A black and white montage of toned, attractive models blares across the screen as an inspirational piano riff kicks in. One of the younger models stares straight into the camera, as if looking directly into your soul:  "This is not about a class. This is about you." The ad is for SoulCycle, the trendy (yet somewhat controversial) cycling and spinning class.   For many, SoulCycle remains a compelling concept. With empowering messages like "find yourself," or "tap into your greatness," many are willing to pay upwards of $30 per class to unlock this potential. SoulCycle also has a "communal" element, in which you're motivated by a charismatic instructor and other passionate devotees. It makes sense. In a world increasingly conscious of body image, many are searching for convenient and effective ways to get fit, look good, and "be well". Despite the United States recently ranking as the 10th most obese country in the world, the exercise industry is alive and kicking. Gyms like LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness have over 400 locations in the United States alone, and niche fitness movements like CrossFit have become ubiquitous in people's lives. We're inundated with ideas that exercise is important, but not necessarily from a biological or scientific standpoint. More often than not, gyms market an ideal body or image, as opposed to emphasizing the actual science behind what exercise does for your body. In a recent Los Angeles Time article, certified training specialist James Fell once praised SoulCycle for motivating people, but gave it "a failing grade for exercise physiology and biomechanics." From a monetary standpoint, it makes sense. It's more compelling to sell "greatness" or "sexiness" than to appeal to what’s actually true.  But even if we're not at the gym, we see magazines like Men's Health in the checkout line of the grocery store espousing the ideal body type. Celebrities adorn the covers, plastered with taglines like "BURN FAT FAST" or "GYM FREE ABS". Women's magazines like Self promote the lean, curvy, busty body archetypes and how you can attain one. A recent issue touted "135 Ways to Love Your Workout".  Everything is about image, not health. Thus, we’re allured by quick fixes in the forms of fad diets, "get ripped in 15 minutes" schemes, or in extreme cases, growth hormones and enhancements.  So what do we do? As we become inundated with messaging that ultimately becomes noisy chatter in the background, we anxiously hop from one get-fit plan to the next, finding that our enthusiasm starts to wane as we become dissatisfied with the end results.  The truth eludes us.  Nonetheless, we must still find the truth, as our health depends on it. Most people don’t need to be convinced that being healthy is a good thing, yet all the white noise makes it difficult to have an agreed-upon definition of healthiness or exercise.  Lucky for us, Harvard Medical School sets the record straight. The human body is wired to function best when we regularly practice these four activities: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. The simplicity of these four categories remind us that the truth was never intended to be complicated, which has been muddied by modern-day advertising. Which leads us to this main point: before we put any of these activities into practice, we need to settle our identities. If achieving the ideal body-image is the goal, then it will hinder our ability to truly be healthy. As long as our minds are hijacked by advertising and the desire for human approval, we will forever be driven by our deepest insecurities. So what should be the goal? To pursue longevity, a healthy sense of identity and concrete facts. The principles of endurance, strength, balance and flexibility didn't start with the American fitness industry, rather they are built into our inherent biologies and design. Before there was a squat rack or a bench press, ancient societies and early humans understood the value of taking care of one's body, and knew that it didn't have to be overly complicated. So the goal today is to unpack how our body is wired, and what the keys to longevity and everyday mobility and functionality are.  As they'd say in a SoulCycle class: here we go


Going over endurance feels like a natural starting point, as it informs the other areas of strength, balance, and flexibility. If you have no endurance, you won't be able to perform an action for very long. Being able to do so is important both in exercise and life in general -- especially in our culture of instant gratification. The ability to push past our previous limits allows us to undergo harder, more complex challenges while building our stamina in the process. From the get-go, we should differentiate endurance from stamina. Stamina is how long your body can go at maximum capacity, whereas endurance is about how long your muscles can perform an action. Think of a sprinter going for a personal record vs. a long-distance runner staying steady and consistent. The sprinter needs stamina to fire on all cylinders and give them peak performance, whereas the endurance runner is focused on performing longer.  In some ways, it's a poetic representation of our society. We often focus only on stamina (going hard for a little bit before burning out) as opposed to taking the less glamorous route of playing the long game. Endurance is certainly not the most sexy or catchy buzzword (name a gym you've seen touting "endurance" as their main tagline), but it's crucial to our overall fitness. The Oxford Dictionary defines endurance as "the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way." We have a disdain for difficulty in our society, so endurance often becomes packaged in a more friendly, incremental way. We are often offered bite-sized pathways that are good starting points but shouldn't be relied upon for maximum endurance. While there's many who don't feel they have the time or bandwidth for long-lasting, stamina-building activities, there's still a fervor for endurance in the form of running. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, people ditched expensive, crowded gyms for the free gift of the outdoors. The beauty of running is that you can go at your own pace without the pressure of comparison (although new, social running apps have added a competitive element). For those who want to be pushed by others, there are near-constant running challenges like 5Ks, 10Ks, Marathons, and Ultramarathons.  It's become glorified to push your body to the absolute limit. In 2017, ultramarathon runner Courtney Dauwalter conquered the Moab 240, a challenging trek through the wild terrain of the Utah desert. Just a casual 240.3 miles, which she achieved in a brisk 58 hours. Dauwalter inexplicably beat the second-place finisher by 10 hours, stopping to nap for only a total of twenty one minutes. (Of note, one nap was 20 minutes, the other was one.) And while Dauwalter admits she's unsure of the long term effects it'll have on her body, society was enamored by her feat, landing her features in popular publications like Runner's World and The New York Times. Point being, while Americans are often stereotyped for being lazy or apathetic, there's a definite intrigue in our society for people who push their bodies to the extreme, or have massive endurance for making it through the improbable. We sink our teeth into reality shows like Survivor or Bear Grylls' Running Wild to see if our fellow humans can endure without modern conveniences and comforts.  But both lethargy and ultramarathons are extremes, and like most things, the answer lies more in the middle. Former Navy SEAL trainer Pavel Tsatsouline gave a surprising answer when asked about effective endurance training methods on The Joe Rogan Experience: "The best, the healthiest way to develop cardio is just steady exercises like running at a particular speed that's not too fast. It's very simple." Among those steady types of exercises are things like walking, running, climbing stairs, hiking, or even manual labor. Each of these activities are certainly not exclusive to elite athletes, and can easily be partaken in with a pair of shoes and a place to go The barrier to entry to upping your endurance is not very high, nor does it have to be extreme. However, we often have a correlation in our society that if something is simple it must be too good to be true. But endurance -- even the simple act of walking -- has some of the most profound health benefits. In a country where heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, we should be checking our heart in more ways than one. The American Heart Association puts it this way:   "Endurance activity keeps your heart, lungs and circulatory system healthy and improves your overall fitness. As a result, people who get the recommended regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke." Yes, endurance can help you achieve your fitness goals, but at a base level, it's also about keeping you alive. Let's look at some of these practical ways we can incorporate endurance into our everyday lives, even if we don't have the super stamina of Courtney Dauwalter, or the time and money to invest into an insane training regimen.


It sounds boring, but walking is something that (most of us) have to do every day anyway. Whether it's walking to the bus stop to commute to work, or walking to take out the trash, there's some element of walking in your day, even if it's minimal.  Research has shown that even roughly 20 minutes a day (which could easily be accomplished walking around the grocery store or on your way to work) has significant benefits to your heart health. A recent Harvard Medical School report found that "Walking for 2.5 hours a week—that’s just 21 minutes a day—can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%. In addition, this do-anywhere, no-equipment-required activity has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and keep you mentally sharp." The study goes on to say that there are additional benefits like reducing fitness and healthcare costs, and improving mood regulation. Harvard also talks about the importance of averaging at least 7,500 steps per day. This makes sense when you look back at history, because walking was the dominant form of exercise. For example, Jesus of Nazareth and his followers covered a lot of ground during their ministry simply due to the fact that they had no other option but to walk. Renting donkeys gets expensive.  The term "working out" is almost ironic, in the sense that we've gotten to such a lethargic place as a society that we have to make an intentional effort to move our bodies. 


A frequent refrain from serious gym junkies is "don't skip leg day, bro." But what could be easily added to that statement is: "don't skip cardio." Sadly, many people have negative associations with running. Flashbacks to 7th grade PE class come to mind, when you were forced to run a mile and couldn't keep up with the faster kids.  Or perhaps you dislike the monotony of a treadmill or simply feel winded from jogging. Running (no pun intended) is about going at your own pace. There are creative ways to incorporate running, like joining in on a flag football meetup or playing fetch with your dog. Your endurance will be improved incrementally, regardless of the speed you go.


Hiking feels like a marriage of the previous two (walking and running) as it's more of an intense workout on the legs (especially if you live in a place with higher elevation or hills) but also comes with moments of stopping to admire the beauty and nature around you. Again, barring any kind of special permits, this is an entirely free activity that can be done communally. If you find it hard to talk through gasps of air while running but find walking extremely slow and boring, try hiking instead. Much of our team started in the Pacific Northwest and we were blessed to be surrounded by seemingly endless mountains and scenic spots. Though some are much more rigorous than others, the fixation on burning legs or tired lungs often dissipates when you soak in the sheer splendor of what's around you. But hiking doesn't necessarily entail going up in elevation. If you live in a place that's flat, there's still probably state parks or recreation areas where you can find trails to roam.  A good reference point is All Trails, a rolodex of trail maps and hike ideas. rigorous than others, the fixation on burning legs or tired lungs often dissipates when you soak in the sheer splendor of what's around you. But hiking doesn't necessarily entail going up in elevation. If you live in a place that's flat, there's still probably state parks or recreation areas where you can find trails to roam.


Strength is often associated with the aforementioned Men's Health covers, but that's only scratching the surface of strength's benefits. In fact, it's easy to have "glam muscles" that look good but fail to perform over the long haul. Though true strength isn't about body aesthetics.  One of the biggest benefits of strength, especially as we age, is independence. For many elderly people, an unfortunate byproduct of losing their mobility and strength is having to live in some kind of assisted living or nursing home. Many lament being uprooted from their home of 40-plus years and not being able to do routine chores like mowing the lawn or vacuuming.  While those situations are difficult, the more serious stakes of losing one's strength is the increased risk of falling or slipping. Per the National Institutes of Health, you're less likely to fall when your hip muscles are strong and robust. If you're reading this, odds are you're not in your late 70s or 80s and therefore are not preoccupied with these kinds of worries.  But especially in the United States, we have a very reactive as opposed to proactive way of structuring our lives. The way we treat our bodies now, even as a twenty-something or 35-year-old, will have a reciprocal effect down the line as we age.  Just like endurance, strength training can seem intimidating as its often associated with a mega gym filled with body builders grunting as they bench press another 250 pounds. While weight training is a form of strength training, it doesn't have to be stressful, nor does it have to be about attaining that Hollywood look. It also doesn't require going to a gym or even having a formal exercise program. Science has proven a myriad of benefits as a result of strength training, including increased heart and brain health, a decrease in fat, blood sugar regulation, and improved flexibility. Many mistakenly believe that strength training would impair flexibility due to increased body mass, but research suggests it has an opposite effect.  Just like with endurance, society has missed the mark by often only touting extremes when it comes to strength. It's overemphasized and glamorized to the point where people often injure themselves in an attempt to get ripped quickly or be noticed for our appearance.  Think of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The Rock is a charismatic, popular celebrity who's risen from the status of wrestler to bona fide movie star. He's also ripped out of his mind (hence his iconic nickname). The Rock keeps his body massive and swole, scoring roles as the big, bad action hero in movies like Fast and the Furious or Baywatch.(Or so we assume.) In order to keep said physique, Mr. Johnson has to consume 5,165 calories (roughly 10 pounds of food per day) and six days of intense gym workouts. But again, most of us don't need his level of muscle, nor do we even have the resources or time.  On the flip side, strength is downplayed in favor of only doing cardio or Peloton. Recent research shows that it's important to couple aerobic exercises with strength training. As USA Track and Field certified coach Jason Fitzgerald said in a recent Runner's World article:  "[Strength training] prevents injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues; it helps you run faster by improving neuromuscular coordination and power; and it improves running economy by encouraging coordination and stride efficiency." Dr. Kenji Doma, a sports and exercise scientist at James Cook University, found that strengthened muscles didn't need to expend as much energy when called upon by the brain to kick into gear.  Knowing the inherent benefits, here are just a few basic practicals on how to improve your strength with an eye towards longevity and overall well being:


Put quite simply, calisthenics are exercises that rely on just your own body weight. This practice is steeped in history, starting with both the Han Dynasty in China, and Alexander the Great in Ancient Greece. Those shirtless, shredded Spartans you saw in the film 300? Most likely they used nothing more than calisthenics and a good diet to attain their fighting physique.  Calisthenics sounds easy and straightforward, but there are actually a variety of ways you can increase the depth and intensity by which you can deploy these exercises. On a fundamental level, push-ups, sit-ups, and squats hit each major muscle group in your body (chest, triceps, abdomen, and legs) and can be done literally anywhere that has open space.  However, if you want to ratchet up the intensity, you can start incorporating elements like bars and jump ropes. Again, you don't need a gym for this. Something as simple as a local playground or exercise station (many cities have added these on popular trails and running routes) can be a de facto pull-up bar or dip station. Bottom line is that calisthenics is a method of exercise that deepens not only your strength, but also your flexibility, balance, coordination, and dexterity. The goal is not to get you yolked out of your mind with popping muscles and veins, but rather to give your body practical, foundational strength. As the witty actor Jason Statham once quipped: "Musclemen grow on trees. They can tense their muscles and look good in a mirror. So what? I’m interested in practical strength that’s going to help me run, jump, twist, punch."

Routine Tasks

Don't laugh, but something as simple as carrying your groceries to your car can contribute to your overall strength training. If you live in a big city and use Amazon Fresh or have your groceries delivered, pick any task that requires you to engage your muscles for an extended amount of time. Especially in today's world where people are working more than ever, time at home has become more frequent. Find something that requires lifting moderately weighted items, whether that's taking out the trash or moving an item from point A to point B repeatedly.

Weightlifting / Resistance Bands

The most common example of strength training is lifting weights or other forms of resistance (such as exercise bands). Your mileage may vary as far as what exercises you choose to do and why.  While this article isn't intended to design a workout plan that fits perfectly for you, it's important to keep in mind that weight lifting can be just as damaging as it is beneficial if done improperly or with bad form. Many newly minted gym goers see a spread of squat racks, bench press stations, and machines, and treat sessions at the gym like a sampler platter. We start cranking on the fanciest machines and leave with a sore back and little results to show.  Which goes to say, the whole goal of strength training is to prevent injury, not cause it or make it worse. Make sure you focus on form and avoid the temptation to just try to lift heavy weights, especially if you are a man.


In 2012, over 13 million people watched with both awe and anxiety as American acrobat Nik Wallenda walked delicately across a two-inch wide wire suspended in midair. There were no cushions to catch him if his harness somehow malfunctioned or broke. He was 220 feet up in the air over one of the most iconic spots in the world: Niagara Falls.  Wallenda stood out in his orange jumpsuit as mist enshrouded him from the falls below. Holding only a balance beam in each hand, he carefully walked across the 1,800 foot cable reaching from the United States into Canada. After a breathtaking journey, Wallenda slightly raised his right arm to fist pump as a sea of spectators cheered from below. He had performed the ultimate balancing act.  How do we prioritize balance for our physical longevity? Balance is the third cog that keeps our bodies nimble and adaptable, and like strength, has a preventive effect when it comes to falling or stumbling. Again, it's easy to downplay the ramifications of a hard fall -- no matter how old you are. Younger people certainly have better recovery times, but those injuries accumulate. And at an advanced age, a fall could be potentially life-threatening. Studies have shown that 20% of elderly people who break their hip die within one year of the accident. Yet even if you survive a harrowing fall, the mental, physical, and monetary costs can be devastating.  Mentally, it often instills fear of doing what was once considered a "normal" activity. In some cases, it might mean the removal of one's original routine in favor of being put in a nursing home or care program. Even if this is the best possible situation for your grandparent, for instance, it can in turn cost hundreds of thousands of healthcare payments if the family isn't covered.  For those who regularly exercise and train, balance is a key component of recovery. If you don't retrain your balance after an injury, it can lead to possible reinjury, says Dr. Edward Laskowski, the co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine. When an injury occurs, the muscles around a joint stop contracting and therefore become less stabilized. According to Laskowski, balance training retrains those muscles to contract together again.  So, how does one partake in balance training without having to be Nik Wallenda walking across a highwire?

Balance Exercises

There's a way to train your balance that doesn't take more than five minutes in your kitchen, and there's a way to spice it up and make it more fun. For those in a time crunch, you can do basic balance exercises like standing on one leg or standing up from a chair without using your hands. Per Harvard Health Publishing, stretching also helps with balance. To make it more fun, you can ride a bike, skateboard, snowboard, or go roller/ice skating. (Or you can be like Andy from The Office and just do some hardcore parkour.)


Yoga, as well as pilates, has become a staple in the ever-growing wellness industry. Yoga incorporates a lot of movements that are helpful but not often done on a daily basis, such as standing on one leg, rising up to your tiptoes, or reaching to different body positions. According to Yoga International, a MasterClass style hub for yoga courses, yoga helps with proprioception -- essentially our sensory awareness. Most of the time people fall because of impaired sensory awareness, so yoga can be helpful in helping us learn how to spread our feet properly and, like tai chi, be more aware of the way we use our bodies. It also helps improve stabilizing muscles such as the gluteus medius (hip), rhomboids (back/shoulder), and core (abdomen).



Jia is an 82-year-old grandmother from the Shandong province of China. Jia can also do splits, put her foot behind her head, and hold herself on her hands as her legs hang over a pole.  And I can't even touch my toes. Watching the viral sensation's videos, such as this one here, you may naturally conclude that Jia must've been a contortionist, or at least stretched every day since she was a kid. Nope. She just started stretching four-years-ago at the ripe age of 78. That's heartening in that you're never too old to learn something new or develop a new skill. It's also a reminder that you don't have to wait until you're in your late 70s to become more flexible. I joked that I can't touch my toes and fully admit that I make grunting noises when I have to sit cross-legged on the floor. Clearly I could learn a thing or two from Jia. According to the UC Davis Sports Medicine program, an overall lack of flexibility can lead to the following consequences:
    • Joints must go through their full range of motion (i.e. work harder), causing a significant amount of the body's energy and resources to attend to those joints. This is felt mostly on heavy weight bearing joints like the hips and knees. 
    • Inflexible muscles tire more quickly, therefore making the other muscle groups work harder. When these muscles do not perform their stabilizing functions, they leave joints vulnerable to more severe injuries, such as an ACL tear. 
    • Decreased flexibility can also lead to "abnormal stress on structures and tissues distant from the initial site of inflexibility." In other words, inflexible muscles can have a serious effect even on muscles distant from the site of inflexibility.
 While most conclude that flexibility is inherently beneficial, stretching should be done in the right capacity and context. In his piece for The Atlantic, "Stretching is Overrated," writer Ian McMahan found research around stretching's effect on injuries.  He cites Dr. Ian Shrier, a physician and researcher at McGill University, who claims that the "feel good" sensations of stretching do not correlate to injury prevention. "Because stretching decreases pain and makes you feel good, it is easy to extrapolate this to think it will prevent injury," he said. "In general, stretching before exercise does not prevent injury."  To be clear: overall flexibility is important to injury prevention and overall health, but we shouldn't count on stretching right before a workout to solve our flexibility problems or stop us from getting hurt. We want our bodies to be able to have a full range of motion, but we don't need to go overboard.  Based on the research's findings, we should be looking at our overall flexibility like maintenance on a car. We don't need to rev the engine a bunch before taking a leisurely drive, but we should also make sure we're routinely tuning up the car to lengthen and enhance its performance.  Before diving into ways we can practically address flexibility, it's important to distinguish between flexibility and mobility. Per Healthline, "flexibility is a muscle’s ability to lengthen passively, or without engagement." Due to this passive lengthening, the muscle "more easily achieves its full range of motion." For the retired Jia, there's plenty of time to do things like handstands for two hours in the morning. For the rest of us, that's not necessarily an option, nor does it need to be. But what are some practical, simple ways to incorporate more flexibility into our daily rhythms?

Dynamic Stretching

The opposite of static stretching (in which positions are held for 15-60 seconds and a "burn" is felt), dynamic stretching is about getting the body loose and warm before engaging in a physical activity. As mentioned before, flexibility is about getting that full range of motion. Dynamic stretching helps achieve this by taking your body through functional movements. On the flip side, static stretching can hamper muscles from being ready to fully spring into action, says physiotherapist Kelsey Drew. "Static stretching as a warmup before activity has actually shown to impair explosive muscle activity, so it could be really detrimental if you’re doing any sprinting or competitive sports." Some practical dynamic stretching exercises include yoga poses, lunges, squats, leg swings, and even light jogging. For a full guide to dynamic stretching, check out these six easy at-home exercises from Masterclass.

Foam Rolling

Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist, had struggled to incorporate foam rolling despite owning three of them. She challenged herself to foam roll for thirty days and was blown away by the results. Among the benefits she felt were: "better flexibility, injury prevention and reduced soreness post-workout." By Day 27, Rumsey could grasp the bottom of her feet. A few days later, at the end of her study, she concluded that her legs had much more range of motion -- the primary benefit of flexibility.   Foam rolling might feel odd or uncomfortable at first (depending on how smooth or ribbed of a roller you get), but try incorporating it into your morning or evening routine, even if it's just for 30 seconds to a minute. Most foam rollers are fairly inexpensive, and have an even greater intrinsic cost of preventing injury and promoting recovery. As Rumsey describes it, it's "a simple tool that stretches the muscles and tendons and helps to break down the muscle knots."

Staying Hydrated

You probably already know that bodies are made up of 70% water, and that drinking it is crucial for survival reasons. But on a basic level, dehydrated muscles are inflexible muscles. The impassioned football coach who screams "suck it up, you don't need water!" is actually putting his players at risk of greater injury.  Hydrating also helps the supply of synovial fluid, a water-based lubricant that helps mobility in our joints. Drinking water regularly obviously has a myriad of health benefits, but one we might overlook is just how crucial it is to our flexibility. It's easy to forget to drink water amidst a busy workday (especially if we're consuming copious amounts of coffee, which dehydrates us), but try to bring a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go, and set reminders on your phone if that helps you remember.


Many are actively looking for and seeking a healthy lifestyle and want to incorporate exercise into their lives. It's not always a matter of drive or desire to get fit that's lacking, but rather the tools and practicals on how to get started. Obviously we're just scratching the surface today and boiling exercise down to its base forms of endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. The heart in diving deeper into each of these areas is to show how our bodies have been designed to move, and how we aren't alway maintaining the core exercise movements that aid to our everyday mobility, functionality, and ultimately, longevity. Society, or even the aforementioned gyms, paint a picture of what it means to be "fit," yet often it's an exaggerated version of fitness that veers into looking sexy or like a model.  If you take a quick walk through LA Fitness and you'll see models motivating you with one-liners like "endurance," "passion," or "drive". These models are typically well-manicured with bulging muscles or hourglass waists, furthering your insecurity as you stare into the wall of mirrors before you.  That's not a knock against going to the gym, but more of a caution to be aware of the messaging being hurled at you overtly and subconsciously. Words like "drive" or "passion" ring hollow if they aren't rooted in any kind of objectivity, research, or explanation. It's refreshing to know that fitness doesn't have to be some abstract, ethereal concept in the distance, but rather something we can weave into our daily lives. Some days it might look like carrying groceries up the stairs of our apartments, and some days it might look like going for a run.  Just remember to keep balance as a guiding principle, and give yourself credit for even getting started. As Atomic Habits author James Clear put it: "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become."


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