Written by Tom Spring, M.S., ACSM HFS/CES, FAACVPR
Health, wellness and fitness become a central focus when our communities and families face health challenges. The good news is that many chronic conditions can be positively affected by lifestyle choices, including exercise. If you are already very fit and active, or if you are just starting to think about exercise and physical activity, having a plan of action to promote good health is very important.
Why is regular exercise key to our health? The human body is made to move. There are documented exercise-related benefits to practically every system in the body. The benefits to the cardiovascular system, muscle and bone may receive the most attention, but other systems also respond favorably to exercise. For example, the immune system of a trained person works better to fight both chronic and acute disease than the immune system of a sedentary person. Regardless of your age, sex, health status, genetics or race, being more physically active (as appropriate for you) will have a positive impact on your physiology, how your body works internally. This article will help you outline some key steps to better health and fitness.
Define Your Unique Goals, Program
First, you must have a goal. Many people decide to exercise after they learn that it might help them treat a health issue, such as obesity or diabetes. Some become fit to prevent a chronic disease deeply rooted in their family history. Others are active already, and they strive to achieve higher levels of performance at a given sport or activity. Whatever your motivation for starting or continuing an exercise program, having at least one clear, achievable goal is important. If you do not have a goal, your exercise will lack direction and purpose, and it will be difficult to sustain long-term. Many people have started an exercise program only to stop or “fall off the wagon” a few weeks later. Having a clear goal in mind will help provide the motivation to continue to exercise. Regardless of why you choose to exercise, building regular exercise into your daily routine is the most important ingredient to your success.
Next, evaluate where you are from a health standpoint. If you are under age 45 with no major health issues, and you are relatively fit, starting or adding to your exercise program should be safe for you. If you are older and still healthy (no cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.), but you have not exercised much recently, start with a walking program and some light resistance training to get your body primed for exercise. If you have chronic health issues, your first step should be to consult with your physician or health care provider for some direction on starting an exercise program.
Finally, your exercise program should be designed to help you meet your goals. This sounds complicated, but it does not need to be. For those just starting out with a goal of better health or lower blood pressure and cholesterol, your program should include some simple components. You could choose any moderate-intensity aerobic activity (walking, bicycling or swimming) that is sustained for more than ten minutes. These activities increase your energy expenditure above resting and are considered cardiovascular in nature. These types of exercises will cause an increase in your heart rate and breathing, but you should be able to carry on a conversation while performing these exercises. Exercises that stress individual muscles or movements using weight of any kind (i.e. dumbbells, body weight and bands) for a short duration would be considered resistance training. At a minimum, your weekly routine should incorporate two days of resistance exercise and multiple days of aerobic exercise. If you have not been exercising previously, start with 10-20 minutes of walking, biking, rollerblading or other cardiovascular exercise, and add a minute or two to your time each week. Shoot for three sessions each week, and add a day after three or four weeks to increase your exercise volume. Combining resistance and cardiovascular exercises is crucial for your overall fitness.
If you are already active, consider adding intensity and new exercise techniques, or consult with a trained professional for more direction and ideas. Training for a specific event often helps revamp your program with a goal (i.e. marathon or triathlon) that allows you to set up a program with a timeline and process. This is called periodization training, and it will enhance your exercise program and may provide a real boost to your motivation.
Listen to Your Body
Anyone with a chronic condition, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or arthritis, should first consult his/her physician prior to beginning an exercise program. Once you are cleared to exercise and have your doctor’s recommendations, there are a few things to consider. First, progress slowly by adding time, exercises and intensity to your routine with caution. Be sure your body has time to adjust to the stress exercise is providing. For example, if you are diabetic, check your blood sugar levels regularly to determine how well the levels are being controlled. Monitor your heart rate, and stay within a targeted heart rate range and below your pain threshold. These tips can help avoid over-taxing your system. Increasing exercise volume or intensity too quickly can lead to injury. But when done correctly, the health benefits you gain from exercise far outweigh risk of injury.
If you have any new pain or discomfort during or after exercise, you may need to rest or adjust your program. If joint pain appears during or after exercise, find ways to change your program to avoid the pain. Consult your physician or an exercise professional for direction and advice if you experience pain with exercise. Pain is your body’s signal that something is not right, so it is wise to listen to what your body is telling you. Although the likelihood of a heart attack during exercise is very small, all people should ensure they know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. If these symptoms are present, seek medical attention immediately.
Importantly, your chosen exercise plan should be personally fun and interesting. If you don’t enjoy the exercise, it will be very difficult to maintain your routine. Finding a partner or group with that has similar goals, fitness levels or health issues can be an important key to maintaining your commitment to exercise. An exercise buddy or support group is a great way to stay consistent and keep up the exercise on days you may not feel like it. Developing an exercise plan that fits your goals and needs is key, and exercise truly can have a positive effect on every body if it is done correctly and safely.
View the full fall 2011 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page supported by Liberty Mutual online.