If the mere mention of exercise brings you out in a cold sweat, then you probably haven't indulged in much physical activity since the days when you were forced to head out in all weathers for the obligatory school PE lessons.
The news that getting fit can actually be enjoyable may therefore come as something of a surprise. It is, of course, also very good for your health.
Regular physical activity has been proven time and again to help ward off diseases such as stroke, diabetes and heart disease. Some forms of exercise can also protect against osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease that affects one in twelve men. And in terms of weight loss, the benefits of keeping fit are unquestionable.
Sports scientists have found that regular exercise does far more than keep us in trim. It can affect our mood, even leave us better able to cope with the stresses and pressures of modern life. Going out for some exercise, even if it is just a walk, will produce physical patterns of change that may also be beneficial to psychological health. Studies have shown that physical activity increases levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which influence the areas of the brain that control mood.
Exercise also reduces stress. In one study, unfit male students were asked to spend ten weeks taking part in an aerobic fitness programme, a relaxation programme, or a discussion group. They were then asked to take part in a very stressful (non-physical) competition. The men in the exercise group not only performed better in the test but also experienced significantly less anxiety, depression and fatigue following the competition than the men in the other two groups.
So, a regular workout out is probably going to leave you looking good, feeling good and less susceptible to a wide range of illnesses. But where do you begin?
How fit are you?
To find out the areas you may need to pay particular attention to, try the following fitness tests. If you repeat the tests every six weeks or so once you've started to increase your physical activity levels, you'll be able to measure how much you've improved.
Before you start, however, check whether you are healthy enough to start an unsupervised exercise programme — see are you fit to get fit?
Warm up thoroughly before attempting these tests: 5—10 minutes brisk walking should be sufficient.
The step test
This tests for cardiovascular fitness. You will need a bench, sturdy box or a step about 8—10 inches high. Check your heart rate before you start, by placing two fingers on the inside of your wrist, counting the number of beats over a 15-second period (begin the counting with 0 rather than 1 — go "0, 1, 2, 3, etc."), and multiplying by four to give you a result for one minute. Then keeping your back straight, your hands on your hips and your abdominal muscles tucked in, begin stepping up to and down from the box. Keep upright — don't lean forward. Maintain a steady but fast pace for two minutes, aiming to take about 40 steps per minute. Then sit down and take your pulse again. Subtract the first figure from the second figure — what's the difference?
- Less than 10 beats a minute — indicates a good level of aerobic fitness
- 10 beats a minute — average aerobic fitness
- More than 10 beats a minute — below average aerobic fitness
The strength test
Strong muscles not only look good, but they are important for supporting the skeleton and maintaining good posture. How many consecutive push-ups/press-ups can you manage to perform without taking a rest?
- Less than 5 — low strength levels
- 5—10 — average strength
- More than 10 — good strength
The reliability of this test depends on you performing the press-ups correctly. First, lie on the floor on your stomach with your hands flat on the floor beside your shoulders. Then push your body up and straighten your arms while keeping your back and legs straight. Finally, lower your body by bending your elbows until your chest is just off the floor. This is one complete press-up.
On flat ground measure out 20 metres in a straight line (about twenty medium length paces). Ask someone to time you while you run the distance at top speed. What is your time?
- 8 seconds or more — too slow
- 5—8 seconds — reasonable pace
- Less than 5 seconds — fast pace
For any fitness programme, and for daily life in general, it's important that you maintain a good level of flexibility so that you can move your muscles through a full range around joints. This test will tell you how flexible you are in your hamstring muscles and lower back.
Sit on the floor with your legs together and directly out in front of you. Your bottom and back should be against a wall or door. Slowly lean forward towards your toes. How far can you reach with your fingertips?
- To your knees — poor flexibility
- Between your knees and ankles — reasonable flexibility
- To your ankles or beyond — excellent flexibility
Test how long your muscles can keep working at intensity with this simple test. Stand with your back against a wall and move your body down and your feet out until your knees are bent at right angles to the floor. Maintain that position for as long as you can. How long can you sit there?
- Less than 30 seconds — poor strength endurance
- Between 30 seconds and 1 minute — reasonable strength endurance
- More than 1 minute — excellent strength endurance
What to do?
Regular aerobic exercise is essential for reducing body fat. It has been shown to raise your metabolic rate even after you stop working out — so you are burning calories while you sleep.
Your initial goal should be to exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes a day for three days a week. Over a few weeks, try to increase this to five days a week — believe it or not, exercising at even this level is enough to provide major health benefits, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine. The even better news is that each 30 minutes of exercise needn't be in one session — it can be accumulated throughout the day in chunks of least 10 minutes.
Moderate exercise includes walking fast or briskly, swimming, table tennis, golf, dancing, heavy DIY (e.g. mixing cement), digging the garden and heavy housework — in fact, virtually anything that raises the heartbeat and leaves you feeling slightly warm and slightly out-of-breath.
As you get fitter, aim to increase your level of exercise to two or three continuous and vigorous 20—30 minute aerobic workouts each week. This level of exercise — which includes running, fast cycling and rowing — provides the optimum health benefits.
Malehealth's Exercise Suite will contain more information about aerobic exercise shortly.
But resistance work is important too. Research by the American College of Sports Medicine recommends including some strength training on two to three days a week. Conditioning your major muscle groups will help to remove fat, increase muscle bulk and further boost your metabolism, enabling your body to burn calories at a much faster rate. The safest and easiest way to improve your strength is to use weights machines in a gym.
Malehealth's Exercise Suite will contain more information about strength exercise shortly.
Stretching to improve flexibility should form an important part of any fitness programme. The American College of Sports Medicine issued revised guidelines about stretching in 1998, which suggest that most people should try to do some stretching at least twice a week to increase their range of motion around a joint and muscular performance. Regular stretching will not only increase your flexibility, it will also help protect you against an exercise-related injury.
How can I stay motivated?
A few years ago a national campaign to get us off our sofas and exercising used the slogan "The hardest thing about getting fit is getting started". What it failed to mention was that staying fit involves a fair bit of effort too. A fitness programme that seemed such a good idea when you first jogged a lap of the park, kick-boxed your way through a class or paddled a few lengths of the local pool can quickly lose its appeal when the weather gets colder, work gets more stressful or when you don't seem to be losing weight as quickly as you thought you would.
Sad to say, most newly-pledged vows of fitness are broken within the first year, while 60% of gym members throw in the towel less than six months after forking out their registration fee. But what is it that sets the exercise recidivists aside from the committed enthusiasts who manage to get fit and stay fit? The answer is simple: motivation. If you can train your mind at the same time as getting your body into shape, nothing will stand in your way. See if these suggestions help:
Make friends with your body
Trying to get fit will be a constant struggle if you think of your body as an enemy that needs to be punished. Take a good look at yourself in the mirror, and learn to deal with your body as it is now; check out your good points and try to accept any imperfections. People who get depressed about the way they look are more likely to get caught in a vicious cycle of skipping workouts and then comforting themselves with food.
Get fit for yourself
Before you make a commitment to get fit, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Get fit because you want to feel good about yourself, for example, not because someone has criticised you for being unfit. Similarly, if you decide to get fit simply to lose weight, you will probably find that the inspiration dwindles once you have reached your target weight.
You don't have to do it
Always remember that however you decide to keep fit, it is supposed to be fun. Some people develop a misguided sense of duty and feel obliged to carry on exactly as they started. But if you don't enjoy what you are doing, don't do it! Try something different: if you usually work out alone, try exercising with a group; if you usually run, try cycling or roller-blading. A change can be a refreshing way to rekindle your enthusiasm.
Just one step
If cold weather is making you reluctant to leave your living room, or you simply don't feel like exercising, try telling yourself that you will just do 10 minutes of running instead of 20 minutes, or 15 minutes of weights work rather than 30 minutes. By the time you have done the small amount you will probably have found the incentive to carry on.
Stay on track
Nobody's pretending that staying fit is easy all the time. There will be days when you will feel too tired to do anything, or times when commitments to your family, partner or job disrupt your exercise programme. But that's the nature of the beast. The key is not to dwell on missed workouts, but to put them behind as soon as you can. You don't become unfit overnight.
One of the best ways to keep motivated is to set regular goals for yourself. Plan ahead and jot down what you want to achieve from your workouts. Maybe you want to run a regular route in a certain, faster time, or cycle for ten minutes longer than usual. One of the main goals of exercise is to finish feeling that you have achieved something, and there is always something to aim for. Don't go out and exercise aimlessly.
Accentuate the positive
Just as exercising regularly week after week will eventually make you physically more powerful, so repeatedly focusing on your strengths and achievements will leave you psychologically stronger. Years of telling yourself that you can't get fit or lose weight could mean that you have made a habit of thinking negatively, but you can change that by proving yourself wrong. As you get fitter, focus on your success — landmarks of any size — and watch your self-confidence grow.
Should I join a gym?
Joining a gym can be an expensive but worthwhile investment. Many offer top equipment, instruction and a range of classes in safe, pleasant and sociable surroundings. However, the standard of gyms and health clubs can vary enormously and it is worth visiting a few before making your choice.
Questions you should ask
- Does the gym offer a personal assessment of your diet, lifestyle and medical history?
- Does it offer a personalised exercise programme with a supervised induction session?
- Is it affiliated to the Fitness Industry Association? This requires its members to adhere to strict standards.
- Are the rooms well-ventilated or air-conditioned?
- Are the instructors qualified? Most should possess either an RSA, YMCA or NVQ certificate.
- Does the gym have the facilities you want or need? If your main interest is swimming, for example, you should make sure the pool is at least 25 metres long.
- Do classes take place in a room or studio with a sprung floor which will protect your joints against pounding?
- Are there long waits for equipment at the busiest times? In fact, you should visit the gym at the time you're most likely to use it to see for yourself.
The location of the gym is also important. For you to get your money's worth from the membership, the gym should be within easy access of your home or office.
1. Don't exercise with a cold
There's evidence that raising your heart rate through physical exertion when you have any sort of virus can cause serious harm. Taking a couple of days away from the gym may also help you recover more quickly.
2. Eat before you exercise — but not too soon
Most people find that eating immediately before exercising can lead to feelings of discomfort and cramps, especially if the foods are high in protein or fat, since they take a long time to digest. But it is important not to exercise on an empty stomach. The general guideline is to eat a light, high-carbohydrate meal (such as toast, a baked potato, pasta or bagels) two to three hours before exercise starts.
3. How to get rid of a stitch
Experts are unsure about precisely what causes a stitch, the stabbing pain in the side that commonly occurs during physical exertion, but if you get a stitch frequently, try leaving two to three hours between eating and exercise. You can lessen the likelihood of it happening by strengthening your abdominal muscles. If you do get a stitch while running, try bending forwards or twisting your trunk gently to ease the pain.
4. The best time to work out
Recent studies at Cambridge University have shown that muscle temperature and other physical parameters reach a peak in the later afternoon, so between 4 pm and 6 pm is probably the ideal time to go to the gym. For top athletes training at the right time of day to suit their body clock can actually be crucial. One American study at San Jose University showed that elite swimmers suffered a 10% drop in performance when they worked out at the "wrong" time of day. The researchers found that reaction time, which is crucial in sport, is at its peak at 4 pm, and that hand—eye co-ordination also hits a peak in the late afternoon. Psychologically, too, we often find it easier to tackle workouts later in the day, and studies have shown that evening exercisers are more likely to stick to their routines for longer.
5. Don't take calorie counters literally
A recent US study found that many pieces of gym equipment don't give accurate readings when it comes to the amount of calories you burn, and can even underestimate the distance you have completed by up to 5%. Most machines sold in the UK are calibrated according to a formula based on estimations for an average-sized person, and don't take into account differences in height and build. According to most manufacturers, however, the calculations that are displayed after your gut-wrenching slog on the treadmill will be 90—95% accurate for the majority of people, so you don't have to do it all again.
First drafted by Peta Bee
Page created on May 9th, 2003
Page updated on March 10th, 2010