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Exercise is a topic that I've come back to a handful of times, and I'd like to do it again. This time, just kind of as a guide that I wish I had as an introduction to the world of fitness. I think that most of it is non-obvious and can be difficult to get into if you don't have much experience.

First of all there's two broadly different categories of exercise. There's cardio, which mostly involves doing long endurance and aerobic exercise to improve your cardiovascular health. There's also muscle-building, which involves progressive overload of different muscles to make yourself stronger. Both are very important for your health, and a well rounded athlete will have good cardiovascular health and musculature.

Cardio is simpler to understand, and personally I like it less than muscle building. All you really have to is get your heart rate up through activity, and keep it up for a long time. There are lot of different ways people experiment with this formula - either low intensity activity for long periods of time, or trying to be efficient by doing short intervals of extremely high intensity - but the basic idea is the same either way. By using your heart and your lungs you increase your lung capacity and heart strength, and generally can do things for longer with running out of breath or getting tired.

The beauty of cardio is almost any activity can contribute to it. If you're sedentary, then just going for short walks will improve your cardiovascular health. If you already walk alot, then playing sports and running around will help too. Cardio alone won't help specific activities, like marathon running or playing soccer; you need to train other muscles specifically for that. However, it is a prerequisite to all atheletic activities.

The thing I don't like about it is that after a certain point you need to dedicate lots of time to continue improving. The only way to train running 5km is to run 5km a lot, which takes a lot of time. That's why some people do things like high intensity interval training, to get most of the benefits without as much commitment, but it's still a time sink. I'd highly recommend getting a hobby that naturally trains cardio while you're having fun, like basketball or swimming or dancing.

I generally enjoy biking and swimming and hiking, and get enough cardio from those. Not as much as I'd like - I still with I could run an easy 5k or 10k and might train for that this summer, but I do enough. Even though I don't do a whole lot of cardio, I bike and run occasionally just due to living in a big city. My occasional hiking trips help a lot too, especially when going uphill. It's enough that my resting heart rate stays pretty low, and I can basically keep up with anyone who doesn't exercise a lot.

That brings us to the second type of exercise, which is muscle building. This is probably the more intimidating one, conjuring up images of being forced to go to the gym, or trying to bench press your whole body weight. It's really not so bad though, especially because with some knowledge there are plenty of low commitment ways to get started with this as well.

To get started, what you need is a way to do exercises that strain your muscles and a way to make those exercises harder. The idea is that you only need to do enough to make your muscles sore, as little as 5 repetitions. As long as you keep making the exercises harder you will keep getting stronger; this idea is called progressive overload. There are other nuances like rest days and set count, but that's the basic idea.

Now, how do you make the exercise harder you ask? One option is to use bigger and bigger weights. Unless you have a whole bunch at home you kind of have to go to a gym, though they are really not as intimidating as they may seem. The other option, while lately I've been preferring, is to do different kinds of adjustable bodyweight exercises at home. You can make things like push ups harder or easier by doing them against a wall or with your legs raised. Many exercises work like this, and with some ingenuity you can do a whole routine in your living room.

You also have to decide on your goals. In my opinion functional strength is the best goal, and for this you can basically do most compound exercises that hit many muscles at once. Some people train for other things though, like size or aesthetics. That's a whole other category, and it involves crazy diets and using very specific isolation machines at expensive gyms to train very specific muscles.

Personally I like doing compound bodyweight exercises like push ups and pull ups and dips at home. I'd also like to try doing some more compound exercises at the gym, like bench press and squat. I think that would be really beneficial. No matter which one you choose though, they say the best routine is the one you stick with. Exercise is all about compounding progress, and consistency is the most valuable part. It's better to stick to a middling routine one day a week for 5 years, then to commit to an intense 3 day a week training regimen and give up after 6 months.

Also, maintaining fitness is much easier than getting new fitness. Every once in a while I'll pick a new fitness goal to reach and devote a lot of time to it. Once I'm there, I can devote a whole lot less time to maintaining it - mostly just staying active. If manage to I keep this up, with my healthy mix of cardio and muscle building, I don't see any end to my gains over the next few years. Hopefully I'll be quite buff in my old age.