It’s no secret that exercise is key to better health, but many of us embark on a new fitness journey with a specific goal in mind.
Perhaps you’d like to boost your mental health, gain muscle or improve your stamina so you can exercise for longer. Not to mention how spending hours sitting at a desk may mean some of us look for ways to alleviate back and or joint pain. That, alongside balancing work and life commitments, can take a toll on our resilience too, so if you want to feel good, the right exercise regime can work wonders.
Luke Weston, Junior Physiologist at AXA PPP Healthcare, addresses common fitness goals and manageable ways to achieve them.
Improving all-round fitness
- Start slowly, so exercise is sustainable. If you go from living a very sedentary lifestyle to suddenly spending hours each day being physically active, the chances are you will burn out. Instead, it’s best to start slow and build up your workout routine.
- Find a routine you enjoy. Achieving your goal through exercise will be much more likely if you enjoy the workouts you are doing. But, if the very thought of ‘workouts’ or ‘exercise’ is off-putting, see it more as adding ‘movement’ and ‘enrichment’ into your life. Think adventurously - explore your local area on a light jog or dance to your favourite songs in a Zumba class. Varying your routine, or exercising in a group, can also help you stick to a regime.
- Be patient — results don’t happen overnight. Getting fitter and healthier is not a race, it’s about sustained progress. Be kind to yourself and try not to compare yourself to others.
Gaining muscle varies depending on genetics. What’s seen as optimal for one person is not necessarily best for another, so experiment with your workouts to find what feels comfortable for you.
- Consider lifting weights. Lifting weights carries a whole host of benefits, such as improved balance and coordination, along with increased strength and greater muscle size. This helps to make everyday tasks, like carrying shopping bags and cleaning, much easier which contributes to a higher quality of life for longer. For women going through the menopause especially, weightlifting can help to maintain bone density. If you’re trying gym equipment for the first time, consult a fitness professional about the correct technique to use. Otherwise, you may wish to master your bodyweight first with exercises like pushups and planks before progressing to weights. At first, your own bodyweight can be enough to stimulate muscle growth and strengthening. As you progress however, you may find the need for additional weight.
- It’s all about the sets. The main route to gaining muscle is increasing the number of sets of exercises you complete. For optimal muscle growth, start with 10 sets per muscle group, such as triceps, each week. Over time, this can be increased to twenty sets, depending on the amount of recovery time. Start with compound movements, such as multi-joint exercises like squats or deadlifts; these will work multiple muscle groups at once, giving you great ‘bang for your buck’. You can also complement these with ‘isolation movements’, which are single joint exercises that typically focus on one muscle group. Seek expert help so you get the basics right and don’t risk pulling a muscle or injuring your joints.
- Prioritise protein. As well as exercise, it’s important to eat an adequate amount of protein to allow muscle growth to occur. For muscle building, 1.6-2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day is recommended. If you weigh 70kg, you will need to eat 112-140g of protein each day. For context, an average protein shake has approximately 20g of protein, with a chicken breast containing 40g.
- Try cardiovascular exercises. Doing cardio helps to enhance physical stamina, as well as overall cardiovascular health, as it taxes the heart, lungs and cardiovascular system. Stamina can generally be improved relatively quickly, but it can also be lost just as easily – so consistency is crucial. Cardio can also help to lower blood pressure. Have some goals in mind and aim to beat your personal best by a little bit each time.
- Have a go at HIIT. If you’re pushed for time, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can be completed in less than half an hour. HIIT can be any form of exercise, so long as it is performed intensely in short intervals. For example, you may want to set up a circuit of exercises, doing 30 seconds of one, with a 10 second rest before the next one, or do intervals on one piece of equipment, like a rowing machine. Due to the intense nature of HIIT, two to three sessions a week is more than enough - beyond this, recovery can become compromised.
Protecting heart health
- Resistance training is as beneficial as cardio. Studies show that resistance training — including bodyweight and weight training — can be just as effective as cardio in protecting heart health.1 A brisk walk, or steady state swimming or running, all count as cardio exercises. Resistance exercises include leg presses and abdominal crunches. In fact, resistance training is a great form of cardio itself! If you’re currently suffering from a heart condition, Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) exercises are the safest way to work out. Always consult your specialist before embarking on a new exercise regime to see what your body can, or can’t, do.
- Avoid lifting if you have an existing heart condition. Exercises that involve lifting overhead aren’t recommended because this forces the cardiovascular system to work against gravity, which can greatly increase blood pressure.
- It’s also best to avoid ‘isometric exercises’, which contract a particular muscle or group of muscles, like the plank. These exercises restrict blood vessels, whereas normal contractions release tension between reps, causing blood pressure to drop.
- Consistency is important. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to lengthen. A great way to improve flexibility is by static stretching, which involves standing, sitting or lying still in a particular position and holding it for a short period of time. This should be done frequently to really see the benefits. Try to stretch at least three to four times a week to improve range of motion - this can be built up overtime if need be.
- Combine stretching with resistance training. To really feel the benefits of static stretching, combine it with resistance training to help make the newfound range of motion more permanent. Resistance training helps to build strength in that new movement, letting our bodies know that it is ‘safe’ to move that far. Use exercises that can help you achieve this, such as straight-leg deadlifts or chest flyes. A chest flye is where you lie with your head and shoulders supported by the bench, then raise dumbbells directly above your chest, before lowering the weights in an arc as far as you comfortably can. It’s important to build up the range of motion and weights gradually.
- Try LISS. Low Intensity Steady State exercises (LISS), like Pilates, Tai Chi, Yoga and even walking, are not only seen to help increase flexibility, but can alleviate feelings of stress too. This is because the deep breathing involved in these exercises helps to release tension in the body. Having to focus on our body’s movements also helps us to be mindful and stay calm.
Managing back pain
- Move more. Remedy back pain by moving more in multiple ways, not just front to back, like many common exercises. A weak core is often to blame for lower back pain, but it’s easily addressed by increasing the flexibility of hip flexors, as well as strengthening abdominal and glute muscles. Why not try hip thrusts, squats or lunges?
- Make time. We all lead busy lifestyles, meaning exercise can fall by the wayside. But it’s important to make time for movement, whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the lift or a brisk walk at lunchtime. Home workouts are also an effective starting point for an active lifestyle.
- Speak to a health professional. Back pain is a common symptom of a sedentary lifestyle, with nearly half (46%) of workers sitting at work for four to six hours per day. If you are suffering from lower or upper back pain, visit your GP or physiologist.
To boost mental health
- Every little helps. Moving your body in any way can make you feel great because exercise naturally releases endorphins - the chemicals that our bodies make to relieve pain or stress.
- Do what you love. Try a range of exercises until you find one you love. It may soon become a habit that brings you happiness! Knowing you’ll feel great after a session will give you the motivation you need to keep going.
- Achieve mindfulness with Pilates and Tai-Chi. These exercises are centered around the mind-body connection which allows us to ‘slow down’ and be present with our bodies. As we relax into the different stretches and poses, we create a meditative, mindful state which is beneficial for our overall health and wellbeing.
Whatever your goal, warm up your body
Crucially, always remember to stretch after exercising. Whichever way you choose to work out, overdoing it can put a strain on your body and even cause injury. To avoid this, warm up by slowly increasing pace and/or speed over time. Do two to three stretches for both the lower and upper body, then hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Do the same post-exercise too.
If you don’t feel fully warmed up, do additional stretches or repeat ones you have already done once or twice more. If you do experience an injury, avoid high impact exercises like running or burpees. Instead, opt for gentler forms of cardio like swimming.
Before switching up your lifestyle, or trying new forms of fitness, always consult your GP. They can assess your needs and identify which exercises will work best for you. Whatever your goal, consistency is key. It isn’t about being perfect, but rather steady improvement and feeling better. How can you achieve this? By finding an exercise you can enjoy, because then you’re more likely to stick to it. Mix it up and combine different activities so you don’t get bored. Be realistic; there’s no need to suddenly hit the gym five times a week. You’re far more likely to stick to a routine if you work out every so often. Find a way to fitness that’s fun for you, so it becomes a habit for life.
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1 Iowa State University. "Weightlifting is good for your heart and it doesn't take much." ScienceDaily. (Accessed July 1, 2020)