Our planet moves. So does the rest of the solar system. But, in the middle of it all, human beings are becoming more and more sedentary. Latest government figures show that nearly half the British nation is overweight, some to the point of obesity. And the main culprit is simply lack of exercise.
Our bodies are designed to take in energy through food and expend it by exercise. Surplus sits around, stored as fat. However much you cut calories and fat intake (and we don’t think dieting is the best way of slimming, you won’t be able to lose weight efficiently and permanently unless you get moving.
Over the course of the 20th Century, our patterns of exercise have changed dramatically. Although our mothers and grandmothers probably never went to the gym, they might well have taken a brisk walk every day, or gone riding and, since there were no washing machines or vacuum cleaners, most of them would have exerted a lot of energy doing the housework. The trouble now is that to deal with what most of us have to get through in a day, we have to cut corners – dash into the car, take a lift or escalator, tumble-dry washing rather than pegging it out and so on. Some days, we hardly move at all.
The solution, we are convinced, is to take exercise that you enjoy so that it becomes fun, combining fitness and relaxation. As well as making the body function better (from sending oxygen scudding to every part of your system to making your digestive system work more efficiently), exercise is a proven mood enhancer. It triggers the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones which whoosh round your body and give you a sense of well-being.
Working your body not only helps you lose weight and re-shapes it, it also boosts your energy levels, strengthens your heart and helps guard against all sorts of illness. We know too that it is vital in preventing osteoporosis, the loss of bone density which leads to brittle bones. And exercise is also pretty well guaranteed to improve your sex life.
How much and what sort of exercise do you need for general fitness?
- In a perfect world, we would exercise for at least 30 to 40 minutes six days a week, doing a combination of strength, aerobic and flexibility routines. But, the main thing is to do what you can fit in and never feel guilty. 10 minutes every day is much better than no exercise at all.
- You will notice some benefits immediately: the ‘exercise glow’, increased energy, improved spirits, fewer aches and pains (but don’t overdo it at first if you’re usually sedentary) and sounder sleep. Over three to six weeks, your body shape will start to change and firm up, but only if you eat a healthy diet as well. You may lose weight, but don’t worry if you are working out diligently and yet put on weight – muscle weighs more than fat.
- If you are not used to exercise, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first, then start with a short time every day and build up gradually. Always start and finish exercise with some warm-up breathing and stretches, whether it’s a full-blown workout, speed-walking (also known as power-walking) in the park, or even a wild solo dance around your kitchen.
- A useful tip from pros is that, while working out, you should always be able to chat easily, without puffing or panting, whatever the exercise. And never forget to breathe deeply, slowly and always rhythmically.
- Finally, don’t exercise if you have an injury or are ill in any way, and don’t overtrain as it may leave you more vulnerable to infection. If you are feeling below par, take a gentle walk or do a short stretching session and leave the power stuff for a day or two.
TIP Make sure you have the right clothing, appropriate shoes (any sports shop will advise you) and a supportive bra.
Aim for a combination of these three types of exercise. Don’t forget to warm up before and stretch after.
Strength Helps tone and redefines body shape, boosts metabolic rate and burns calories, helps protect against osteoporosis, is good for posture, can help prevent bad backs.
Try Weight training at home (add small dumbbells or ankle weights to your walk, jog, stretch routine) or at a local gym, but don’t use large weights while walking, jogging or stretching – they may cause injury. Try using your own weight against your muscles – for instance with resistance bands.
Aim for 10 to 20 minute sessions two to four times a week, on alternate days.
Aerobic (cardiovascular): strengthens heart and lungs, improves circulation, excellent for burning calories and body fat.
Try Brisk walking, walking up and down stairs or steps, dancing, swimming, water aerobics, running, cycling, jogging, rebounding (on a mini-trampoline), golf, tennis, aerobics or step classes, an exercise bike, treadmill, stair machines, kick boxing, squash (for advanced exercisers only).
Aim for Three to five sessions weekly, each 15 to 60 minutes.
Flexibility (stretching) You need to stretch out all major muscle groups after any workout to keep you flexible and help prevent injuries to joints and muscles. Stretching also helps even out lumpiness. It’s especially important for older people.
Try Yoga, any martial arts.
Aim for Daily stretch sessions, of five to ten minutes or more, plus one to two classes weekly (yoga classes are often 90 minutes long).
Wake up, warm up and stretch
Take a tip from cats and start your day and any exercise with gentle breathing and warm-up stretches to invigorate you and help prevent joint or muscle injuries. Warming up is particularly important for anyone who is stiff or has limited mobility.
START BY CHECKING YOUR POSTURE
- You can lose five pounds (2.27kg) instantly – or look as if you have – by the way you stand and sit and walk. Droopy bodies with hunched shoulders are not only unattractive – they are positively bad for you because they restrict your circulation.
- Begin by looking at how you stand. Stand side on to a mirror with your feet a hip width apart, legs straight – but don’t lock your knees. Pull your tummy in and check your spine. It should gently curve at your upper and lower back. There should be a straight line running down from your ears, through your shoulders, hips and knees to your ankles. Your arms should hang in the middle of your thighs as you look at them from the side.
- If your shoulders are hunched, don’t force them back – let your shoulder blades sink down to open your chest and shoulders.
- The brain has such remarkable powers that simply ‘thinking’ your body into this shape can encourage good posture. The Alexander Technique is also wonderful for bodies which store tension or are out of alignment.
- If your tummy is sticking out, lift it gently towards your spine. Then tighten your buttock muscles and tuck your pelvis under your bottom. Think tall – imagine a string (or a golden silk thread if you’re feeling romantic) lifting up your crown and pulling it towards the sky.
- Now start walking gracefully around the room, concentrating on your posture. Think of how big cats move. Your feet should be facing forward with the second toe leading, heel first on the ground; let your hips and bottom move freely while you swing your arms back and forward.
Load-bearing exercise to beat brittle bones
This sort of exercise (also called weight-bearing) has been shown to protect against loss of bone density (osteoporosis) and is important for all women. Basically it includes every type of movement that puts weight on your muscles and bones, including running, walking, swimming, weight training, cycling, aerobics, dancing.
Very often the key to making exercise joyful is music, whether it’s pop, rock, jazz, classical or rhythmic drumming. In the cold western climate, most of us have forgotten the pleasure of moving to music. Yet you only have to go to a show like Riverdance to see how the toe-tapping rhythm uplifts the spirits of everyone there. So try exercising to your favourite music: dance wildly around your house, power-walk with a personal stereo, persuade the gym to play music with an appropriate beat as you pound the treadmill or stairmaster.
Children love exercising to music so you could organise family fitness sessions while the beat goes on in the background.