I touched on this in a recent podcast entitled “The Best Workout To Look Good Naked“, I decided it would be a good idea to pen a strategy for you. So let’s take a look. And get ready to take some serious notes.
What Is The Minimum Effective Dose Of Exercise For Longevity?
I’m on a constant quest to figure out the sweet spot of exercise for you, especially when it comes to discovering the ultimate balance between health, performance, and longevity.
I've written many articles on this topic before, including:
Earlier this year, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life.” The article discusses the results of two new studies that investigated how much exercise you need to actually get longevity benefits. Before jumping into the results of these studies, it’s important to note that rather than being controlled or randomized studies, this research relied on people’s memory recall of their exercise habits. What this means is that similar to diet studies that rely upon memory recall of meals, this data can be prone to human error, but can still give us important clues.
In the first study, it was found that people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death. Those who exercised a little (not meeting the current American Heart Association guidelines of 150 minutes per week but at least doing something), lowered their risk of premature death by 20%. Those who met the current exercise guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31% less risk of dying compared with those who never exercised.
But the greatest amount of exercise benefits came for those who tripled the recommended level of exercise and exercised moderately (mostly by walking) for 450 minutes per week (a little more than an hour per day). These people were 39% less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.
What's even more interesting is that after 450 minutes per week, the longevity benefits of exercise plateaued, but they never significantly declined. Even people engaging in 10 times or more the recommended exercise dose gained about the same reduction in mortality risk as people who simply met the 150 minute per week guidelines. They didn’t get any healthier, but also (contrary to what many believe) they also did not increase their risk of dying young.
The other new study reported in the Times reached a similar conclusion, but this study focused more on exercise intensity, and stands in stark contrast to other studies that have suggested frequent, strenuous exercise might contribute to early mortality. In this study, it was found that meeting the exercise guidelines significantly reduced the risk of early death, even if that exercise was moderate in intensity (such as walking). No surprises there.
But for those who engaged in occasional vigorous and high intensity exercise, there was actually a significant additional reduction in mortality. Those who spent up to 30% of their weekly exercise time in vigorous, intense activities were 9% less likely to die prematurely than people who exercised for the same amount of time but only moderately. People who spent more than 30% of their exercise time doing strenuous workouts actually gained an extra 13% reduction in early mortality, compared with people who never broke through the same intensity barrier. Even among the few people in the study who were found to be completing the largest amounts of intense exercise, there was no increase in risk of death.
At this point, you may be wondering what qualifies as moderate and what qualifies as vigorous.
Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is when you're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break into a sweat. Think of it this way: you're working at a moderate intensity if you're able to talk but unable to sing the words to a song during the activity.
Vigorous intensity aerobic exercise is when you're breathing hard and fast, your muscles are burning, and your heart rate has increased significantly. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
So what’s the ultimate takeaway message from these two studies?
Researcher Klaus Gebel, who led the second study, put it like this:
“…try to reach at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and have around 20 to 30 minutes of that be vigorous activity…”
Gebel also notes that a larger dose of exercise, for those who are so inclined, does not seem to be unsafe.
How To Look Good Naked
OK, so it's clear from the data above that you need at least about 21 minutes per day of structured exercise if you want to live a long time, and that is of course with the understanding that you're not spending the rest of the day sedentary or sitting (a subject I tackle in detail in my “Biohacking The Hazards of Sitting” infographic here).
But it's one thing to live a long time, and it's entirely another thing to actually look as good as possible doing it. In other words, let's say you want to look like this the male or female equivalent of this guy when you're 70:
…or this guy when you're 80:
…or perhaps you just want to be able to fit into spandex when you're 90:
Frankly, no matter what looking good naked means to you, you're going to need a bit more structured advice than a blanket recommendation to “…try to reach at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and have around 20 to 30 minutes of that be vigorous activity…”, right?
When it comes to having a body with adequately low body fat to be cut and ripped but adequately high body fat to optimize hormones and fertility, high enough muscle mass to be strong and look good, but low enough muscle mass to where you're not a short-lived, cancer-prone bodybuilder, and enough cardiovascular fitness to be venous and vibrant, but not so much cardiovascular fitness that you're overtrained from excessive volume, you need the minimum effective dose of…
…cardiovascular fitness, muscle endurance, strength, mitochondrial density, metabolic efficiency and stamina.
You check those boxes, and you're going to hit every basic component of fitness and look really damn good doing it.
Ben Greenfield's “Look-Good-Naked & Longevity” Program
So, now let's delve into exactly what a structured exercise program would look like if your goal is to check all of those boxes to achieve the ideal combination of fitness, longevity, and a nice body.
I first began to think about how such a program would look when I read an article on my friend Mark Sisson's website about “5 Ways To Get The Most Bang For Your Workout Buck“. In the article, Mark describes the minimum effective doses of exercise necessary for maintaining cardiovascular fitness, improving muscular endurance and aerobic capacity, improving overall physical fitness, increasing metabolic health, and controlling blood sugar. My only beef with the article is that not much attention is given to strength and maintenance of muscle mass, two critical components of longevity. But nonetheless, the research cited in the article is quite solid, and definitely influences the recommendations I'm about to give you.
Ultimately, to be fit, live a long time, and look good naked, you need:
1: Maintenance of cardiovascular fitness.
Definition: Cardiovascular fitness is simply defined as the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize, also known as your VO2 max.
How to do it: based on the results of the research study “High-intensity interval training every second week maintains VO2max in soccer players during off-season.“, the minimum effective dose for cardiovascular fitness maintenance is five 4-minute high intensity rounds at 87-97% of your maximum heart rate, with approximately 4 minutes (full recovery) after each round to allow you to recover sufficiently.
Summary: For the minimum effective dose of cardiovascular fitness perform five 4 minute hard efforts with full recoveries once every two weeks. Got it? OK, let's move on.
2: Maximum muscle endurance and aerobic capacity.
Definition: The amount of work your muscles can endure and the amount of time you can “go to battle” keeping your force output high.
How to do it: For improving muscle endurance while simultaneously increased aerobic capacity, nothing beats Tabata sets. In this study, four times a week for four weeks, participants performed one single four-minute Tabata protocol (that's 20 seconds all-out exercise, followed by 10 seconds full rest) with a single exercise. In this case, exercise choices included burpees, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, or squat thrusts, but for Tabatas, you could also use things such as running, treadmill, indoor or outdoor cycling, rowing, kettlebell swings, etc. Compared to four steady-state 30 minute treadmill exercise protocols per week in the control group, the Tabata group (which, if you do the math, was performing just 16 total minutes of exercise per week) saw massive gains in both aerobic capacity and muscle endurance, and there's plenty more Tabata research to go around.
Summary: In most studies, 2-4 Tabata sessions per week are used. My recommendation is to target two Tabata sessions per week, especially if you're doing everything else included in this article.
3: Maintenance of ideal ratios of strength and muscle mass.
Definition: The maximum amount of strength you can muster in one tightly-packed group of muscle fibers – in other words: hard, wiry strength. Paul Jaminet at the Perfect Health Diet recently wrote an excellent article outlining why this is a better approach compared to purely trying to pack on as much muscle fiber as possible.
How to do it: Sure, you can get strong and muscular doing Crossfit-esque workouts that require maximum deadlifts in two minutes or ungodly amounts of snatch reps or bodybuilding workouts that have you doing bicep curls until you're bleeding out the eyeballs, but none of that is sustainable when it comes to maximizing longevity. Remember, you want to be able to do maintain strength and muscle when you're 20, 40, 60 and 80 years old. For this, I recommend simply two workouts per week:
1) a super-slow lifting protocol exactly as described by Doug McGuff in his book “Body By Science” – specifically 12-20 minutes of just a few choice multi-joint exercises with extremely slow, controlled lifting (30-60 seconds per rep) and relatively high weights;
- Super slow upper body push (e.g. overhead press)
- Super slow upper body pull (e.g. pull-up)
- Super slow lower body push (e.g. squat)
- Super slow lower body pull (e.g. deadlift)
2) a high intensity body weight circuit program exactly as described in this study, in which a pair of researchers designed a 7 minute workout to maintain strength and muscle in as little time as possible. Each exercise below is simply to be performed for 30 seconds with 10 seconds of rest in between exercises.
- Jumping jack
- Wall sits
- Running in place with high knees
- Pushups with rotation
- Side planks
Summary: do two strength workouts per week – one with slow controlled heavy lifting and one with high intensity, light, body weight-esque movements.
4. Maximum mitochondrial density.
Definition: Mitochondria are the power plants of your cells, mitochondrial biogenesis is the creation of new mitochondria, and mitochondrial density is simply having as many mitochondria packed into your muscles as possible so that you can utilize more fat and more glucose.
How to do it: In this study, a workout consisting of four 30-second all-out cycling sprints significantly activated mitochondrial biogenesis in the skeletal muscle of human subjects. In another study, three sets of five 4-second treadmill sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between each sprint, performed three times per week did the same thing. One other study showed four to six 30 second bouts of all-out sprint cycling with four minutes of rest done three times a week also improved important components of mitochondrial health. As you can see, when it comes to maximizing mitochondrial density, it all comes down to short, intense sprints.
Summary: The Tabata sets I already mentioned will likely cover most of your mitochondrial bases, but if you have just a bit more time to spare, then either after your strength workouts or your stamina workouts, perform a few brief sets of very intense sprints (e.g. five 4-30 second sprints). Yes, you read that right: these sprints can be as short as 4 seconds. Consider this to be the icing on the cake, and squeeze it in where it's convenient. Alternatively, you could just mark one spot on your calendar once every week or two to perform four to six 30 second bouts of all-out sprint cycling with four minutes of rest between each bout.
5. Optimized fat burning, metabolic efficiency and blood sugar control.
Definition: maximizing the body's ability to generate ketones and burn fatty acids as a primary source of fuel, while avoiding frequent fluctuations in blood sugar.
How to do it: I have a very comprehensive podcast on simple steps to turning yourself into a fat burning machine, and it basically comes down to this: 1) do one short, aerobic workout as many mornings as possible a week, preferably in an overnight fasted state; 2) avoid frequent snacking; 3) save all your carb intake for the end of the day and up until that point eat high amounts of healthy fats with moderate amounts of proteins; 4) stay mildly physically active all day long (e.g. standing workstation, jumping jack breaks, etc.). and 5) stay anti-fragile by exposing your body to frequent fluctuations in cold and hot temperatures.
Summary: As you can see, this step is more lifestyle based. Start off each day, before eating, with 10-30 minutes of very light activity (yoga, walking the dog, doing yard chores, etc.), take at least one cold shower each day, visit the sauna at least once per week, avoid non-nutrient dense carbohydrates, and be as active as possible all day long. One research study shows that you can even get excellent blood glucose controlling results with something as simple as a 15 minute walk after your main meal of the day.
6. Stamina (optional, but highly recommended).
Definition: the ability to move at low-to-moderate intensities for 90+ minutes (it's at about the 90 minute mark when your glycogen levels become depleted and you must significantly begin to rely upon fat as a fuel).
How to do it: Stamina isn't really entirely necessary for looking good naked or living a long a time, but I personally like to know that if necessary I could hunt down an animal, ride my bicycle nearby city, hike over a mountain range, or survive for a significant amount of time in a zombie apocalypse. Contrary to popular belief held among marathoners and triathletes, this does not require a 2-3 hour death march every weekend. The human body, as I talk about in by book “Beyond Training“, is actually quite good at going for long periods of time, and only requires brief dips and forays into stamina. So I recommend that one to two times per month, you go do something long, like a backpack hike, a big bike ride, a Bikram yoga session, or anything else that combines low-to-moderate physical activity intensities, endurance, and mental focus.
Summary: Again, unless you're signed up for something like an obstacle race, a bicycling century, a triathlon or a marathon, this last step isn't really necessary, but should you want to add the stamina feather to your cap, just get out and do something that takes 90+ minutes at least once per month. If you really want to challenge yourself, you could even make that session something like “The Hardest Workout In The World“, a Spartan race, or any other crazy fitness adventure from rafting to rock climbing. The rest of your innate physical endurance will easily be built by simply ensuring you keep your butt out a chair all day long.
Summary & A Done-For-You Approach
So that's it. Once you put it all together, it's actually not too daunting:
- To maintain your cardiovascular fitness and VO2 max, do five 4-minute intense intervals once every two weeks.
- To improve your aerobic capacity and muscle endurance, do 2-3 Tabat sets a week.
- To maintain the ultimate combination of strength and muscle mass, do one 12-20 minute super-slow strength session per week and one 7-14 minute high intensity body weight workout per week.
- To maximize mitochondrial density, do a short series of sprint bursts one to three times per week (e.g. five 4-second all-out sprints with 20 seconds of rest).
- To increase fat burning and metabolic efficiency, include fasting, avoid snacking, avoid sitting, and figure out ways to engage in low-level physical activity all day long.
- To increase stamina, do something 90+ minutes at low-to-moderate intensity one to two times per month.
When you do the math, you're really not spending any more than 30-60 minutes per day on getting fit, looking good naked and living a long time. And in my opinion, that's definitely do-able.
Like I mentioned, what I've described above is not designed to turn you into a super-athlete. It's designed to give you an amazing body and a long lifespan.
A couple more things…
First, I personally designed a “Look-Good-Naked Longevity Plan” on TrainingPeaks and also at GreenfieldFitnessSystems.com in downloadable .pdf format. In both versions, all of this is laid out for you on a weekly calendar that you can print and that syncs to your computer, your phone, etc. In this 8 week program, I give you daily, step-by-step instructions for the exact muscle training, fat burning, cardiovascular and mobility protocols that have been proven by research to maximize every second you spend exercising. Pretty much everything you've just read, all conveniently spelled out for each week. Whether you want to look good naked, get massive gains in fitness (or of course, both!) you can rinse, wash, and repeat this 8 week cycle throughout the entire year. It's 27 bucks for the .pdf version or 47 bucks for the TrainingPeaks version and you get to keep it and access it forever. Enjoy.
Next, if you're a complete geek and you want to quantitatively track this stuff, then you may want to check out the Greenfield Longevity Panels. Working closely with WellnessFX, America’s top laboratory for concierge blood testing and online access to all your blood testing results, I developed the most complete blood testing package that money can buy. There is one package specifically designed for men, and one for women. This is by far the most comprehensive blood testing package that exists, and I created it for the health enthusiast, biohacker and anti-aging individual who wants access to the same type of executive health panel and screening that would normally cost tens of thousands of dollars at a longevity institute. Virtually all hormones and all biomarkers are covered in this panel. Yeah, it's still spendy, but if you want to test everything you can test, then this one is worth doing at least once in your lifetime, and I personally do it once per year.
In the meantime, you're now equipped with everything you need to know to look good naked and live longer. I suggest you either use my pre-written program or sit down with your own calendar and map each of these sessions into your weekly routine.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about how to live longer, how to look good naked, the minimal effective dose of exercise, or anything else I've discussed in this article? Leave your thoughts below.