What’s the “Best” Exercise?: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Tulane Public Relations)

(Photo: Tulane Public Relations)

Our latest podcast is called “What’s the ‘Best’ Exercise?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Exercise is always on a lot of people’s minds around this time of year, what with all those resolutions just waiting to be broken …

By “best,” we really mean “most efficient,” since people who don’t exercise — and that’s roughly 80 percent of us — often blame lack of time. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week; here are its guidelines.) 

We solicit advise from three wise souls in the exercise realm: Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed” columnist for The New York Times and author of The First 20 Minutes; David Meltzer, a physician/economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of “The Economics of Intense Exercise”; and Peter Attia, a physician, co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative, and a fitness freak whose workout includes flipping a 450-pound tractor tire “and other fun things you can do without carbs”:

During the podcast, we discuss exercise commitment devices and cost-effectiveness; and we come up with a three-point checklist to help you out. We call it “The Three I’s”: Intensity, Individualization, and “I Like to Do It.” If you’re searching for activities that you might like but haven’t thought about before, check out the CDC’s rather extensive list.

This episode features the introduction of a new friend, Jasmine (brought to life by Cepstral), and was inspired by a question from a listener named Scott Hechinger — thanks, Scott!

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Salim Nourallah, “We Did Some Things” (from Polaroid)]


Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. We love it when you send us your questions -- like, “Hey Freakonomics, what’s the best way to do this or that,” or “Hey Freakonomics, what’s the story with such-and-such.” Some of you are so smart … I’m not even sure you’re real.


JASMINE: Hey Freakonomics. This is Jasmine.


DUBNER: All right, Jasmine, and what would you like to know today?


JASMINE: I want to know what is the best and most efficient form of exercise. I want to get the most benefit for the least amount of time invested. I don’t have that much money either. Also, I am kind of lazy. Thanks, Freakonomics!


DUBNER: All right, Jasmine. Let’s see if we can answer your question -- the best, most efficient form of exercise. But let’s start by examining the premise. Maybe you don’t even need to exercise? Is exercise really as worthwhile as we think? We put this question to David Meltzer. He’s our kind of guy -- a doctor and an economist, at the University of Chicago.


David MELTZER: I think there’s a lot of good evidence both observational as well as experimental that exercise really helps. The numbers I often cite are that even something as simple as walking for half an hour a day five days a week raises your life expectancy by a year and a half. And exercising more intensively than that on a daily basis can produce gains that are double that.


JASMINE: No offense, Freakonomics, but I could have told you that exercise is good for me!


DUBNER: Okay, I just wanted to make sure you’re not wasting what little time you have. As it turns out, Jasmine, your situation is pretty typical. Here’s Gretchen Reynolds; she writes the “Phys Ed” column for the New York Times:


Gretchen REYNOLDS: The most common reason that people give for not exercising is that they don’t have time.


DUBNER: And here’s what that means:


REYNOLDS: Most Americans are not exercising. The best statistics suggest that at least 80 percent of Americans are not meeting the most commonly used guidelines for exercise, which are those from the American College of Sports Medicine. And they suggest 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. The vast majority of Americans are not doing that.


[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “The Immortality Project” (from Antonio’s Giraffe)]


JASMINE: Oh. Now I don’t feel quite so bad.


DUBNER: All right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to exercise.  So we took your question – “what’s the most efficient form of exercise” – and asked some people we thought could answer it. Here’s one of them:


Peter ATTIA: The right way to think about this is it’s the wrong question. And you know, if I’ve learned anything in my life, whenever I ask the wrong question it almost guarantees I will not find the right answer.


JASMINE: Ooh, what a meanie. Who is this guy?


DUBNER: His name is Peter Attia. He’s an m.d. and a nutrition expert and also a fitness fanatic, emphasis on the fanatic. Part of his exercise routine is flipping a tractor tire:


ATTIA: It’s a pretty heavy tire. It’s about 450 pounds. You’re never actually lifting the entire thing at once because you’re flipping it. I have a goal that I’m working really hard mostly for fun to get to which is to break sixteen seconds on six flips of that tire.


DUBNER: And here’s why Dr. Attia thinks this question -- “what is the most efficient form of exercise?” -- is the wrong question.


ATTIA: If someone says to me, because I get asked this question all the time, what’s the least I can do for the most, I really ask the person what is it that you want? What’s your desired outcome? And it can be anything from I want to run my first marathon in six months, Or I want to compete in a triathlon and it will be my first one, or I want to take my game to the highest level because I’ve already been doing this for a while, but I want to get a little bit better. It can also be something like I want to look better in a bathing suit, or I want to not get tired when I play with my kids. Those are all actually really elaborate physical activities.


[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators, “Wallingford Wiggles” (from Harlem Mad)]


DUBNER: Okay, so Jasmine, what’s your exercise goal – you want to compete in a triathlon or just look better in a bathing suit.


JASMINE: Oh, I already look very good in a bathing suit. This is mostly for my heart. For my longevity.


DUBNER: Well, if you’re thinking longevity, there’s one exercise that Gretchen Reynolds really likes. The squat:


REYNOLDS: The squat will use almost all of the biggest muscles in your body, those in your upper legs, your back, your core. Those are also the muscles that you need to do things like get up out of a chair, which may sound facetious, but in fact as you age, one of the best indicators of whether you will be independent well into your twilight years is if you can get up out of a chair. And if you can go up and down stairs.


JASMINE: That sounds pretty good. But how am I supposed to know what exercises do the most good?


DUBNER: Okay, so let’s talk about how exercise is actually measured. Here’s David Meltzer again:


MELTZER: The technical answer is exercise is probably best measured in terms of the total number of calories that you burn. And therefore the efficiency of exercise in terms of calories burned per unit of time is commonly measured in something called the metabolic equivalent score, or METs. And they rank all the exercises that you could imagine doing from the most intensive to the least intensive. And the scale starts at one, and one is basically rest. And in the sort of standard scales that I’ve seen, the things that are right at the top are basically running, and soccer, which presumably means running all the time, unless you’re the goalie. And then it works its way down. So things like running are a 10, jogging is a seven, golf is a four and a half.  Rest is a one. But it’s interesting because there are also some activities on the list that are things you might have to do anyway like yard work. That’s a six.


[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Fresh Perked” (from Somewhere in This Town)]


JASMINE: Oooh, I don’t really like yard work. Is there anything else like that on his list that is a 5 or a 6 on the METs scale?


DUBNER: Well, square dancing is pretty good. And I’ll quote here from a list put out by the Centers for Disease Control: “playing guitar or drums in a rock band” or “fishing while walking along a riverbank.” Any of that sound good?


JASMINE: I am not into fishing.


DUBNER: Sorry?


JASMINE: I am not into fishing.


DUBNER: All right, let’s see what else… clogging is good… jumping jacks… digging ditches.


JASMINE: Yeah... let me think those over.


DUBNER: Fair enough. And when we come back – I’ll tell you about a really fast way to get in your daily exercise:


QUICKGYM VIDEO CLIP: With the ROM there is no time to get bored…by the time you think of an excuse, 4 minutes is up and you’re getting on with your day….




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Mark J. Scetta, “Three Men In A Tub”]


DUBNER: Hey Jasmine, you still there?


JASMINE: I am still here.


DUBNER: And you’re still looking for the most efficient form of exercise?




DUBNER: Okay, so you could try an exercise commitment device – like joining a gym. The problem is, research shows that people who buy an annual gym membership overestimate how much they’ll use it by about 70 percent.


JASMINE: What a waste of money.


DUBNER: Agreed. Now, there’s another kind of commitment device – an app called GymPact, where you sign up for a certain amount of exercise and if you don’t follow through, you have to pay them.


JASMINE: I don’t like that one bit.


DUBNER: All right, Jasmine, I hear you. So you want the best, most efficient, most cost-effective exercise you can find. Based on what our three wise guests have figured out, let me offer you a little checklist. We’ll call it the three I’s. The first I: intensity. Here’s Gretchen Reynolds again:


REYNOLDS: And that means simply that you go very, very hard for a brief period of time, and that usually you have a short break, and you go very, very hard again. There are a number of studies that have looked at different forms of high intensity interval training and have found that for instance you can do one minute of say hard bicycling and one minute of much easier bicycling. And if you do 10 of those intervals you get essentially the same physiological changes within your body as if you do about 90 minutes or two hours even of more common endurance training where you just go ride. It seems very clear that these intense bouts of exercise can improve your fitness and also improve your health just as much as much longer bouts. But they have to be hard. They have to hurt.


[MUSIC: Sonogram, “Purple Vinyl” (from Album Title)]


DUBNER: Jasmine, are you ready for the pain?


JASMINE: Maybe. Maybe not. What is the second “I” in your checklist of three I’s?


DUBNER: Individualization. Here’s Peter Attia again, the tractor-tire-flipping doctor-nutritionist:


ATTIA: It kind of means using yourself as a guinea pig. You know, there’s a lot of questions that I think we wish science would answer. But sometimes they’re either not deemed high enough priority in a scientific community, or the scientific experiments that are carried out are done on such a heterogeneous population that you can’t necessarily extrapolate for yourself. And so one of the other things that I do when I work with people is we really sort of embrace this concept of self-experimentation because at the end of the day, if I was working with you, it’s really not that important what works for the population. It’s really more important what works for you personally.


JASMINE: Okay, he doesn’t sound so mean any more.


DUBNER: Agreed. And that leads us to the last “I” on the exercise checklist. If the first two are “intensity” and “individualization,” the third one is “I… like to do it.”


[MUSIC: Andrew Oye, “Billy’s Ocean”]


DUBNER: Peter Attia, Gretchen Reynolds, and David Meltzer, they all agree that the best exercise is… whichever one you’ll actually do:


REYNOLDS: Whatever you will do is certainly the best exercise.


MELTZER: Well what do you actually like doing?


ATTIA: Do something that you actually enjoy, do something that makes you better.


DUBNER: So what do you say, Jasmine – does that give you any ideas?  


JASMINE: I do have something in mind. But I would rather not say.


DUBNER: Okay, no problem. But if whatever you’re thinking about doing doesn’t work out, we’ve got one more option to offer you. David Meltzer told us about the ROM workout machine from a company called QuickGym.


QUICKGYM VIDEO CLIP: The best exercise machine is the one you’ll actually use, and the one that gives you a total body workout, in only 4 minutes, is the one you’ll use every day.


DUBNER: You sound like the kind of person who could really warm up to this machine, Jasmine. But let me warn you: it costs more than $14,000.


JASMINE: Ouch. Is it worth it?


DUBNER: Well, depends who you ask. Here’s how David Meltzer sees it. Remember, when he’s not busy being a doctor, he’s being an economist:


MELTZER: Yeah, well I guess the economic logic of it is that it doesn’t require very much time at all to get a full day’s workout. So presumably if, you know, it took an hour to get a comparable workout, and it only takes you four minutes, it saved you 56 minutes. So presumably that’s worth your hourly wage, you know, five times a week over a year, you can price that out and amortize it, that’s probably worth quite a lot of money. Maybe you’ll even get a new sponsor for the show.


QUICKGYM VIDEO CLIP: With the ROM there is no time to get bored…by the time you think of an excuse, 4 minutes is up and you’re getting on with your day...


JASMINE: Hey Freakonomics, that’s pretty neat. Thank you for your help.


DUBNER: Thanks for the question, Jasmine. And I look forward to your next one.


[MUSIC: Lord Echo, “Thing I Like To Do” (from Things I Like To Do/Long Time No See)]




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  1. Fred Peterson says:

    If I had to pick one exercise, or movement pattern, that would be considered the best if it was the only one that could be done it would be the full burpee. It is a cardio plus upper and lower body bodyweight workout.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 6
    • twelv says:

      nice commet

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    • Jason M says:

      I’m really disappointed that this entire episode happened by asking half a question. What’s the best exercise *for what?* Where was that second half? You can’t compare things without a goal. That’s basic logic/language/science/math/whatever. For building strength? For burning calories? For building muscle size? For general health? This is not like you guys. Freakonomics is better than this usually.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1
      • Casey says:

        I was seriously irritated at this episode, why the hell were they trying to advertise that ROM machine thing!?

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  2. v says:

    The quality of this once consistently-interesting podcast continues to slide. It used to be that every episode had some interesting data, and fresh new ways at looking at the world. Here we learn that running uses more energy per minute than yardwork, and a re-hash of the stories about short duration-high intensity workouts that were all over the news a year ago. Did any Freakonomics listeners actually learn anything, or think differently after listening to this episode? I think not.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 7
    • Keir Thomas says:

      Totally agree. I’ve been on the verge of unsubscribing for a while, and the last couple of episodes have just left me thinking “what was the point of listening? I didn’t learn anything new and it wasn’t very insightful”. I was actually quite shocked when the episode was over, because I wasn’t aware that the main analysis had started!

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    • Alex says:

      For getting out of a chair when you’re old.

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  3. Nick Daniel says:

    What’s up with the robot sidekick!? That annoying robot voice felt like a needle in the brain any time it talked. I really hope this isn’t going to be a regular thing with the show from now on.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 31 Thumb down 6
    • Paul says:

      We get enough of this (bad) voice interpretation stuff already. From phone answering devices to web sites with guided processes, they aren’t very human friendly. Radio and produced program streams provide us with places to go to for human companionship. Give us a real voice to trust.

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
    • Matt says:

      Yeah, I really didn’t like the voice. I applaud the producers for trying to keep things creative and fun but the robot voice is not the way to do it. Good discussion on the topic, though.

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    • mike says:

      They answered for wwhat….they said heart health

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  4. Phil says:

    Very disappointed at how this episode turned into an infomercial for the “quickgym.” That’s 14k for absolute junk.

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    • Melissa says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Melissa says:


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      • Lewis says:

        ‘It’s worth many times the 14k price tag.’

        I have no experience using one, but I feel pretty confident saying that any bandaid-style all-in-one gym sold for 14k is audaciously priced before multiplication. You could buy actual home gym equipment rather than a gimmick for that.

        I’m not sure why you would defend the thing so fiercely, but I can imagine two reasons: That you’re unfortunately ignorant of all or most other exercise methods and equipment, or that you’re affiliated with the ‘QuickGym’ which is apparently worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to you (yeah, right). And since this podcast appeared to be a glorified infomercial, and since you’ve ‘tried a multitude of exercises and workout machines’, I am leaning toward the latter interpretation.

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  5. Enter your name... says:

    IMO the best exercise is the one that you actually DO.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 1
    • James says:

      I’ll even go beyond that: the best exercises are the ones you do because they’re fun. Hiking with the dogs, biking, cross-country skiing… They may work the muscles and get the heart rate up, but that’s not why I’m out doing them.

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  6. Armando says:

    Would have been more informative to hear from studies or people who have experience with why people are so averse to exercising, especially given that the benefits are pretty much universally known and accepted.

    It’s shocking to me that only 20% of people exercise regularly. I know the popular claim is ” I don’t have time,” but I think that needs to be explored more closely. Most of the top “killers” in the USA (and the world) are diseases which could be curbed by exercise, yet people still don’t “find” the time.

    Why? Surely, there has been research on this. I can understand some people smoke even though they fully know the health risks of it, because they get a positive effect from it (or at least avoid a negative, i.e. withdrawals). But with exercise I can’t imagine what positive effect you get from NOT doing it.

    It boggles my mind.

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    • James says:

      But I’ll bet that most of those ‘don’t have time to exercise’ people still manage to find plenty of time to sit in front of the TV, doing the 12-ounce curl.

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    • jian says:

      I think it’s inertia is the easiest thing to do for human beings.

      Our default action is no action. Examples of this is everywhere in our life. It’s always easier to not exert ourselves :D.

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  7. Scott Kennedy says:

    Sorry Dr. Attia, no matter how efficient those exercises are I just can’t get over how unnatural and silly they look. However, those flying pullups are pretty impressive.

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  8. David Cardin says:

    Never did say what the “best” exercise was.

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    • Rick Muncue says:

      They did say what the “best” exercise was: high intensity interval cardio training. Whether you do it on a bike or treadmill, or running at the park, that’s what works, like 1 minute as hard as you can go, 2 minutes rest, repeat (I don’t know the exact times, but I’m not the expert).

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