Government Exercise: See the NIH's Embarrassing Fitness Recommendations

My recent piece on my own website, “Exercise, Government-Style,” deals with the exercise recommendations of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health. Their website is an embarrassing mess of silly movements that cannot be categorized as exercises.


“Physical activity,” perhaps — like you would perform while driving to the store, going in to buy groceries, putting them in the car, going home, unloading them, and sitting back down. But they are no more strenuous than these typical daily activities — the ones you’re already doing, the ones that haven’t made you strong enough so far, and the same reason why daily activities are not sufficient for the maintenance of physical ability as we age.

Perhaps more importantly, they completely fail to understand the basic process by which strength — or any other beneficial physical adaptation — is acquired.

Our website has its trolls, just like PJ Media does, and one of them accidentally performed a useful function. By citing several perceived inadequacies of the application of our methods to people over 50, he pointed out that he actually had no idea what is meant by “The Starting Strength Method.” So I thought I’d better clarify it for him, and perhaps for you, too.

The Starting Strength Method is merely the application of common sense to the acquisition of strength.

Strength — your ability to apply force within your environment, with your hands or your feet, repeatedly for several minutes or just once — is the single most important physical attribute a human possesses. As we age, strength diminishes. This is always true; ask your grandfather. Even if you try to maintain strength, you lose it with age.


So, Starting Strength is a method that increases strength by determining the amount of force you can generate now, and increasing the amount of force you have to use a little bit every time you exercise.

We use exercises that work a lot of muscles at the same time, the way your body works naturally. The exercises depend on the current ability of the individual. Some people can squat with a barbell, some people have to use a leg press machine, and some people just start with their own bodyweight.

But everybody can do some amount of weight using a few carefully designed multijoint exercises, and everybody can go up just a little each time, thus getting the whole body stronger in a progressive, purposeful manner.

For an older person, the retention and acquisition of strength is very important. Yet, here is a sample of the things the NIA wants you to do:




These and other movements are listed as “strength” exercises, along with “endurance,” “flexibility,” and “balance” exercises.

As Glenn Reynolds says, Read the Whole Thing.

There are two major problems with this approach. First, these movements place you in positions you already occupy during the day, accidentally. If they were capable of making you stronger, you’d be stronger by now. They lack the capacity to produce enough stress to cause a physical change in your body.

Second, and most important, they fail to understand the most critical concept in strength training. Here is their tip: “As your progress, use a heavier weight.”


This is amazing, in that it is completely and absolutely backwards. You must use a heavier weight in order to make progress.

The basic formula for effective exercise of any type is: stress + recovery from the stress = adaptation to the stress. If you want to get stronger, you have to give your body a reason to need to be stronger, so you have to lift a weight that is heavier than you lifted previously. When you recover from that, you’ll be stronger. Just like anything else you’ve ever accomplished, you do the work first, and then you get the results.

The exercises in your strength program must be capable of 1.) using enough muscle mass 2.) through a long range of joint motion, 3.) enabling you to lift increasingly heavy weights so that you 4.) get stronger.

Here are examples of our exercises:



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The Starting Strength exercises are better because they are capable of being loaded with incrementally increasing weight — even if the increment must be half a pound — so you can get stronger. They operate over a long range of motion, so you get more flexible. As you do them with increasingly heavy weight, you continue to not fall down, so they improve your balance. And since you can do more work over a longer period of time as you get stronger, they improve your endurance, too.

If you can’t do the barbell exercises pictured above, there are other ways the problem can be solved using the same approach. The keys are lots of muscles working at the same time and continually increasing loads being lifted. The Starting Strength Method is thus, in a nutshell, full range of motion exercise matched to the current ability of the trainee that continually increases in intensity. This approach makes your whole body get stronger. The NIA approach merely asks your body if it wants to, someday, and then fails to provide the mechanism.


I’ve complained before about government interference with what we as coaches and trainers do with our clients and trainees. These silly recommendations will be perceived as authoritative by lots of poorly informed people, because, after all, The Government’s Experts Said So.

This can be a dangerous waste of time for the group of people who don’t have time to waste.

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