Monday, March 29, 2010

In exercise, as elsewhere, variety is the spice of life

Did you know that different types of exercise play different roles in health and fitness? Sure, any kind of physical activity is better than doing none at all (even walking the dog counts!), but varying lots of different kinds of activity will to yield the best results.

Aerobic (or “cardio”) activities generally raise our heartbeat and respiration rate. Depending on the level of intensity we’re aiming at we can get so out of breath that we can’t talk, but more moderate-intensity is less taxing. Moderate activity includes recreational swimming, walking briskly (3.5 mph), cycling on fairly level terrain or – around the home – lawn-mowing, vacuuming, scrubbing floors or washing windows. Vigorous activity includes jogging or running (5 mph), swimming laps, jogging, cycling more than 10 mph or steep uphill terrain or circuit training with weight machines.

Aerobic exercise is a good way of strengthening the heart and increasing lung capacity, and has been found to reduce risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. It is also thought to help people to sleep better and reduce their stress levels. What I like about aerobic exercise is that – weather permitting – it allows me to be outside in the fresh air.

Strength training (also known as weight or resistance training) is as important as aerobic exercise. Strength training involves exercises that isolate the muscles to contract under the tension of weights, body weight or resistance bands. It promotes overall muscle tone and development and builds lean muscle mass, which increases the metabolism as muscles burn more calories at rest than fat tissue.

In my ignorant earlier years, I used to think that aerobic exercise was for women (cue: purple lycra leotards with matching sweatbands and ankle-warmers) and strength training was for men (scarily muscular beings sweating and grunting in smelly gymnasiums). Jane Fonda meets Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Only recently have I realized that strength training is a perfectly feminine endeavor and indeed very important, not just for a tone, firm silhouette but also for strong bones and muscles after menopause. What I like about strength training is that it doesn’t require a gym membership or complicated contraptions involving weights and pulleys. A few dumbbells and an exercise ball are all I need to work my muscles in the well-ventilated comfort of my home!

Incidentally, strength training can have a substantial aerobic component to it, as I have noticed on the last few strenuous repetitions of a strength-training routine; lunging or heaving weights can easily push my heart beat to 130-140 beats per minute, my heart-rate target range.

This is also where sprinting comes in, a discipline many recommend as a good way to build muscle *and* reinforce cardiovascular strength (but only if you’re already pretty fit). Sprinting involves short bursts of maximum-intensity exercise interspersed by slightly longer intervals. The good thing about sprinting is that you can do a pretty comprehensive workout in a short space of time (sprints and rest intervals spaced out over roughly 10 minutes, plus 5 minutes each for warm-up and cool-down), which is great news for time-starved people like me.

My Weekly Workout Plan

For those of you who want to join me in the Anti-Cancer Challenge, here’s my detailed weekly exercise plan. This is the “ideal-case scenario”; work, kids and Life will no doubt interfere with this occasionally, but I do aim to exercise at least five times a week.
  • Monday (aerobic): gentle yoga
  • Tuesday (strength): Beginners Full Body Workout
  • Wednesday (aerobic): 30 minutes’ indoor rowing
  • Thursday (strength): Beginners’ Full body workout (again)
  • Friday (aerobic): 30 minutes’ indoor rowing
  • Saturday (strength): Beginners’ Full body workout (again)
  • Sunday: aerobic (30 minutes’ jogging)
Last week I managed to stick with this schedule (my 12-year-old son even did a Full Body Workout with me on Thursday, which was fun); hopefully my good intentions will last through this week!

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