Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

Why is Exercise Important?

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Why is Exercise Important?    What is Physical Fitness?    Designing a Personalized Exercise Program    How Do I Get Started?    How Often Should I Exercise?    How Hard Should I Exercise?    Get Moving   .

Why is Exercise Important?

Have you ever heard the expression "use it or lose it"? It's true! If you don't use your body, you will surely lose it. Your muscles will become flabby and weak. Your heart and lungs won't function efficiently. And your joints will be stiff and easily injured. Inactivity is as much of a health risk as smoking!

Helps Prevent Diseases
Our bodies were meant to move -- they actually crave exercise. Regular exercise is necessary for physical fitness and good health. It reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases. It can improve your appearance and delay the aging process.

Improves Stamina
When you exercise, your body uses energy to keep going. Aerobic exercise involves continuous and rhythmic physical motion, such as walking and bicycling. It improves your stamina by training your body to become more efficient and use less energy for the same amount of work. As your conditioning level improves, your heart rate and breathing rate return to resting levels much sooner from strenuous activity.

Strengthens and Tones
Exercising with weights and other forms of resistance training develops your muscles, bones and ligaments for increased strength and endurance. Your posture can be improved, and your muscles become more firm and toned. You not only feel better, but you look better, too!

Enhances Flexibility
Stretching exercises are also important for good posture. They keep your body limber so that you can bend, reach and twist. Improving your flexibility through exercise reduces the chance of injury and improves balance and coordination. If you have stiff, tense areas, such as the upper back or neck, performing specific stretches can help "loosen" those muscles, helping you feel more relaxed.

Controls Weight
Exercise is also a key to weight control because it burns calories. If you burn off more calories than you take in, you lose weight. It's as simple as that.

Improves Quality of Life
Once you begin to exercise regularly, you will discover many more reasons why exercise is so important to improving the quality of your life. Exercise reduces stress, lifts moods, and helps you sleep better. It can keep you looking and feeling younger throughout your entire life.

What is Physical Fitness?

There are four distinct components of physical fitness:
  1. Cardiovascular Respiratory -- Your cardiovascular respiratory or aerobic system is made up of your heart, lungs and blood. In order to work, they need oxygen. Aerobic capacity is the body's ability to use oxygen as a source of energy. It gives us the stamina or endurance to participate in an activity for a prolonged period of time.

  2. Muscular Strength and Endurance -- Strength is the maximum force a muscle can exert, while endurance is a muscle's ability to keep moving continually without fatigue. Both strength and endurance are critical to muscular fitness. Without it, you would not be able to carry groceries or pick up your child.

  3. Flexibility -- Being able to bend and stretch easily is called suppleness or flexibility. Lack of flexibility in your joints and muscles can restrict your range of movement and make you more prone to injury and stiffness. You should, for example, be able to extend your arm straight out at a 90-degree angle from your body and then flex your elbow joint enough to rest your hand comfortably on your shoulder.

  4. Body Composition -- The percent of body fat you have is the fourth factor in determining physical fitness. Excess calories are stored as fat. As we age, we generally become less active and our metabolism slows down. By age 70, we need about 15 percent fewer calories than we needed at age 20. Excess body fat puts increased stress on your ligaments, tendons, bones and lean muscle tissue, which has to support the fat's weight. Keeping your weight down avoids this burden and makes it easier for you to move around during normal activities.

Designing a Personalized Exercise Program

Getting Motivated
Regardless of the level of commitment you are able or willing to devote to exercise, it is important to remember that all exercises and activities burn calories and have fitness benefits. It is not as important what you do, so long as you do something. It is better to do a little, than to do nothing at all. Once you become a regular exerciser, you can begin to fine-tune the exercise program to meet your specific goals.

There are many factors that affect the motivation needed to begin or maintain an exercise program, especially if you have never exercised before. Some people are not motivated until there is a crisis, such a diagnosis of a disease or weight gain. You should start by taking a mental inventory of what exercise can accomplish for you. Then, you may ask yourself, are these benefits worth putting some time and energy into an exercise routine? In addition, it is helpful to keep the following tips in mind:

The warm-up is the first step of an exercise workout. Warming-up for 10 to 15 minutes before exercise increases circulation and delivers more oxygen to the muscles. It increases flexibility by stretching muscles, thus reducing the risk of muscle injury or soreness. Begin with five to 10 minutes of a slow activity. It is a helpful to spend a few minutes walking, jogging, or marching in place. This should be followed by mild stretches to warm up the muscles, raise the body temperature, and increase blood flow before the actual exercise begins.

Flexibility exercises increase range of motion in the body×s joints and keep muscles supple. Flexibility allows greater freedom of movement, improves posture, increases relaxation, releases muscle tension, and reduces risk of injury. Flexibility is hereditary and primarily due to your gender, age and level of physical activity. You tend to lose flexibility with age, but this is usually a result of inactivity rather than aging. Increasing and maintaining flexibility is achieved through performing stretching exercises. Stretching should be a slow and gradual process.

You should start each stretch slowly, exhaling as you gently stretch the muscle and inhaling as you relax. It is important to hold each stretch for at least 10 to 30 seconds. You should stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain. It is helpful to avoid bouncing while stretching to minimize muscle strains. If a stretch hurts, you should not push yourself too far. Also, you should never stretch a muscle when you have not done a proper warm-up. Stretching a muscle when it is "cold" increases the likelihood of injury.

Strength and Weight Training
Strength and weight training are defined as activities designed to build muscular strength and endurance, which maintains lean muscle tissue. Such exercises may include pushups, free weights or weight machines. In a weight-training program, a routine consists of sets and repetitions (also called "reps"). Repetitions are the number of times one lifts the weight without resting; a set is the completion of a predetermined number of repetitions (or the number of successive repetitions performed without rest). An average weight training routine may consist of three sets of 12 repetitions. For the average person who is trying to improve appearance and bolster health, multiple sets may not be necessary. One set of eight to 12 repetitions, working the muscles to the point of fatigue, is usually sufficient. To avoid strength imbalances, it is important to work all major muscle groups. It is wise to consult a certified fitness professional to develop a program and learn safe lifting techniques. Some important strength training principles are listed below.

Improvement is based on the overload principle. "Overload" means that in order to improve the performance of your body's systems, that system must work harder than it is accustomed to working. "Muscle overload" means that in order to continue developing strength or endurance, the muscles must be challenged to do more. Beginners should start with a weight that you can comfortably lift and build slowly. Once you are comfortable with your routine, you can increase the overload by performing an additional exercise for each muscle group, increasing your repetitions, or increasing the weight by 5 percent. In general, every six to eight weeks, you should change your strength-training program.

Aerobic Exercise Programs
The appropriate frequency, intensity, and time of an aerobic program will vary from person to person. In general, when you begin an exercise programs, you should review your goals, time commitment, current activity level and age. Then, you can decide how often, how hard, and how long you can exercise on a regular basis. When you are just starting out, it is more important that you focus on frequency and time rather than intensity. Then, once you are able to exercise at least three times a week for 20 minutes, you can begin to concentrate on intensity.

How Often How Hard* How Long
Beginner 3 days 40 to 60 percent 12 to 20 minutes
Improvement 3 to 5 days 50 to 85 percent 20 to 30 minutes
Maintenance more than 3 days 70 to 85 percent 30 to 45 minutes
*Percentage of Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

Over time, the frequency, intensity, and time of the exercise program should change. To improve your physical fitness level, your body must work harder than it is accustomed to working. Physical fitness improvement can result from either a change in frequency, intensity, time or type of exercise.

The cool-down is the last step of the workout. Cooling down helps return blood to the heart so that it may recover oxygen, and it prevents pooling of blood in the muscles of the arms and legs. Dizziness, faintness, and muscle soreness may occur without a cool-down. You should gradually reduce your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles by decreasing your intensity toward the end of the workout. It is important to slow down, but not stop -- you must continue walking or moving for another five to 10 minutes in order to cool down the muscles. Every workout should end with a cooling down period, followed by stretching.

How Do I Get Started?

Before beginning any exercise program, you should discuss your plans with your physician, especially if you haven't exercised in a long time, are over the age of 40, or have a medical condition. A thorough physical examination will help you avoid serious illness or injury. Your doctor can also give you advice about a program suited to your health needs and fitness goals. You may want to get further guidance from a fitness expert at a local health club or by reading books about exercise instruction.

Enjoyable Activities
Be sure to choose activities that you truly enjoy to improve your chances of sticking with an exercise program. Make sure the activities are appropriate for attaining your goals. For instance, if you wish to lose weight, you will want to choose an aerobic exercise, such as walking, running or bicycling, as well as a weight-training program since increased muscle mass raises metabolism and burns additional calories.

Convenient Location
Choose a convenient location for your activity. Is there a fitness center or park near your home or office? Do you own home-exercise equipment? Know where you can safely and conveniently perform your exercises before getting started.

Start Slowly
Always spend the first couple of minutes slowly getting acclimated to the increased demands that exercise places on your body. This is called warming up. Make sure you stretch thoroughly after exercising to relax your muscles and prevent soreness.

Resist the temptation to do too much, too soon. Be realistic about your fitness goals. Pushing yourself too hard is likely to lead to injury, fatigue and discouragement. Gradually lengthen your workouts and increase the intensity. If you feel discomfort, slow down or stop until you're ready to try again.

How Often Should I Exercise?

The benefits of any exercise program will diminish if it's disrupted too frequently. A "stop-start" routine is not only ineffective, but can cause injuries. Being consistent with exercise, therefore, is probably the most important factor in achieving desired results.

People often assume that more is better. Wrong! Doing too much too soon or performing intense exercises on a daily basis will have deleterious effects, such as muscle/tendon strains, loss of lean tissue, and fitness-level plateaus.

If you are a beginner, start off slower than you think you should. Three days per week is realistic, safe and effective. If you are experienced, do cardiovascular (aerobic) exercises such as walking, jogging and bicycling for no more than 200 minutes per week with no more than 60 minutes per session.

Weight training should be done no more than three times per week targeting the same muscle groups. Exercise the same muscle groups on non-consecutive days because muscles need adequate time to recover and cannot be effectively trained if they are tired or sore.

Many people forget to stretch or make the excuse that they don't have the time. Flexibility is important, so make the time! Stretching can be done every day, but stick to a minimum of three times per week in order to reap the benefits. When the body is warmed up, such as after a workout session, perform five to 10 stretches that target the major muscle groups. Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds.

How Hard Should I Exercise?

To get general health benefits, such as a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, it is sufficient to exercise at a low to moderate intensity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting 30 minutes of accumulated exercise on most or all days of the week. This can consist of simple activities like gardening, housework or walking the dog. The exercises can be done in three 10-minute sessions throughout the day or all at once.

If your goal is to enhance your fitness, however, the intensity of your workout needs to increase. Vigorous physical activities include brisk walking, jogging, singles tennis, lap swimming and cycling. These aerobic activities should be sustained for 20 to 45 minutes. Be sure to start slowly (warm-up) to ensure your body is properly prepared for working out.

For maximum cardiovascular and calorie burning benefits, perform aerobic exercises at levels that allow you to reach your target heart rate. Always cool down at the end of your workout by gradually decreasing the intensity for the last five minutes.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing static (no bounce) stretches for 10 to 30 seconds, held to the point of mild discomfort. You should repeat them four times per muscle group, two to three times per week.

Weight training for the average person should consist of one set of weight lifting/resistance exercises (eight to 15 repetitions) targeting each major muscle group of the upper and lower body. The weight should be heavy enough so that you are challenged to complete the last few repetitions of each exercise.

Muscular endurance can be improved by working up to where you can complete 15 repetitions easily and by doing multiple sets of the exercise. Muscular strength can be further enhanced by gradually increasing the weight or resistance.

Get Moving

Before you begin an exercise program, be prudent and be prepared, check with your physician and make sure that you begin your exercise program "by the book" or with a qualified instructor. In so doing you will gain the maximum benefit from the program and avoid strains, sprains and other mishaps.

Even if you have been exercising on an on-going regular basis, it does not hurt to take a refresher class every so often, since new exercises are added and older, less effective ones are being dropped. And make sure that your instructor is licensed or certified to provide instruction.

If no classes are available in your area and you want to start an exercise program on your own, be sure to obtain the latest publications and/or videos available. Some calisthenic and isometric exercises recommended a decade or two ago are no longer considered safe, so it is important to have current information.

Many agencies and organizations, including the YM and YWCAs, junior colleges and universities, senior and community centers, adult and continuing education, and health clubs and spas, offer classes in sports, exercise, dance, and weight training that provide instruction that will enable you to gain the maximum result and avoid injuries and mishaps.

If you are retired, you now have the time it takes to get in shape. If you are not retired, make the time. Remember: Weight training should be done three times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes under a trained instructor, while bending and stretching exercises should be done every day for about 10 minutes and aerobic exercise for 30 to 60 minutes three times a week.

Reprinted with permission: Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human Services, 330 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20201

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