Men's Health: The New Rules of Fitness

A lot of men know just enough about the rules of fitness to be scared away from starting a workout routine.

That's why we prefer to do our rule-breaking in the gym, where it does the most good.

The latest coming from the physiology labs and exercise eggheads shows that you can make big gains with a relatively small investment of pain and time.

If the old rules have left you fat and tired, it's time for some new rules — for a new you.

Change Your Body by Changing Speeds

Running faster for a minute, then going a little slower for a minute, can help you lose weight faster than moving at a steady pace, according to a 2001 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. After 10 weeks, those who changed speeds lost more weight, more fat and improved their thyroid function.

Gradually increase your running speed to one you think you can maintain for 20 minutes or so. Go slightly faster than that pace for a minute, then run a minute at a slightly slower speed. Continue for about 20 minutes, then cool down for five minutes.

Only 20 Minutes, Twice a Week?

That's all it takes for a major health upgrade, says Bert Jacobson, an exercise researcher at Oklahoma State University.

Jacobson examined the absentee records of 79,000 workers and found that those who did a little exercise had fewer sick days than inactive guys. And here's the really cool part: The twice-weekly exercisers saw the same health gains as those who worked out a lot more.

"You don't have to bust your butt to get benefits," Jacobson says.

If you're not exercising at all, schedule two brisk 20-minute walks a week, or four brisk 10-minute walks. You can achieve the same results with 10-minute chunks of exercise as you can with longer sessions. Just keep the total exercise time the same.

If You Hate to Jog, Don't

Despite the benefits of aerobic exercise, you can reach the same goals through weight lifting and a healthy diet, with a few added dividends: bigger, stronger muscles and bones, a faster metabolism, less fat.

In fact, a new study at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse found that a single session of heavy lifting can increase a man's metabolism for the next 48 hours. (Following moderate aerobic exercise, metabolism goes back to normal after half an hour.)

Try strength training with limited rest between sets, which will improve endurance. If you want a fat-burning boost in metabolism, use the exercises that work the most muscle (squats, deadlifts, pullups, rows, and chest and shoulder presses) and rest about two minutes between sets.

For Better Abs, Get on the Ball

A Canadian study of more than 8,000 people discovered that over the 13 years of the study, those with the weakest abdominal muscles had more than two times the death rate of those with the strongest midsections.

A study at Springfield College in Massachusetts found that athletes who did abdominal and lower-back exercises on an exercise ball had much better midsection strength and overall balance than those who did crunches and back extensions on the floor.

Go a Little Harder, Get a Little Firmer

You can attain great health benefits and lose weight without pushing yourself particularly hard. But if you crank it up a notch — turning those brisk walks into slow jogs — your body compensates by using more fat for energy in the hours afterward, according to a new study at East Tennessee State University.

"As intensity increases, your body shifts to using more fat after exercise," says Craig Broeder, who conducted the study of men in their mid-20s.

In that study the men worked at 60 percent of their maximum aerobic capacity and burned approximately 720 calories in the workout. You can tell you've reached 60 percent of your maximum when you're breathing steadily and deeply. You should be able to speak during these workouts, as long as you keep your comments brief. (To burn 720 calories in a workout, a 180-pound man would need to jog for 53 minutes at a 10-minute-per-mile pace.)

Lift Free of Die?

The easiest strength exercises — the ones you perform on machines — involve movements that don't translate directly to real-life activities.

A study at Georgia State University put older adults on a two-year strength-training program using exercise machines. The seniors improved their strength an average of 34 percent in the two years, but their measures of physical function actually declined 3.5 percent. Over the long haul, machine exercise produces diminishing returns.

If you're currently using machines, switch to free-weight exercises to improve flexibility and balance.

Try these functional moves, suggested by Juan Carlos Santana, owner of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Fla.

Here's a few examples:

Instead of leg presses … try squats

Instead of leg extensions … try lunges

Instead of leg curls … try Romanian deadlifts

Instead of machine chest presses … try dumbbell chest presses while lying on a stability ball

Instead of machine shoulder presses … try dumbbell clean-and-presses (lifting weights from just above knees to shoulders, then overhead).