It seems like everyone has a view on exercise. The media, in particular, are experts at making grand and exaggerated claims, often on the basis of very small scale research. Always looking for the next big story, they seize on whatever the latest trend might be. At present that might be HITT (High Intensity Training), but it will no doubt soon be something else. The result: we are all left totally confused about what we should be doing and for how long. This blog sets out to bust the myths and give you some manageable guidelines to follow.
Before we do so, it is worth reminding ourselves as to why exercise really matters. For many, its ability to help with weight control and body shape is high on the agenda, but with exercise comes so much more. Its function in disease prevention is well documented. Regular exercise is proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes (in fact it can even reverse it), strokes, some cancers and various other serious illnesses. What is less well known, is its role in improving mental health conditions such as Alzheimer’s and helping to treat depression. It seems like the more research is done the more benefits are discovered.
The evidence is hard to ignore but what kind of exercise will make the difference? And how much?
If you ask people what ‘exercise’ and ‘fitness means to them, invariably they think of cardiovascular activities such as running, cycling or swimming. However, there are a number of different aspects to fitness, all of which are important and bring with them different benefits. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility.
Cardiovascular fitness (Cardio)
Defined as ‘the efficiency of the heart, lungs and vascular system in delivering blood and oxygen to the working muscles’, it can be anything that gets your heart beating and the blood pumping.
In order for the body to improve at any given task whether it be strength. or cardio or anything else, it needs to be challenged. Once pushed a little out of its comfort zone, it will be forced to make the necessary physiological adaptations and become more adept at what it is being asked to do. This is known as the principle of ‘overload’.
Imagine a scale of 1 – 10 with 1 being when you get out of bed in the morning and 10 being total exhaustion when you are simply unable to take another step. Aim for at least 6. Here you should still be able to hold a conversation but you have to breathe more regularly than usual. Remember, this is an individual assessment of how you are feeling personally, and not your judgement of your fitness levels compared to anyone else’s. Equally, for one person a relatively slow walk might get them to a 6 but for someone who is very fit, they would need to do much more to get to there.
How much is enough?
Current guidelines recommend 150 minutes of this kind of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise) per week. This can be broken down into smaller chunks eg 5 lots of 30 minutes. In fact, it is better to keep moving regularly rather than sit for most of the week and then do all your activity in one go.
Traditionally thought of as the domain of body builders, the importance of strength training in all of our routines is becoming ever more apparent. From the age of 30 (!) our muscle mass starts to decline at up to 5% per decade. This affects not only the aesthetic, but also our function and quality of life. For example, when older people cannot get out of the chair, it is often simply due to the loss of strength in their lower body. If you have ever had your arm or leg in plaster, you will have seen first hand the impact of muscle wastage through lack of use. The message is simple: use it or lose it!
But there’s more. Muscle is metabolically active. In other words, it burns calories/energy even at rest in a way that fat doesn’t. As our muscle mass declines, so too does the amount of calories our body burns causing weight gain. Build muscle and you automatically increase your base metabolic rate.
The power of strength training doesn’t stop there. Post menopause, the associated hormonal changes can eventually cause osteoporosis in some women. Strength training, or indeed any kind of weight bearing activity, can help slow down and prevent this.
Fear not, it doesn’t have to be scary and there’s certainly no need to hit the gym! Simple bodyweight exercises such as squats, lunges, or press ups will do the trick, or join a class which uses light weights or other resistance equipment such as exercise bands. We have a number of classes dedicated to improving strength in a safe environment with like-minded women. They are lots of fun and very effective.
It is recommended to include a minimum of 2 sessions of strength training covering all the major muscle groups in your weekly routine. To help with time management, they can be combined with cardio if necessary.
Often overlooked in favour of more vigorous activity, flexibility deserves just as much airtime as the previous two. Over time our muscles can become short and tight. Take a look around and you will see lots of people with curved backs, rounded shoulders, or an upper body that looks like it is permanently flexed forwards. This is often caused by muscles which have shortened compromising the joins, impacting on posture and potentially causing injury and pain.
How long and how often?
It is always important to stretch post exercise, but in the desire to finish up, they can end up being a little rushed. Some people confess to not doing any at all which is definitely to be avoided!
However, if you are looking to improve your flexibility rather than just maintain it, stretching needs to be given a section of its own. That way you can concentrate on stretching out each of the major muscles. Each stretch should be held for at least 30 seconds using the power of breathing and the connection of mind and body to release the tension and gradually increase the stretch. It’s a wonderful stress reliever too!
It would be brilliant and very beneficial to stretch every day but better to be realistic in terms of what you feel able to maintain. Consistency is key so commit to what you can manage.
- an exercise routine that is multi-faceted is the way forward.
- choose what you can realistically achieve. Build up gradually and go for consistency over quantity.
- to help with this, find something you enjoy. ‘Should’ is never a sufficient motivator.
- don’t be afraid to ask for help from a qualified professional, it can help keep you safe and make all the difference to your results.
So, are you getting enough?! Let me know!