By Daniel Leemon
The New Normal world is becoming more health-driven every day, with our lifestyle choices coming under intense scrutiny as every new bit of information emerges. Aside from diet, exercise is the main player in this unwavering journey towards the utopia of wholesomeness, but how much do we really know about exercise? Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our routines.
There is a multi-million-dollar industry out there intent on helping us achieve longer, healthier lives, and, when it comes to exercise, it is no longer a case of “go for a run and get a sweat on.” The information available has become much more detailed, and, if you are serious about using exercise to improve your health, you must now consider what is called “the science of exercise.”
Aerobic workouts are undoubtedly still number one when it comes to exercise, and the rule of thumb is simple: if you can’t walk up the stairs without getting slightly out of breath, you need to find something aerobic to do. The obvious choices are the same as they have ever been: running, swimming or cycling. But this is far too narrow a view.
The basic requirement is that you find something which works your cardiovascular system and speeds up your heart rate and breathing. This is important for many reasons. It gives your lungs and heart a workout, gets more blood to the muscles around your body to help them work more efficiently, burns more body fat, and increases your overall endurance.
And if you study it closely, there is more. A good aerobic workout helps to relax blood vessel walls, thus helping to maintain a healthy blood flow and keep your temperature from getting too low. It can also lower blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of a stroke which can come about due to the weakening of your brain’s blood vessels, and reduce the likelihood of blood clots forming in your arteries. It can lower blood sugar levels, thus reducing the risk of diabetes. It can increase the amount of “good” HDL cholesterol in your body, which then effectively fights the “bad” LDL cholesterol. And, let’s face it, it also simply makes you feel good and lightens your mood.
Remember, if running, swimming or cycling seem like a bridge too far at present, you can do something else. Walking at a brisk pace is a good start, and walking rapidly on a treadmill when it is inclined five percent or more will surprise you in its intensity. If you are extremely unfit and even that is too much, try marching in place, lifting your knees as high as possible, alternating between two steps forward and two steps back, or whatever else takes your fancy.
Or you can join an aerobics class, do some yoga (which combines other types of healthy exercise), go boxercising or any other form of circuit training, do some household chores like mowing the garden or washing the car - in fact, anything which requires effort and makes you sweat.
That said, while we all agree that aerobic exercise is the undisputed daddy of healthy types of exercise, it's even better when combined with other forms of exercise. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
So in addition to aerobic exercise, there is strength training, which is very important for weight loss, and gets even more important as we age and lose muscle mass. This reduces our ability to do all those things we take for granted when younger, like standing up after sitting down, lifting things, climbing the stairs, carrying the shopping, and all the other little things that can really show our age.
Strength training helps to build up your muscles and gain a bit of respectability in your old age. Or, if you’re still young and full of beans, it helps you to stand out from the crowd by being stronger and more able, and looking bigger or leaner too.
Again, if you look more closely, strength training does other stuff too. It can stimulate bone growth which, despite the fact that most people achieve peak bone mass by the time they hit 30, can help combat osteoporosis, a disorder which causes bone to become fragile and eventually split or break, seriously impairing mobility. It can help with weight loss because you consume much more oxygen after your exercise than you do after aerobic exercise, or, in layman's terms, you burn more fat while doing anything after you have engaged in strength training. It can help to improve your posture since certain muscles are better disposed to hold your body up. It reduces stress and pain in parts of your body that can be overworked if they are doing a certain job on their own. And it can lower the risk of heart disease since it helps correct issues directly related to it, like obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
There are always some people who will say that strength training is not for them for a number of reasons, like they’re too old, or they want to stay slim in order to play their favorite sports which may require endurance, or they don’t want to look too bulky (primarily women). The answers are, in order: being too old is just an excuse and it’s all relative, so just do light weights; strength training increases muscle endurance, which helps with endurance sports; and, if you train the right way, you will get lean, not bulky.
And the good thing is that strength training does not have to include a gym since there are many things you can do at home. You can do squats, pull ups, lunges, push ups, and anything else a creative mind can conjure up.
We then come to balance exercises, which help to improve your posture, make you steadier on your feet, and help to prevent embarrassing and potentially harmful falls (especially in older people when the things that give you good balance, like your inner ears, vision and leg joints, start to deteriorate). They also help you to be better at just about any sport you partake in.
While many health centers and gyms offer balance-specific classes, like yoga or tai chi, it is again so easy to help yourself and avoid the trouble and expense. You can practice standing on one foot, then vary it by twisting your torso one way and then the other. You can walk along heel to toe, then raise the bar by doing it with your eyes closed. You can try walking on uneven surfaces, or you can stand on one foot and raise the other leg up to your chest, or as far as you can, then switch feet and repeat.
Finally, we have stretching exercises, which are more than just stretching your muscles before a game of soccer, and become more important the older we get. Our muscles tend to shorten with age and don’t function as efficiently, which means that we suffer an increased risk of muscle cramps and pain, muscle damage, and joint pain. It also becomes more difficult to do ordinary things, like bending down or picking things up. In short, we lose flexibility as our muscles contract.
Stretching helps to lengthen our muscles and makes them more flexible, thus increasing our range of motion, reducing potential pain in muscle joints, and lessening the chances of injury. You can start with a few dynamic stretches, like soft forward lunges, arm circles, leg kicks, or anything that helps to get blood to your muscles.
Then you can perform static stretching exercises for individual muscles - calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, among others - and really start lengthening those muscles. The important thing is not to overstretch (which you know you are doing when you feel pain), since it only serves to tighten the muscles, the opposite of what you want. Instead, take each stretch to the point of being uncomfortable and then hold it for five to 10 seconds, and then repeat at least three times. Then repeat this a few times during the day.
Then there are a new breed of stretching exercises, like yoga, pilates, qigong and tai chi, which are more extreme and beneficial to the body, and actually combine different forms of exercise in addition to “stretching.”
So there you have it: exercising in all its forms to achieve overall health, lead a better and less painful lifestyle, reduce the risk of multiple diseases and conditions, and, hopefully, live longer.
And to reiterate an earlier point, exercise also, quite simply, makes you feel good and lightens your mood.