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Pushing the comfort zone

Pushing the comfort zone
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First Published: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 09 48 PM IST

Step it up: (left) Try and increase the duration of cardiovascular activity by 10%; and in strength-training, increase weights by 5%.
Step it up: (left) Try and increase the duration of cardiovascular activity by 10%; and in strength-training, increase weights by 5%.
Updated: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 09 48 PM IST
You might think that this piece is “contradictory” to my last one, titled “The middle path” (21 March), but it’s actually a continuation of the same concept.
Step it up: (left) Try and increase the duration of cardiovascular activity by 10%; and in strength-training, increase weights by 5%.
Too many of us tend to be content with where we have reached in life and stop pushing ourselves to improve. I have no problems with this philosophy, and follow it a bit myself too. But I also know that if you follow this philosophy, you tend to plateau—even if there is an improvement, it is drastically slow. To be able to keep your body active, one set routine over a prolonged period is just not enough. Arthur Newton, a legendary long-distance runner, felt very strongly about this: “You never stay put at any stage; either you advance or slip back.”
I believe this is relevant to everything in life, but for this column I’ll stick to physical activity and exercise—and I am not talking about trying to win medals. Humans were programmed to be physically active beings, not sedentary slobs.
If you start walking, you will find that during the first few days even a 10-minute walk will make you breathless. But soon enough, you’ll be able to walk 30 minutes without a problem. This will only be possible because you’ve pushed yourself a little when you felt you could. If you had stayed with the 10-minute walk at the same speed for the rest of your life, you would have improved health-wise, but only just.
To get the best benefit from any cardiovascular activity, whether it be walking, running, cycling or swimming, you need to first attempt to increase duration by 10%. Once you become comfortable over time, you should gradually start increasing the intensity of these activities, more than the distance. The simple rule being, if an activity has become very comfortable and you can speak in full sentences during it, you haven’t put in enough effort. You need to start pushing your comfort zone.
It’s the same with strength training. I regularly get clients who’ve been doing the same weights at the same intensity for a decade and then wonder why they are not in great shape and their stamina is not showing marked improvement. Start to train at a comfortable weight where your technique is correct; for this, you need a trainer who knows what he’s looking at. Once you get the technique right (slow and steady) and are comfortable with the movements, over the next four-five sessions you need to start looking at increasing the weight. If you are able to do more than 15 repetitions of an exercise, increase the weight by 5% during the next session. If during that session you aren’t even able to do six repetitions, the weight is too heavy—go back to the weight you were using earlier. This simple approach will help you get stronger and fitter without injuring you.
There are no set rules on how often you should increase the duration and intensity of your workout; it will vary from person to person.
The million-dollar question is, how much should one push oneself without getting hurt? There’s no rocket science involved here. It’s important to remember that “one size fits all” doesn’t apply. However, a clear indicator that you need to change your routine is when you get comfortable with the distances or the workout. You should gradually start increasing the intensity while doing these activities.
The take-home message—learn to listen to your body.
Rajat Chauhan is a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at treadmill@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 09 48 PM IST