What’s the “Best” Exercise? (Ep. 150)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “What’s the ‘Best’ Exercise?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

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!

Fred Peterson

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.


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.

Nick Daniel

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.


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.


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

Enter your name...

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


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.


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.


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.

Scott Kennedy

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.

David Cardin

Never did say what the "best" exercise was.

Park owner

Fun, challenging, interesting and no special training or equipment needed! Indoor trampoline park! It's the best !

Dayton Brown

This is a bit on commitment devices. My friends and I devised a site where you count sweaty t-shirts. The most sweaty t-shirts at the end of the competition wins. In our case the winner gets a "very" nice bottle of wine that is purchased by the losers. We've done 2 competitions so far and it seems to work for us. The commitment is both the dollar value of a bottle of wine and an email that announces what your friend just did to earn his sweaty t shirts. Seemed to be appropriate for this bit on exercise.


Mr. Dubner,

I've been listening to your program faithfully and finding it always give me something to think about, even though I don't always agree with you and particularly not with your slightly smug/off-putting co-host.

But I have to admit being disappointed by this episode, not that I agree or disagree with the recommendations, but rather, because it doesn't offer any original or insightful ideas. To put it another way, it's utterly conventional.

After thinking about exercises and experimenting with different ways of exercising for the past 10+ years, I've realized that the best and easiest way to keep it up is not going to the gym or creating some personalized regiment; rather it's to incorporate physical activities into our daily life.

In fact, on a more philosophical level, I've been thinking whether Western thinking (I'm Chinese so pardon my bias please :D) is too narrowly focused in general, vs. taking a more holistic approach to life. The whole discussion of 'exercises' is a perfect example. Academics and the general public both think about it as some kind of external, completely separated, capsulized activity, instead of thinking of it as a natural part of our daily existence. In thinking and dealing with it this way, no matter what clever ways one can come up with to motivate people to exercise, their actually use will always, always be limited to those well-to-do/middle-class and up folks. Of course, I'm generalizing here, but I'm not stereotyping. Just think about it, who among us is more likely to have the time, money, and discipline to follow a workout regiment? Most likely, it's people who are well-educated and with decent-paying jobs, AND, not all of them even. What about others who are less fortunate or less disciplined?

IMHO, a better way of dealing with this is to think of physical activities as part of our daily life and to find ways to incorporate those activities into our life. I particularly chose the expression "physical activities" over "exercises" because I wanted to emphasize that we count anything requiring us to move around, things like walking and gardening. For example, if we live in a neighborhood where we can safely walk to the grocery store, coffee shop, restaurants, then we'll probably walk 1-2 miles every day without even thinking about it!

That's the best and easiest way too, because it does NOT require us to make the difficult decision of whether we'll get up an hour early or drive to the gym after work or whatever. The walking to the bus stop or grocery is already built into our daily life, and we don't need to think about it, make a decision against our lazy self and 'do it tomorrow' (which is always an easier decision), take the extra effort of setting aside time, get to the gym, etc., etc., at each of these points, we can decide not to do it.

The conventional way of promoting "exercises" to the public fails to take into consideration the human psychology, the way our decisions are heavily influenced by our feelings and emotions rather than by rational reasoning. You are most likely already aware of the new thinking championed by behavioral economists like Dan Ariely. As long as we make "exercises" some compartmentalized part of our life instead of a natural part of our daily routine, most of us will not or can not do it, no matter how many studies are done.

Slightly off topic, dieting is the same way. As long as it's a diet, it will fail. The only way we can succeed is to think of it as part of a healthy life style and treat it as such. So instead of staying completely off of some "evil" food item, we gradually increase healthy foods into our daily meals and decrease unhealthy ones.

It's really quite simple, although definitely not easy.



More "fitness experts" getting conned this time by $14,000 ROM junk.
They are in good company tho.
Consumer Reports gave passing grades to infomercial junk and The Doctors rave about near-useless rebounding.
Did ANYONE graduate HS?


TABATA 20 second high intense on, ten sec off


Whoever put Fencing in the moderate category has obviously never participated in a fencing tourney. I fenced for 3 years in undergrad and an event is possibly the longest, most invigorating, and exhausting athletic activity I know. Certainly beats basketball, baseball, squash, hockey, and handball IMHO.


It's fairly intense while you're doing it, yes. The problem is that you have short periods of very intense exercise, followed by long waits for the next bout.