A lot of readers write in to ask about specific issues on fitness. Using these questions as guidelines and cues, we explain some of the most important aspects of being fit. These form the crux of any health and fitness programme—the stripped-down, essential and updated information that should be kept in mind whenever you assess your body’s condition.
What is the best mode or form of exercise?
Contrary to popular opinion that walking or swimming is the “best form of exercise”, there is no one single form or type of exercise that is all-encompassing or has versatile benefits. Each different form of exercise has specific benefits and individuals should choose exercise forms to suit their specific needs. For example, swimming is great for people with joint or arthritic problems, but of little or no utility for those seeking to improve bone density. Ironically, the advantages of swimming—no impact and hence low stress on joints—work against it when the need is to load the bones to improve bone density. Yoga is great for developing flexibility, balance and stability, but of not much use for strength and power development. True fitness reflects a blend of all the fitness parameters. Just as bulging muscles do not reflect complete fitness, so also the ability to shape one’s body into a pretzel or run 10km every morning reflect only aspects of fitness. A truly fit person is one who effectively combines all the different aspects of fitness into his or her being.
Should an exercise programme have variety?
A good exercise programme is one with a little bit of everything. Generally, five parameters comprise physical fitness—cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, strength, flexibility and body composition (body composition refers to the ratio of fat and lean mass in the body). A balanced routine will incorporate all these. Variety and change tax your ability to adapt and keep your endocrine system on its toes. However, from a life-risk point of view, cardiovascular fitness is perhaps the most significant and vital aspect. Lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cholesterol, COPD (or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and hypertension respond best to moderate-to-intense forms of cardiovascular exercise. The disease-preventing ability of cardiovascular exercise makes it perhaps the most important form of exercise.
What comprises cardiovascular exercise?
Any activity that makes use of the large muscle groups of the body, is maintained continuously and is rhythmic in nature, can be termed a cardiovascular exercise. For example, running, swimming, rowing. In a typical health club or gym, the cardiovascular section comprises the treadmill, bike, elliptical trainer, and rowing machine. It is important to ensure that the pulse rate while doing cardiovascular exercise is kept high enough to burn sufficient calories. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that the exerciser maintain his or her pulse at 60-80% of maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is derived by subtracting the exerciser’s age from 220. So a 40-year-old should try to maintain a pulse rate of 60-80% of 180, i.e., between 108 and 144. High exercise pulse rate has a direct relationship with the number of calories burnt and the intensity of the workout. It is better to keep varying the pulse rate rather than maintain a steady rate. A short interval of intense effort followed immediately by a lighter recovery of an almost equal length of time is possibly the best way to increase cardiovascular capacity and burn a lot of calories. This is also called Interval Training.
What about weight training, then?
A lot of people, particularly women, get put off by weights because they think working with weights will give them bulky and ugly muscles. This is far from the truth. Resistance training will not build huge muscles. A very high volume of work is required to induce “hypertrophy”, or increase in the volume of muscle cells. This is a special type of training followed by bodybuilders, and is not meant for the average person. The average person can use resistance training to tone and shape his or her body and correct any imbalances in muscle strength. Numerous studies show that weight training improves insulin action and significantly reduces blood pressure in diabetic and hypertensive adults, respectively. It also reduces total body-fat mass and visceral adipose tissue in both men and women. In addition, the maintained or enhanced muscle mass as a result of weight training is associated with increase in the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which over time will facilitate greater success in weight reduction than can be achieved by aerobic training alone.
Are unstructured activities such as trekking important?
A structured exercise programme will go a long way in improving physical health and appearance. However, it is also important to find time for unstructured physical activity in our lives. These activities help to unwind and relax your mind as well as secrete endorphins (happy hormones) that keep you fit. Examples of such activities include walking the dog, playing with children, going hiking or trekking, or taking a bicycle excursion trip.
Do fad dietsactually work?
The ACSM recommends that normal, healthy adults of average size who engage in physical activity should get 20% of their total calorie intake from proteins, 55-60% from carbohydrates and 25-30% from fats. Fad diets that attempt to eliminate or drastically cut back one or more of these nutrient groups can be disastrous. Diets too low in fats or carbohydrates will work only for a very short while but cannot be sustained for a long duration without health risks. Drastically cutting down on fats and carbohydrates will help to drop body weight initially but the weight will soon come back, only more of it, once you go back to the old diet.
Can stress makeyou fat?
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is part of the body’s fight-or-flight system. Too much stress increases the level of cortisol in the blood and triggers abdominal obesity. Genes that respond to stress evolved to help the body deal with physical dangers, such as fighting predators or other humans. Supplying adequate energy is vital during physical challenges. Cortisol increases appetite and promotes fat storage to increase chances of survival. Chronic stress promotes obesity, because the reward system of the brain that promotes overeating is more powerful than conscious needs to improve health and appearance.
How does stretching help?
Age and sedentary lifestyle not only weaken but also tighten muscles so that joints tend to get out of alignment. This leads to poor posture and ultimately, pain. About 60% of all pain in the body is due to muscle dysfunction caused by tight and inflexible muscles. Follow a regular stretching routine to keep muscles flexible. Yoga is a great way to stretch muscles. Ten minutes of stretching daily can keep pain and stiffness away.
Is spot reduction at all possible?
Spot reduction—targeted fat loss in specific areas of the body—is the mainstay of exercise programmes designed to cut fat and improve appearance. Scientists, however, say that where you lose or put on weight will be dictated by your genetic pattern and physical form. No amount of exercise concentrated on any one body spot can make you lose weight from that body part. People do repetitions after repetitions of abdomen exercise, hoping to knock off belly flab. It makes more sense to follow a good diet and do compound multi-joint exercises along with intense Interval Training to knock off fat from the mid-section. When the body loses fat, it will be global in nature rather than local, or confined to any individual body part. Of course, some parts are more responsive while others are more stubborn.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
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