Is it running, cycling, swimming, weight training, yoga, Zumba or spin class? Does it need to be at a fitness center or at a gym? Are personal trainers a necessity?
The short answer is that although any form of exercise is good, it is great to be able to exercise in a balanced fashion, as is addressed below. It is desirable to get our hearts pumping, our chests heaving, our cheeks flushed and sweat dripping out of our pores. It is also important to have fun! We don’t need to be gym rats to get sufficient exercise, and although personal trainers are great, we can do without.
One of the main goals of exercise is to improve our physical fitness. Physical fitness has a number of parts: cardiovascular or aerobic fitness in which the heart and lungs have adapted to endurance efforts; musculo-skeletal fitness in which our muscles and underlying bony framework have adapted to bearing loads and working against resistance leaving our muscles sinewy, strong and toned; core strength that implies fitness of our trunk muscles that allows us to have good posture, stability and a good sense of balance and coordination; additionally, our core strength serves as a platform for efficient use of our arms and legs; flexibility fitness in which our muscles are elastic, limber and supple and more resistant to injury. If we can find an exercise regimen that has all of the aforementioned components, we are on the right track.
Exercise is all about adaptation. Our bodies are remarkably adaptable to the stresses that we place upon them. This is why both endurance and resistance exercises get easier the more effort we put into doing them. The heart, lungs and muscles adapt and a “new normal” level of fitness is achieved.
Fitness attained through exercise is essential in helping to maintaining good health at any age. Exercise has physical, psychological, and social benefits for which there is no substitute. Exercise helps control blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and will lower the risk for angina, heart attacks, claudication (pain in the legs and buttocks associated with insufficient blood flow), strokes, and sexual dysfunction. Exercise will help the cardiovascular system, the lungs, muscle tone and strength, posture, and bone mineralization. Exercise promotes weight loss, makes us feel and look better, improves our well being and outlook on life, and helps us achieve peace of mind. It will help prevent injuries, help us deal with stress, combat depression, keep us alert during the day, and sleep more soundly at night. Exercise will help prolong our lives and maintain the highest quality of existence. Exercise is the miraculous, magical, life-saving tonic that can do all of the above and so much more.
- Any activity is better than no activity: For example, tennis is better than table tennis but table tennis trumps sitting in the Lay-Z-Boy recliner. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the term applied to how we reap major benefits through thousands of minor movements each day. Essentially, it is the body’s means of fighting inertia. Certain people do not gain weight despite increased caloric intake because of compensation via subconscious movements including taking the stairs; trotting down the hall to the water cooler; bustling about with chores; even fidgeting in one’s seat.
- Any time spent moving is better than no time moving: Working out for an hour or more is desirable, but even if you have only ten minutes, it is better than no minutes!
- Shake it up: The concept of balance is a good one, mixing it up for variety, fun and cross-training purposes and to avoid stagnation and routine. Remember, balanced fitness is aerobic (endurance/cardiovascular), strength, core, flexibility and balance. It is nice to participate in a variety of different exercises. For this reason, I think the P90x workout on dvd (www.beachbody.com) really passes muster—it simply covers it all. If you prefer something outdoors, consider an activity that you initially might not think of as exercise per say. Take “real labor”—such as cutting firewood—it has all of the aforementioned components. “Synergistic” exercise, which emphasizes using multiple muscles working together in synchrony, is what we use in real life—it is really beneficial if we can simulate this in the gym versus doing isolated muscle exercises.
- Carve out the time for it: It is easy to find reasons for not exercising. Common excuses are long workdays and time spent commuting that does not allow enough time in the day for exercise. By making exercise time “sacred” such that it can only be interfered with under emergency circumstances, it will help ensure its happening. Clearly, some of the time spent in our sedentary leisure activities, such as watching television, could alternatively be devoted to more active and healthy pursuits. My attitude has always been that if I have the time to eat, shower and use the bathroom, then I have the time to exercise.
- Persistence: Once we have established a routine and have allotted the time to exercise on a regular basis, the key is to persevere and not to allow complacency to mess with our regimen. Once we are “cruising” along, it becomes so much easier to maintain our schedule than to stop and then start up again. It is an astonishing fact to me that the Tour de France cyclists, arguably the most fit aerobic athletes in the world, generally engage in a three hour or so ride on their rest day! Why? Simply because too little activity on rest day would lead to a sluggish performance on the following day, a potential disastrous occurrence in a grueling three-week marathon.
- Be an active spectator: I am an advocate of exercising while being a fan. So, when I watch the Jet game, I might do so while on the treadmill walking up an incline for 30-60 minutes at 3.5 mph, instead of sitting on the couch munching on chips and dip. It is really a painless way of getting in some exercise while enjoying a diversion.
- Integrational exercise: This is exercise that is incorporated into our daily activities. So, park the car as far away from the shops at the mall as possible and walk to the stores. Self-park instead of valet parking. Power vacuum your home, mix batter for a cake by hand as opposed to using an electric mixer, open cans with a hand opener as opposed to an electric opener, walk the golf course instead of taking the cart, etc. You get it—gardening, snow shoveling, mowing the lawn, sawing tree branches, walking the dog, carrying a heavy laundry basket, taking out the recycling, carrying your child on your back, dancing, anything at all that involves movement can actually be good exercise without the need for an expensive gym membership.
- Tailor your exercise to your needs and desires: What is the right fitness regimen for you? Anything you like, as long as it gets your heart pumping, your lungs expanding, and your sweat glands secreting. Swimming, tennis, racquetball, jumping rope, kayaking, rowing, trekking, cross-country skiing, ice skating, team sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball or hockey, aerobics class, spin class, kick-boxing or Pilates, martial arts training, salsa or belly dancing, gymnastics, clog dancing or ballet—all qualify. Playing Nintendo’s Wii Fit is another option to get you moving and off your derriere. What does matter is that you find some activities that you like and that you stick with them! Exercise needs to be customized to our individual personalities. Some people avoid exercise because they are not goal-oriented, they do not enjoy the actual exercise process, or because their self-image is at odds with the image of the models promoted by the fitness industry. “Conventional” exercise is typically goal-oriented and often competitive with an emphasis placed on performance, with the ultimate objective of achieving fitness, wellness, maintaining or losing weight, and a healthy physical appearance. The “holistic” approach is more focused on the inner experience and energy, the self-actualizing process and journey—with more emphasis on engagement, connection, and tuning “in.” It has a meditative and philosophical level to it with a goal of achieving a calm and relaxed state. Yoga, tai chi and qigong are good examples of holistic exercises.
So, whoever you are, what is most important with regard to exercise is that you actually DO some sort of exercise. Tailor it your specific mindset, but be sure to that it’s not just your mind that is experiencing the workout!
Andrew Siegel, M.D.