I apologize for the length; this is an important topic and requires much knowledge.
For the out of shape or obese person, becoming healthy is essentially a two part game, part 1 is nutrition, and we covered that last week, this week is exercise. Everything I post here is contingent on you being checked out and approved by a trained medical professional first. Whenever I recommend an exercise, it’s always under the assumption that you can reasonably perform exercise at the level I suggest. If you are thinking of beginning a new exercise or nutrition program, please consult the appropriate medical personnel first, for exercise that usually means having a talk with, and maybe receiving a cursory exam from your primary care physician. If you have any medical conditions, known or unknown to your medical professional, be sure to disclose them before they check you out, things that may seem trivial to you can often be important to a doctor.
Exercise is vital to living a healthy, happy, and long life. Besides the vanity issue of looking good and feeling confident, exercise helps your body in a number of ways. Exercise burns calories, and consequently exercise burns fat. Exercise helps muscle and bone retain it’s mass, and In some cases grow. Exercise can force the cardiovascular system to become stronger and more efficient. Exercise releases hormones in the body that help it with metabolic function. Exercise helps with immune system health. When we talk about exercise, many people cringe, but exercise doesn’t have to be a chore, it can be fun.
For the beginner, starting with a new plan can seem daunting. Forget choosing an exercise, many new exercisers can’t even choose between the types of exercise they need or want. Let me clear something up for any people having a hard time deciding where and how to begin. You need all types to be successful. Let’s discuss the two main types of exercise. Cardiovascular exercise (cardio) or “aerobic” exercise is exercise performed at a low enough level so that muscles can continue to perform that exercise for long periods. Muscles use oxygen as a catalyst for energy consumption. The more intense the exercise, the more oxygen is required. The primary muscles used in cardio are specifically designed to burn less oxygen over long periods, allowing for sustained burn at a level your body can provide. It is possible, however, to overtax these muscles and become “anaerobic”. The term “aerobic threshold” is the intensity level of cardio where your body can no longer provide sufficient oxygen to power the muscles. Reaching this threshold is not considered a bad thing by itself, but it will induce shorter exercise sessions as the body will need to slow down as this point is reached. You will notice this state almost immediately when you reach it. Breathing becomes labored, muscles weaken, and the “burn” begins. This type of exercise triggers certain responses in the body. When you reach this level on a semi-consistent basis, the body will take steps to increase the following functions: lung capacity, level of oxygen in the blood, and the efficiency at which muscles extract oxygen from the blood.
Working below the aerobic threshold means long periods are possible. If you work below your aerobic threshold, your muscles in use will tire and deplete before your ability to deliver oxygen does. The feeling that comes from this is less of a burning, sudden weak feeling and more of a general slowdown in your ability to work, the decrease is less sharp and more difficult to discern, and your ability to continue working at a slightly reduced level remains. This means that you can continue to exercise after this point is reached. The results of longer, lower level exercise are training the muscles that specialize in this type of activity to be stronger and have higher endurance. Another benefit of training at lower levels is the ability to burn fat. Body fat is burned as a supplement to carbohydrate burn. When you increase the amount of calories you burn, inevitably you burn some fat as well, the longer you train cardiovascularly, the higher the percentage of fat burned becomes as glycogen (the quick energy your body stores for work) levels deplete, the body requires more and more energy from the fat storage mechanisms as cardiovascular work continues. “wind” or oxygen levels and efficiency see only moderate improvement when one works cardiovascularly (below the aerobic threshold), although there is some improvement.
Resistance based exercise is exercise that uses a whole different set of muscles primarily. These muscles are designed to provide maximum force for minimal amounts of time. Weight training is one type of resistance, plyometrics is another example. Resistance usually requires quick, short bursts of power, these quick bursts don’t use an abundance of oxygen, but they do use high percentages of available energy, more energy than the body can produce during the work period. A solid, 35 to 45 minute weight training session will deplete most of the existing glycogen stores in the body. It can take up to 24 hours or longer for the body to rebuild those stores, during this period a slightly increased metabolic rate is seen. So while you won’t burn as many calories with resistance, you will burn those calories over a far more extended period. Another aspect to resistance training is the concept of muscle fatigue and micro tears. Part of the process of growing muscle is creating tiny tears in the muscle fiber through training. The body recognizes and repairs these tears, and generally will repair them bigger and stronger than they were before. For a resistance program to ultimately be successful over the long term, it must be difficult to complete with good form. That means that more important than training for long periods, should be training at a resistance level that exhausts your ability to continue. In layman’s terms you want to be unable to do more work when done, or close to that point. If you find yourself doing resistance and realize that you are not extremely tired in that particular muscle group after finished, you probably need to re-evaluate the session and either up the intensity or the weight used to achieve a failure or close to failure level.
Hybrid routines are routines that combine elements of both resistance and cardio exercise. These routines are designed not to provide the maximum results from either routine, but to provide enough of each to satisfy the moderate exerciser. Time is usually a major factor in choosing this type of routine. Design and form are the two major components of this routine. In order to be a successful hybrid routine (for example, many boot camp classes are hybrids) there must be sufficient resistance to tire the muscles, and sufficient cardiovascular work to elicit the goals you are looking for (either increasing anaerobic threshold or growing the muscles that focus on aerobic work). Hybrids can be an excellent compromise for the functional, busy professional who doesn’t have a lot of time during the day. Three, solid 45 minute to 1 hour hybrid routines a week, mixed with 2 cardiovascular routines or 1 cardio and 1 resistance routine per week is a great way to get everything you need without devoting hours of time a day or sacrificing one type for another.
Stretching and static exercising considerations
While these are vitally important to your body’s functional strength and health, things like stretching, yoga, and Pilates, are something I generally allow clients to choose based on their level of flexibility. These programs can provide many benefits to both physical strength and flexibility and psychological health, but for a person who is just beginning, I generally try to focus on strength and endurance first, adding static and dynamic stretching as a warm up and cool down period. If you find yourself noticing posture and/balance issues, these types of routine can provide a wealth of benefit for you, do not ignore them as unnecessary.
For the beginner
When choosing an initial exercise routine. Many beginners go with steady state cardio (running, elliptical, stationary bike…etc.) alone and ignore resistance or anaerobic training. While steady state cardio absolutely has a place in every exerciser’s routine, it does your body an injustice to ignore the power and oxygen levels that they need. Anaerobic cardio is helpful for burning fat, but to truly become more healthy you must tell your body to increase muscle mass, and produce the hormones that increase lean tissue and bone health. These hormones are released during anaerobic exercise and resistance exercise. The hormones released also trigger the body to help burn more stored fuel, which means a better fat burn.
When starting out, the first thing you should do (after designing a weekly program and consulting your doctor) is find your limits. For each type of routine (cardio, anaerobic, resistance), choose your exercise types, and perform tests to find where your levels are. This is one place where a trainer can be very helpful, even if you decide not to use a trainer regularly; paying for an initial consultation and review can allow them to give you some basic starting points and can put you on the fast track to increasing levels with a minimum of trial and error. In any event be sure to include days of cardiovascular training, anaerobic training, and resistance training in your plan, also be sure to monitor your body, if you feel dizzy, nauseous, or pain, always stop and consult your doctor before continuing. Be aware of your routines, mindlessly reading a magazine while walking or jogging on a treadmill may seem easier, but it usually means you’re not focusing on how your body feels, if you want to achieve results, you must pay attention and increase your levels as your body becomes stronger and has more endurance. The last thing I will say about a new routine is to make sure you give your body a rest. Working out every day may feel like a great way to lose weight fast, but in the long term, your body needs recovery days, without them it can break down and stress injuries can become common.
This post just touches the absolute basics of exercise for the beginner. There’s a lot more information that can be learned and taught, a good trainer would be able to fine tune a program for you and increase your results dramatically. Consequently, a bad trainer can really hinder results. Be sure to vet your trainers fully and thoroughly before choosing them.