Exercise 101

Everyone knows exercise is important. Even if you’ve never seen the inside of a gym before, you are barraged by magazine covers, television advertisements and billboards filled with fit, happy looking people telling you how easy it is to be healthy. You may even own a piece of gimmicky equipment purchased with three easy payments. You probably hung your coat on it last night. If you can’t seem to find the time or motivation to exercise on a regular basis, you may want to consider the benefits of strength training and cardiovascular activity. After all, our bodies have not changed much in the past several thousand years, but our day-to-day level of physical exertion has significantly dropped. Less than 100 years ago, most people worked in labor-intensive jobs, such as factory workers, farmers and construction trades, which required constant effort. Automobiles were rare, doors had to be opened by hand and much of your grocery list was raised, hunted or grown by you. Life was filled with constant movement and the hard work of living.

After work, no one was able to come home, turn on the television and “veg out” and the idea of the Internet could not be found even in a science fiction novel. Neighborhood kids would play tag, jump rope and climb trees until dark. Even adult recreational activities required movement, whether cultivating a garden, caring for the home or hunting and fishing.

Thanks to technological changes since then, much of the exercise, which was part of daily life even 50 years ago, is not necessary anymore. When was the last time you opened a door at the grocery store? How long has it been since you ate a meal of food grown and prepared with your own two hands? Do you know how long it takes to walk to work? When was the last time you even walked around the block? Consider the fact our bodies are the same today as they were when we had to move to live, and you will understand why so many people are unfit and unhealthy.

The good news is you can improve your health through regular exercise at any time. Men and women of every age and condition have become stronger, increased their energy levels and improved the quality of their lives through exercise. Now, don’t think you have to join a gym, wear spandex and drink protein shakes. Simple, easy-to-learn moves can improve your strength, endurance and balance.

Exercise is available in many forms.  Weight training, calisthenics, boot camps, pilates, yoga, running, biking, walking, swimming and you get the idea. All involve movement of the the musculoskeletal system, which requires energy. Energy comes in the form of calories from the food you eat. When you burn more calories than you ingest, you lose weight, although not eating enough causes your metabolism to slow down and you may gain weight. This is why a healthy diet, although not covered in this section, is as vital to your wellbeing as exercise.

Strength training is a form of exercise often associated with body builders, football players or the muscular guy on the beach. However, it is a key to everyday living. Increasing your strength makes it easier to pick up a bag of groceries, wrestle with your son, or simply get out of bed. This is because strength training uses resistance (such as your body weight) to build muscular strength, endurance and the size of skeletal muscles.

There are many ways to increase your strength through resistance training. Resistance training means you are using your strength to lift or move a weight placed in opposition to the muscle or muscles involved. Weights are often used, but your body weight, elastic bands and household objects, such as gallon jugs filled with water, are effective tools to increase your strength. The fundamental approach to strength training involves performance of a series of exercises with resistance, for a number of repetitions. The specific combination of reps and weight used is determined by your ability and goals. Generally, exercises to develop greater strength use fewer reps and larger weights, while endurance is increased with greater numbers of reps and lighter weights.

Equally important to health is cardiovascular fitness, often referred to as aerobic fitness. Aerobic exercise involves the use of large muscles groups moving for long periods of time. Running, walking, swimming and biking are all aerobic activities, which increase the heart rate and the body’s usage of oxygen. This is important because the body uses oxygen in the energy-generating process. Also, aerobic exercise strengthens the efficiency of the heart muscle.

What does that mean? When you exercise aerobically on a regular basis (20 minutes, three times a week is a good place to start) your heart becomes stronger and pumps  more blood with each beat. This means your heart doesn’t have to beat as fast to move the same volume of blood. So, your heart works less and will last longer. As your heart works more efficiently, it can deliver more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, which also become better at using oxygen. With more oxygen arriving in the muscles, the powerhouses of the cells, or mitochondria, increase in number and activity. The mitochondria use oxygen to burn fat and carbohydrates for fuel. As their activity increases, so does your endurance.