A thousand other commitments every day hold us back from the one thing that can jump-start our bodies to better health quickly. Yes, it’s daily exercise, and yes, you knew that. But did you know that:
- There are effective and not-too-hard ways to get good exercise into your daily routine?
- It’s good for your brain, your emotional health, your bones and all kinds of other stuff?
- Even if you do some kinds of exercise — say, a daily walk — there are a few other simple habits to add for optimal health?
This month, we have answers about exercise: The why, the how, the what. The Who? That’s you.
Good for the Body, Good for the Brain
Everyone understands that having good endurance, muscle strength and flexibility don’t happen without activities that hone them. But a recent study in the Journals of Gerontology showed that such fitness also might help your mental health as you age. People who have better aerobic fitness in middle age appear to be better at warding off brain shrinkage later in life. As a story on Reuters.com explained, that means they’re potentially better able to preserve memory and other functions.
Another study published in PLoS, also found that adults 65 and older can improve brain function by raising their fitness level. It tried to determine the ideal amount of exercise necessary to achieve brain benefits. Participants were placed in groups of varying amounts and intensity of activity or in a control group that did not exercise.
All exercise groups saw some benefit, and people who exercised more saw more benefits in their overall attention levels and ability to focus.
“Basically, the more exercise you did, the more benefit to the brain you saw,” the lead author said. “Any aerobic exercise was good, and more is better.”
Although these findings support the body of evidence associating physical exercise with higher volumes in certain areas of the brain, the research had limitations. Such long-term studies usually attract healthier and better-educated people, so who knows if the results would be similar for a more diverse group of subjects.
So does exercise help us preserve cognitive ability, or do smarter people just exercise more than others?
For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter — the association between physical fitness and at least some kinds of brain function later in life appears to be solid.
Know the Rules, Then Apply Them
You can’t improve your fitness unless you put sufficient physical demands on your body fairly often. But what’s “sufficient” varies for each individual, depending on age, underlying health conditions, resting heart rate, muscle strength and current conditioning status. What’s reasonable also enters into the equation. We all know people who bike to work five miles every day, who run marathons, who practically break out in hives if they can’t get to the gym by 6 every morning
Promoting good health doesn’t require that, and with effort, you still probably can follow the national exercise guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate, aerobic activity most days, as well as a couple of sessions a week of strength and flexibility training. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes weekly.
Aerobic activity (also called “cardio” exercise) is anything that raises your heart and breathing rate and pumps oxygen-rich blood, fueling your muscles. The effort expended must be sustained to improve fitness, but its intensity can vary throughout the workout. Walking, swimming, dancing, playing soccer — they’re all forms of aerobic activity.
Strength training puts muscles under load through a range of motion to build muscle fiber. Stronger muscles not only are able to lift or carry more weight, but improve stability and balance. Lifting weights, working out with rubber resistance bands and many Pilates workouts are all examples of strength training.
Flexibility training helps maintain range of motion and reduce joint stiffness. Yoga promotes flexibility, but any stretching routine can too, as long as it’s appropriate for your profile.
According to Harvard Health Publications, exercise is any activity that requires you to generate force by using your muscles. The greater the force exerted, the more exercise you get.
For the best conditioning, you must practice cardio, strength and flexibility training; especially for the first two, you must increase the intensity as your fitness level rises.
About 1 in 3 U.S. adults is obese, and one reason is because we spend so much time sitting. A recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, ACSM) of healthy and physically active individuals found that even though they fulfilled the current exercise recommendations, their muscles were inactive for 65% of the time. People with the least muscle activity had worse cholesterol and blood fat levels.
Maintaining intensity is different for different people. One person’s fast walk is sluggish to another. If the first person maintains that pace for 30 minutes, he or she is enhancing fitness; if the second person follows that pace, he or she isn’t.
You can tell if you’re working hard enough if it’s difficult to carry on a conversation while in motion. If so, your intensity is OK; if not, step it up.
Building cardio fitness often requires including intervals in your workouts. Those are bursts of high-intensity activity followed by a recovery period and another interval. Think of sprinting, on a track or on a bike, where you race as fast as you can for a minute, or three; then back off for a minute, then do another sprint interval.
Exercise wonks use VO2 max to determine their cardio fitness level, and to track its improvement. That measurement shows peak intake of oxygen on exertion, or how well your body is delivering oxygen to your cells. As explained in the New York Times, “VO2 max has been shown in large-scale studies to closely correlate with significantly augmented life spans, even among the elderly or overweight. In other words, VO2 max can indicate fitness age.”
Generally, you measure VO2 max in an exercise lab. But you can calculate your “fitness age” pretty well on your own. Fitness age is how well your body functions physically in comparison to how it should function according to your chronological age.
The Times story referred to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise of 5,000 Norwegians between 20 and 90 years old. They were measured for height, body mass index, resting heart rate and cholesterol levels. Each filled out a lifestyle questionnaire, then ran on a treadmill to the point of total exhaustion, when their VO2 level was noted.
The researchers discovered five basic metrics that could reasonably predict a person’s VO2 max, and, therefore, his or her fitness age — waist circumference, resting heart rate, frequency and intensity of exercise, age and gender. You can measure yours via the online calculator they developed.
A youthful fitness age, according to the study’s senior author, “is the single best predictor of current and future health.”
Although 30 minutes daily/150 weekly is the standard prescription for cardio, strength and flexibility training routines are more individual, depending on your goal — getting stronger overall? Recovering muscle strength and/or range of motion after an injury or to combat arthritis? Improving stability and balance in your older years?
Generally, strength training works discrete muscle groups, increasing the weight and/or number of times you lift/resist (repetitions, or “reps”). Often, muscles groups are worked in sets — for example, 12 reps of a certain weight in three sets separated by a minute’s rest. The goal at the end of each group’s workout is muscle fatigue — you simply can’t lift any more. As Dr. Howard Knuttgen of Harvard said, “If you can lift a weight 20 or 30 times without any problem, you’re not building much strength.” Once you can do 15 repetitions easily, add more weight or resistance.
If you don’t use proper form in weight and flexibility routines, you can be injured. As long as you follow good form, it doesn’t matter if you use free weights, like barbells and dumbbells, resistance bands machines or yoga. Begin a program with advice from a gym trainer or other expert who understands proper form and can ensure you’re working the full range of motion intended. Generally, it’s easier to maintain good form on machines than free weights, but the latter usually build stability because more than one muscle group is engaged.
It’s best to alternate days on which you do cardio and strength training, although that’s less important than being active any time you can. And as long as you don’t overdo it, flexibility exercises can be done daily.
Just Go Out and Play
You needn’t follow rigid workouts to get the exercise your brain and body crave. If you enjoy an activity, you’re more likely to do it frequently, and even if you’re not reaching a certain measurement of exertion, you’re fitter just by moving.
Gardening or working on home improvements can build strength, flexibility and range of motion. Participating in group activities like dancing in class or a nightclub is fun exercise. Organized sports are available to people of all ages and abilities.
But, as described by a poll on NPR, as people move into middle age, they watch more sports than they play.
The Sports and Health Poll, done in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that, among adults:
- A majority played sports when they were younger, but only 1 in 4 plays sports; almost 3 in 4 people 30 and older played sports when they were younger.
- The top two reasons adults say they play sports are for personal enjoyment and health. More than half (55%) do so for personal enjoyment, and almost 1 in 4 do so to improve health, to get into or stay in shape or to lose weight.
- A majority who play sports say it has improved their health; almost 6 in 10 say playing sports has reduced their stress; more than half say it improved their mental or physical health significantly.
- About half of adults exercise regularly; most (7 in 10) say they do it for health reasons, and nearly half say they do vigorous- or moderate-intensity exercise on a regular basis.
- Walking and cardio/aerobic activities are the most frequently reported forms of exercise. The top five were walking (27% of adults who exercise), cardio/aerobic activities (23%), running or jogging (15%), weight lifting (12%) and biking (6%).
But people who play primarily to stoke their competitive juices might be likelier to fall off the exercise wagon as they age. Four in 10 people between 18 and 25 said they play sports, but only 1 in 4 ages 26 to 29, and only 1 in 5 older than 50 plays sports.
“Respondents to our poll,” according to NPR, “cite health problems and injuries among their reasons for not playing sports. But they also say they just don’t have the time or the interest.”
One key poll point can help adults establish lifelong exercise habits for their kids: Don’t emphasize winning, emphasize playing.
Sports psychology coach Greg Chertok, a member of the ACSM, told NPR, “Kids don’t begin playing sports with the sole intention of winning.” That’s usually an adult-imposed goal.
Taking pleasure in winning is fine, but, according to the story, “the main goals of youth sport should be exercise, fun, social interaction and personal growth and development — character building.” Parents and coaches who are rigid about winning risk turning kids off to sports and their health benefits forever.
Many people who lack motivation to exercise find it by working out with others — a friend or neighbor to walk with after dinner, by signing up for classes at a gym or workouts with a personal trainer. Many employers subsidize gym memberships or classes, so check with you company’s HR department to see what fitness benefits are available. Some health plans also sponsor organized exercise.
If you really can’t find time for exercise as a scheduled activity, find ways to incorporate it into your daily life. Use a manual lawnmower; take the stairs at work or any time you’d opt for an elevator; park at the opposite end of the lot from where you need to be; ride a stationary bike while you’re watching TV.
For tips on how to get started exercising regularly, and for help in finding professionals who can guide you, link to the service pages of the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Is a Fitbit For You?
See our blog from last month: “Do Fitness Trackers Work?”
Here’s to a healthy rest of 2015!
Patrick Malone & Associates