So, you want to get started on fitness? It’s never too late to get into shape. Whether you’re looking to improve your stamina, strength or suppleness my beginner’s guide will show you how to do it enjoyably and effectively.
The main components of fitness are the three ‘S’s: stamina, strength and suppleness. Each attribute brings different body and health benefits and requires a different type of exercise to achieve.
Building your stamina
To improve stamina (your ability to ‘keep going’), you need to do aerobic or ‘cardiovascular’ exercise. Cardiovascular exercise is the type that really helps your heart — even 30 minutes walking a day can lower bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and reduce blood pressure — and its high energy demand helps you shed excess pounds too.
This kind of training generally uses the large muscles of the body, such as legs, back and chest, and is of a reasonably prolonged nature (in other words, 20 minutes, rather than a few minutes). It should be intense enough to make you warm, sweaty and a little breathless but not so intense that you can’t sustain it for any length of time.
If you are able to maintain a conversation (albeit a slightly breathless one!) you’ve got the intensity right. To begin with, duration rather than intensity matters. The tougher stuff comes later on!
Increasing your strength
Strength training, as the name suggests, is all about improving the strength of your muscles. But even if you aren’t interested in building up your biceps or streamlining your thighs, this type of exercise is important because it strengthens the ‘connective’ tissues, such as ligaments and tendons, and helps to preserve bone density, so you are more pain and injury-resilient.
There are also benefits that are nothing to do with the muscles and joints. A higher muscle mass helps to preserve your metabolic rate as you get older (when normally, it would be falling). Strength training also enhances the body’s glucose uptake, lowering the risk of diabetes, and can help you maintain a healthy blood pressure.
Strength training (or ‘resistance training’) is traditionally done in a gym using weights but that’s certainly not the only way to do it! As long as the muscles have to ‘resist’ an external force that is higher than what they are used to, they will get stronger. Whether that force is a dumbbell, elastic resistance tube or even gravity, is unimportant, as far as your muscles are concerned. There are many exercises you can do yourself, without equipment at home.
Increasing Your Suppleness
Finally, let’s look at flexibility. People usually think suppleness means being able to wrap your legs around your neck, or at least touch your toes, but really, it’s just about being able to move your joints and muscles through their full range of motion. As we age, our flexibility declines rapidly as collagen fibres within the muscles stiffen.
It’s vital that we stretch and mobilise regularly, to ensure that we don’t end up stiff and immobile, with short, tight muscles. Good flexibility is an asset both in daily life (reaching that top shelf) and sport (stretching out to return a tennis ball over the net) and being supple helps you maintain good posture, as well as minimising your risk of getting injured during activity.
I recommend that we include all three types of training in our weekly regime. The table below offers guidelines on how much we should be doing of each type. But don’t worry if it’s beginning to sound as if getting fit is destined to take up half your waking hours, there are many ways you can fit in exercise to improve your stamina, strength and suppleness.
|AEROBIC EXERCISE||3-5 workouts per week|
|STRENGTH TRAINING||2-3 days per week|
|FLEXIBILITY TRAINING||2-3 days per week|
You may not think that merely putting a bit more effort into your daily activities would have much impact on your overall fitness, but think again. By combining daily ‘lifestyle activity’ with more structured workouts can lead to considerable fitness benefits.
Now we have an idea of what fitness is all about, how are we going to make it happen? Devoting time to structured workouts (whether they be to build strength, improve aerobic fitness or enhance posture and flexibility) is essential.
But there’s no use putting in weekly gym sessions if you spend the rest of your time sprawled out on the sofa or hunched in front of the computer. By fitting in exercise, your daily routine can make an enormous difference to your health and fitness.
Fitness is best achieved through a combination of ‘lifestyle activity’ and structured exercise. In other words, combining focused workouts with a more physically active and physically ‘aware’ lifestyle.
Many of us become increasingly out of touch with our bodies as we get older and less active, so that when we do try to exercise we often do it badly, inefficiently and occasionally harm ourselves in the process. Improving your body awareness is an easy lifestyle step to take in improving your fitness — both by making better use of the time you spend seated at a desk, in your car or walking around — and also in maximising the benefits you get from exercise.
You may not think that merely putting a bit more effort into your daily activities would have much impact on your overall fitness, but think about this: even if you were a very enthusiastic gym goer, and worked out for an hour five days a week, that would still only amount to five hours out of a possible 168 hours of the week. If you are inactive the rest of the time (those other 163 hours!), that structured exercise is not going to have such a great impact on your overall fitness.
Next week, we will look at ways you can put the lifestyle activity side of things into practice, whether you’ve got two minutes or 20 minutes to spare.