The 13 best exercises for overall health and fitness

The powerful combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training can help a person build muscle

The powerful combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training can help a person build muscle strength and improve their heart, lung, and circulatory health.

Exercises that target multiple muscle groups are particularly effective. These include various exercises that require little to no equipment and can suit a range of fitness levels.

Here, we look at 13 of the best exercises for overall health and fitness. We explain what areas of the body each exercise primarily works and provide step-by-step instructions.

People can do the following exercises individually or as part of a circuit. Some require basic fitness equipment, such as dumbbells or an exercise ball, but people can do many of them with no equipment.

The American Council on Exercise recommend that people continue doing repetitions until they reach muscle fatigue or can no longer maintain proper form.

However, they note that endurance athletes, such as runners and cyclists, should stick to about 20–30 repetitions rather than working to the point of muscle fatigue.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend doing 8–12 repetitions of 8–10 strength training exercises on at least 2 days of the week.

The ACSM also recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a day, 5 days per week. Alternatively, they say that people can perform 20-minute sessions of vigorous physical activity on 3 days of the week.

Pushup

Pushups work multiple muscle groups, strengthening the arms, chest, and shoulders.

How to do them:

  • Start in a plank position with the arms straight and the body lifted in a straight line horizontal to the floor. Keep the feet together and the toes flexed to support the body.
  • The palms should be flat on the floor shoulder-width apart, with the fingers facing straight ahead or slightly inward.
  • Keeping the head in line with the spine, slowly bend the elbows outward and lower the body down to the floor.
  • Try to keep the hips and lower back in line.
  • Lower as far as possible, aiming to touch the chest or chin to the floor.
  • Use the arm muscles to press the body back up into the starting position.
  • Keep the abdominal muscles engaged throughout to help support the back.

Squat

Bodyweight squats can increase lower body and core strength as they work the abs, buttocks, hips, thighs, calves, and shins.

How to do them:

  • Stand with the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, angling the toes slightly outward.
  • Keep the hands down by the sides, with the palms facing in and keep the shoulders back.
  • Engage the abdominal muscles to support the back.
  • Shift the hips back and bend the knees as though taking a seat, keeping a flat back.
  • Keep lowering down to the ground until the thighs are parallel with the floor.
  • Push through the feet to straighten back up into the starting position.
  • Inhale into the squat, then exhale when standing back up.

Lunges work the thighs, buttocks, hips, and abdominal muscles.

How to do them:

  • Stand upright with the feet together.
  • Step one leg forward into a long stride, bending the knee and placing the foot flat on the floor.
  • Bend the knee of the supporting leg toward the floor.
  • Use the muscles of the forward leg to push back to standing.
  • Repeat with the opposite leg.

Running is a form of aerobic exercise, and it can help improve cardiovascular fitness and bone strength. Jogging is a less intense form of running and may be best for beginners.

People can often improve their running endurance through interval running, which involves running for a certain distance or time and then switching to walking before running again. Alternatively, people can switch between running and sprinting.

Sprint interval training may help decrease body fat, increase aerobic capacity, and increase peak running speed.

Side planks help build core strength, which can help reduce lower back pain. Side planks work the buttocks, hips, and abdominal muscles.

How to do them:

  • Lie on the right side with the legs outstretched directly on top of each other and the elbow under the shoulder on the right arm.
  • Engage the abdominals and lift the knees and hips off the floor, keeping the head and body aligned.
  • Hold the position for 15–20 seconds, focusing on not letting the hips, head, or shoulders drop.
  • Slowly return to the floor, switch to the left side, and repeat.

Planks strengthen the back and abdominal muscles and help build core strength.

How to do them:

  • Start with the elbows and lower arms on the floor, keeping the elbows in line with the shoulders.
  • Lift the body so that it forms a straight line horizontal to the floor.
  • Keep the feet together and the toes flexed to support the body.
  • Hold for 20–30 seconds.
  • Slowly lower to the floor and rest for 1 minute, then repeat 3–5 times.

Once people feel strong performing this exercise, they can try a high plank. This move uses the same body positioning, but the person keeps their arms straight with their palms flat on the floor, directly underneath the shoulders.

Knee tucks work the abdominals, calves, and shins. People will need an exercise ball, sometimes called a stability ball, for this exercise.

How to do them:

  • Lie on the stomach on top of the stability ball with the hands and feet on the floor.
  • Walk forward on the hands until the knees are resting on the ball and the feet have lifted off the floor. The hands should be directly underneath the shoulders.
  • Roll the knees forward to curl them into the chest.
  • Slowly push the knees back to return to the starting position.

The glute bridge is good for the muscles in the back of the body, known as the posterior chain.

How to do it:

  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor.
  • Contract the buttocks and abdominals to lift the hips off the floor, bringing them in line with the shoulders and knees. Avoid arching the lower back.
  • Slowly lower back to the starting position.

This exercise helps strengthen the shoulder muscles. People will require two dumbbells.

How to do them:

  • Stand with the feet hip-width apart.
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand with the inside of the wrists facing forward, then bend the arms to bring the weights to shoulder height.
  • Engage the abdominal muscles and exhale while extending the arms straight up to lift the dumbbells in a straight line above the shoulders.
  • Inhale to bend the elbows and slowly lower the dumbbells back down to shoulder height.
  • Try to avoid arching the lower back.

Dumbbell rows can strengthen the back and increase muscle growth. An increase in muscle strength also causes the body to burn more calories when resting. People will need two dumbbells for this exercise.

How to do them:

  • Stand with the knees slightly bent and tilt forward from the hips, keeping the back straight.
  • Hold the dumbbells out in front with the arms straight and the inside of the wrists facing each other.
  • Pull one hand toward the rib cage, then move it back to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the opposite arm.
  • Keep alternating sides for 8–10 repetitions per set.
  • Repeat for 3 sets, with a 45-second rest between each set.

A pike roll-out works the abdominal, arm, and shoulder muscles. People will need a stability ball.

How to do it:

  • Lie on the stomach on the ball with the hands and feet on the floor.
  • Roll forward on the ball to rest flexed toes on it. Keep the body in a straight line, with straight arms directly under the shoulders and the palms flat on the floor.
  • Hinging at the hips, lift the buttocks toward the ceiling, keeping the legs straight and the toes flexed on the ball.
  • The hips will be in line with the shoulders, with a straight back and head between the arms.
  • Slowly lower back down to the starting position.

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The Crow Stand is a yoga pose that improves balance and can help build wrist, arm, and core strength.

How to do it:

  • Crouch on the floor and place the palms flat on the mat with the fingers spread and the arms slightly bent.
  • Bend the knees into the triceps, close to the armpits, and place both feet behind the hands. The lower inner thighs should rest just above the elbows.
  • Balance on the toes and shift the weight into the hands.
  • Start by lifting one foot off the floor at a time.
  • When able to, lift both feet off the floor, touch the big toes together and balance on the hands.
  • Slowly release the feet back to the floor.

Swimming uses almost all the muscle groups but is a low impact exercise. Therefore, it may suit people with certain injuries or health conditions.

A person should swim in a public pool or a safe, supervised environment, particularly if they are a beginner.

People can take a few steps to make these exercises more challenging as their fitness improves. These steps include:

  • adding more weight
  • increasing the number of repetitions, sets, or both
  • increasing the frequency of workouts

People can also work alongside a personal trainer or fitness instructor. These professionals can safely increase difficulty levels and help people maintain proper technique.

Regular exercise is important for overall health and fitness. A combination of resistance and cardiovascular training is a powerful tool to help prevent many health conditions.

People can start slowly and increase the frequency of workouts or the number of repetitions and sets in each one as their fitness levels improve.