06 May Are you new to exercise? Where should you start?
Are you wanting to start exercising and leading a healthier lifestyle? We give you the ‘rundown’ on what activities might suit you.
Why should I move?
The human body was designed to be on the move. Amongst ongoing debate about back to basics diets we have lost sight of a very important fact about our ancestors, that is that they were constantly on the move: for transport, to find food, to socialise, to trade and in celebration through activities such as dance. Yet so much in our modern environment is designed to minimise the requirement to move. The word exercise has become somewhat loaded and is associated by many with images of discomfort, sacrifice, pain and fatigue. In the interests of helping more people to be more active let’s get back to the real definition of exercise which is ‘to engage in physical activity to sustain or improve health and fitness’ and look at some of the ways to get more physical activity into our lives and the health benefits you can realise from these activities.
Walking is a simple and inexpensive way to improve your health and wellbeing. Even a short walk at a moderate pace (say for 10 minutes) will raise your heart rate, increase blood flow around your body, and to your brain, and lower levels of stress hormones. The health benefits associated with these changes are improved circulation, lower blood glucose levels, reductions in any feelings of anxiety or depression, improved mood and improvements in concentration. A raft of research studies show that regular walking is one of the best things you can do for your health.
There are a few things to think about if you are taking up regular walking. Firstly, invest in a pair of comfortable and properly fitting shoes. Next, set some realistic goals for your initial walking program; you might aim to walk every second day for 15 minutes each time, writing your goals down and attaching them to the fridge so you can tick them off as you achieve them is a great source of motivation. You can increase the frequency and length of your walks as you get into a routine. Another great motivator is having someone to walk with; knowing a friend is waiting for you makes it that much harder to pull out of a planned walk, and having someone to chat to makes the time pass enjoyably. Finally, if you do miss a scheduled walk don’t be too hard on yourself. Research shows that it can take from 2 and 8 months to form new habits but that one missed session occasionally doesn’t disrupt this process. The main message here is to stick with it and jump right back in if you have an off day.
Jogging is essentially a higher intensity variation on walking and so all the health and wellbeing benefits that come from regular walking can be derived from jogging but to a greater extent. An added advantage of jogging is that there is greater impact with each stride; this puts extra loading on your bones which in turn adapt and become stronger. Research shows that regular jogging helps to keep your bones strong and delays bone loss normally associated with ageing. This is important for women, who tend to develop osteoporosis earlier in life than men due to women having naturally lower testosterone levels than men (testosterone reduces calcium loss and slows bone thinning).
Taking up jogging may appear to be a daunting prospect but again there are some tips and tricks to help get you started and to keep you going. As with walking you would be wise to invest in a pair of comfortable and supportive shoes. If you haven’t jogged before, or for some time, it’s best to ease yourself into it and if you have any concerns about doing more vigorous physical activity see your doctor or an accredited exercise physiologist for advice and guidance first. To start, you can build up your walking capacity and then add in a few short bursts of jogging. In the sports world this is called ‘interval training’, basically it means walk a bit, jog a bit, walk to recover then jog a bit more. Again, setting yourself realistic goals is the key to success. Over time you can increase the ratio of jogging to walking until you can jog the whole way. Targeting a local fun run to compete in can be a source of inspiration and motivation; what about getting a group of friends together and entering as a team?
Want to take your physical activity to a higher level and get back to nature at the same time? Hiking brings added dimensions to your walking experience and additional health benefits as a result. In general, hiking will involve negotiating variable terrain such as rocks, gravel, sand and grass as well as formed paths; you will also be challenged by changes in gradient. These challenges can help to improve your balance, leg strength and physical endurance. Changes in gradient along the hikeare like interval training in disguise as climbs give way to flat sections where you can recover your breath. Many hikes offer a rewarding destination such as a lookout or natural feature which gives the walk a sense of purpose and enhances your motivation. There is also the element of being in a natural setting that can be calming and lower stress levels.
Many short hikes are on well formed paths and can be negotiated in shoes suitable for walking or jogging. However, if you plan to tackle a more challenging hike you might like to invest in footwear designed for more rugged terrain; these will provide you with more ankle support and toe protection. Hiking poles can help with balance and also reduce fatigue on long walks. It is also important to plan for changes in weather by packing extra clothing. Walking and hiking groups exist across the country and joining a group is a great way to find out about hikes in your local area. There are also a great number of hiking books available and hikes are normally graded as to their distance and degree of difficulty. Hiking is an activity that you can share with your family, getting away from the weekly routine and exploring new destinations.
Tennis is a whole body activity that helps to improve your coordination, balance, reflexes and physical endurance. Tennis is also a fun and social activity that can be undertaken at a variety of intensities depending on the skill level and competiveness of the participants.
A warm up prior to starting a game is essential to prepare your body for more vigorous activity. Warm ups can include knee raises, arm circling, shuttle runs across the court and some friendly volleys over the net. A cool down which includes gentle stretching after the game will help to increase your flexibility and minimise muscle soreness the next day. Remember that some muscle discomfort following exercise is normal but you shouldn’t be in severe pain.
Cycling is a low impact (less jarring) activity that is very good for your joints, in particular for your knees and hips. There are numerous studies that support cycling as an activity to increase joint mobility and decrease pain associated with osteoarthritis in the knee and hip. Cycling also uses the muscles of the lower leg, thigh and buttocks to achieve pedal rotation and therefore has a toning effect on all these muscle groups.
Cycling allows you to cover much greater distances with less effort than walking or jogging and provides a way to explore new places. You can also work cycling into your day by using the bike for transport if you live in an area where it is safe to do so. If commuting by bike is not an option then you can explore safe spaces to ride and invest in a bike carrier to get to paths and trails away from the traffic. Cycling is also an activity that families can enjoy together.
Swimming is another low impact activity that can be enjoyed at a range of intensities from casual lap swimming to aqua fitness classes to Masters’ swimming competitions. Swimming takes place in a buoyant (weightless) environment and so there is virtually no jarring of joints. This means you may be able to more physically active in the water than on land, particularly if you have joint or back problems. Water also exerts more atmospheric pressure on the body than air and so exercising in the water can lead to reduced joint swelling and better circulation. Also, if you are exercising in a hydrotherapy pool (which is hotter than a regular lap swimming pool) the extra warmth will allow you to move more freely and will induce your muscles to relax.
Aquatic centres, gyms and health clubs are good places to find out about access to a pool and aqua fitness classes. Adult education and Masters’ swimming clubs offer learn to swim and stroke correction classes for adults who want to take up swimming or improving their technique.
Outdoor Yoga / Tai Chi / Pilates
Each of these practices will help you to improve your flexibility, balance and coordination. The deliberate movements and holding of postures provide your body with a gentle stretching and strengthening routine. There is also an element of mindfulness to these practices; that is, as you go through the postures you are focusing your awareness on how your body is moving and your thoughts in the present moment. Mindfulness is a powerful therapeutic technique used to reduce anxiety and resolve trauma. Sessions often end with a meditation or relaxation time that can leave you feeling relaxed and in a more positive frame of mind.
Councils, health clubs, gyms, adult education and local associations for the practices are good places to find out about available classes.
The most important message is to explore the possibilities out there, try some new activities and find out what you enjoy. You are more likely to continue doing something you enjoy than something that is a chore. Variety is the spice of life.
Dr Sharon Hetherington is an accredited exercise physiologist working for Exercise & Sports Science Australia. Her work and research interests are in helping people to overcome barriers to physical activity and to live healthier, more active lives.