My Balance Series explores the different aspects of a fit life in terms of creating the right balance of variables. Each aspect has three main variables and each variable must have equal attention – like a three-legged stool – in order to be effective. Part 1 of the series established that a balanced life is one that nourishes equally the aspects of mind, body and soul and that fitness equates with the body piece of that life. Furthermore, proper fitness is a balance of exercise, diet and rest. Part 2 addresses the exercise leg of the fitness stool: cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility training.
But before I elaborate on those components, it is necessary to ask what is the value of exercise? For many women, the value almost entirely revolves around body image. Lots of us begin exercise programs because we want to lose weight in order to look better. Many of us who exercise regularly do it out of fear of gaining weight because of what that means asthetically. This is not to say that the desire to lose weight or the fear of gaining weight aren’t good motivators. But when our self-esteem and self-worth are mostly wrapped up in our body image, we are not living a life in balance. Nor are we putting fitness as our primary goal. If being fit is your true goal, then the following is the formula to meet the exercise component of fitness:
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all apparently healthy adults engage in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity every week to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type II diabetes, hypertension and some cancers. In addition, regular cardio exercise has been linked to increased cognitive function, alleviation of symptoms of depression, reduced discomfort from menstruation and menopause, more restful sleep and overall feelings of well-being and increased energy. Moderate intensity exercise would include brisk walking while running is an example of vigorous exercise. But intensity does vary from person to person and depends upon the age, weight and fitness level of the individual. A simple test can be used to gauge the intensity of your workouts. If you can recite a paragraph from memory, such as the Pledge of Allegiance, while you’re moving without any difficulty and no perceptible difference than if you were standing still, you are working at an intensity that’s too low. If you can recite it without much difficulty but with breaths between phrases becoming more perceptible, you are exercising at a moderate intensity. If it is very difficult for you to recite the entire pledge without pausing to take deep breaths, you’re at a vigorous level.
Ignore those who say that one form of exercise is better than another or that there is a hard and fast rule to how many times per week one should do cardio and for how long. If you don’t enjoy it, if you can’t fit it into your schedule or if it’s too difficult for you, you won’t stick to it. Whatever way you can regularly achieve the guidelines described above is the best way.
In recent years, the Body Mass Index (BMI) has been used to determine the overall health of individuals. It’s a tempting method to use because it’s derived from a very simple formula using height and weight. But BMI isn’t the best indicator of health. A much better measure is the ratio of a person’s lean body mass to fat body mass. The challenge is it’s very difficult and often expensive to measure accurately. My philosophy is that all apparently healthy women, even those with a normal BMI, should assume that their lean mass to fat mass ratio can be improved and here is why. Beginning around the age of 30, a woman who doesn’t strength train will lose about ½ pound of muscle mass per year. Over time, this will slow her metabolic rate regardless of whether or not she does cardiovascular training. And, unless she reduces her daily caloric intake or increases her cardio regimen to compensate for the slower metabolism, she will gain weight in the form of body fat. In addition, as she reaches menopause, estrogen production decreases, which affects bone health. However, if she incorporates the strength training component of exercise into her regimen, she will regenerate and increase lean tissue – muscle and bone. This will boost her metabolism to lose or maintain weight, keep her muscles and bones strong to perform daily activities more easily and help avoid injury, and keep her body fat percentage at a healthy level to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
We build muscle and bone through regeneration, which means we must break muscle and bone tissue down in order for the body to build more. The more we stress our muscles and bones, the stronger they will become. The definition of strength training is contracting a muscle or muscle group repeatedly with load until exhaustion – until you can’t do another repetition without losing proper form. Load can be either body weight (think push-ups or crunches) or external load such as free weights, medicine balls, kettlebells, resistance bands or tubes. It is recommended that women perform 1-3 sets of strength training exercises that target all major muscle groups (legs, core, upper body) 1-3 times per week. The proper amount of external load for strength training for basic fitness is the amount at which your last repetition in a set falls between 8 and 16. (If you can’t do 8 reps in a set the load is too heavy and if you can easily do more than 16 reps the load is too light.) The key to proper strength training is rest. It takes bone and muscle 48 hours to recover and regenerate after a strength training workout. Without this rest period, you will continually break down tissue with no opportunity to rebuild. So, while you can do cardio exercise on back-to-back days and even do cardio and strength training together in one workout, you should not strength train the same muscle groups on back-to-back days.
Aging does a number on collagen in our ligaments, tendons and muscles, making us less flexible. This, along with muscle mass breakdown, decreases the range of motion in our joints. As a result, we begin to compensate for that loss of joint mobility by developing dysfunctional movement. This dysfunctional movement makes us more likely to get injured during our usual workouts or activities of everyday life. Weak muscles, lack of joint flexibility, and dysfunctional movement also lead to balance problems. But flexibility training, or stretching, is easily and quickly incorporated into our other workout routines.
First rule of flexibility training: never stretch before working out when your muscles are cold. Numerous studies have been done on pre and post workout stretching and there is no benefit to static stretching before a workout. And, in fact, you’re more likely to over-stretch a muscle when it’s “cold” subsequently increasing your risk of injury. If you feel you must stretch before working out, do a warm up first. For similar reasons, I also recommend warming up before doing a strength training session – a minute or two of high-knee marching is sufficient. Second rule of flexibility training: always stretch all the muscles you’ve worked after every strength training and cardio routine. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds for 1 or 2 sets.
Take your flexibility training to the highest level by including mind-body exercises like yoga, mat Pilates or martial arts in your weekly routine. These also specifically train balance which is a great way to round out the ideal workout formula.
Incorporating all of these components equally can seem daunting, particularly if you aren’t already doing at least one form of exercise regularly. But anything you do will be a benefit to you immediately. Start small and add on gradually. Plus, now more than ever there are many venues, from group classes to DVDs, that incorporate cardio, strength and flexibility training all in one workout.
Fitness and all its components are about being healthy, not about a number on the scale or a size on a garment. We will all age, we will all likely suffer injuries and accidents. Genetics and some environmental factors beyond our control raise our risks for diseases of all kinds. But the quest for fitness is within reach for every single one of us. A fit life can reduce the risks of many diseases, help us to cope better in the aging process and increase the probability of living a long, active and fulfilling life. A fit person isn’t guaranteed a disease-free life but she is in a better position to fight disease and have a better quality of life than individuals who aren’t fit.
Fitness and thinness aren’t the same thing. Studies bear out that thin people who don’t incorporate exercise, healthy eating and proper rest into their daily lives are at higher risk of contracting cardiovascular-related diseases compared those who are fit, even those who are considered overweight but fit. Therefore, I’ve presented to you the components of a balanced exercise program in terms of health, not body weight. But here’s the beauty of it – if you incorporate a balanced exercise program into your life along with a healthy diet and proper rest, a healthy body-weight and, more importantly, a healthy lean mass to fat mass ratio and all the benefits that accompany it can be achieved and maintained for a lifetime.
Author’s Note: Always consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.