ALWAYS check with a medical professional before starting a new fitness program or making major changes to an existing one, especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease, have joint pain or have been very sedentary for a period of time.
When people think of fitness they tend to think of it as terms of just how much they work out. Or don’t work out, as the case may be. Many people who spend a half hour to an hour a day exercising hard in the gym become frustrated that this isn’t enough to meet the goals they’ve been told to expect from fitness magazines, books or, sadly, professionals. Others, likewise, figure that it takes “hours and hours” in the gym, time they don’t have, and don’t even bother.
The fact is, that even if you have reasonable goals of being stronger and healthier (as opposed to looking a certain way), an hour in the gym is not going to counteract spending the rest of your waking hours sedentary. I’m not just talking about muscle gain or weight loss, but about the actual health benefits. We are an animal that evolved to move a lot, yet we are an increasingly sedentary society. Many of us are virtually tied to desks for livelihood, then spending much of our free time in front of either TV or computer screens. Often it’s all many have the energy for because we are just as under slept as we are sedentary ..and, of course, some of us have health issues which mean we may need more rest than others. We do not get true rest when sitting, often stressed out, and working or even “relaxing” after work…real rest is an important, and often neglected, element as well.
I like to think of this on terms of a triad, as I like to think in threes generally anyway. But it does come down to the fact that there are three activity phases needed for good fitness levels and health. That would be physical activity, exercise and rest.
It’s actually fairly common to confuse “physical activity” and “exercise” but they are not the same thing; exercise is a form of physical activity, but not all physical activity is, or at least should be, exercise. And what they mean for different people can be somewhat different as well, for some of what the average person considers exercise might be an athlete or warrior’s physical activity. This is one of the reasons why so many believe that fitness requires hours of working out, when really, it just requires more movement through out the day rather than just in the gym; athletes physical activity would include their training, it’s what they do. In our sedentary world, we often forget that our ancestors moved almost constantly during their waking hours, primarily in the quest for food…not just hundreds of thousands of years ago but just a few decades ago and in some parts of the world, still today. In the Western world now the most we might get is from roaming the grocery story, often in the wrong sections, and plopping something in a microwave for a minute.
“Physical activity” is defined by the American College of Sports Medicine as “bodily movement that is produced by contraction of skeletal muscle and that substantially increases energy expenditure.”  These are the things we should be doing on an every day basis, depending on our health and ability, regular activity, such as moving throughout the day, doing chores at home or on the farm (traditionally and for some of us again), walking your dog, playing with your children, gardening, social dancing. It would have meant hunting and gathering food, or planting, tending and harvesting food, or herding food. While our society might have evolved to be more sedentary, our bodies have not. And while some might have the notion, as many a Star Trek episode seemed to suggest, that we’ll evolve away from needing our bodies, it’s not a future that looks good to me and I doubt to anyone who would be reading this.
Depending on our jobs, it can be difficult to find ways to increase physical activity during our work hours; today many jobs are inactive and some are seemingly designed to prevent workers from adding any activity. There are the little bits that are commonly suggested, of course, remembering to park further away if you must drive to work, walking or biking to work instead of driving if you can, taking stairs instead of the elevator, getting up from your desk and just doing something any chance you get, going for walks on breaks.
Those who have some control over their work environment can do other things; one that is becoming increasingly popular is standing desks or work stations. These are set higher up so that you stand and move around rather than sit at them. For those with a lot of control and cash, there apparently are even treadmill desks. In places where the desk can’t be changed perhaps the chair can be replaced with a balance or stability ball. This may be sitting, technically, but it’s a far more active sitting, and keeps the core muscles which most of us let slop about with our poor sitting posture working and strong. For those who can change their chair but a ball rolling about the office might be a problem, there are even balance ball chairs, which might not be quite as effective as they don’t roll the same way, but are still better than conventional chairs without being overly noticeable. If you can’t change the chair, then there are “cushions” which work similarly that you can put on your chair and even in you car if you drive. These might not be optimum, but every little bit is something.
Outside of work look for physically active forms of recreation. Go for walks, hike, take a martial arts class. Play, I mean really play as in run and laugh and shriek, with your kids. Gardening, cleaning house, washing the car, do it all with determined activity.
And, yes, some of those things – hiking, martial arts – sound like exercise. They may be for the average person and that is awesome for those goals as well as those who may be dealing with health issues even while on the warrior path., but we on this path, if we are able, are looking to be more like athletes, aren’t we? While a martial arts class might be seen as a form of exercise for a average person replacing other forms, for a serious martial artist it would be seen as part of physical activity, something they get fit to do, not by doing. This is why the “hours and hours in the gym” idea has become so ingrained in people’s minds, because for athletes some of their training really is more defined as physical activity than exercise, so some of their activity might take place in a gym. Many women might take a cardio-kickboxing class to exercise, but a competitive kickboxer likely runs and lifts weights to be able to stay strong in the ring, her fight training is more of a physical activity of her vocation. We on a warrior path need to be less “Average Jane” and more the athlete or warrior who fills our waking time with as much movement as possible every day, as our health and lifestyle might allow.
Like at work, especially if you are sedentary at work and then might have limited time for other activity, you can “multi-task” what sitting you do at home. Again, for computer and TV time, you can stand or sit on a balance ball; you have control of your home desk, right? But, also, “multi-task” in more relaxed ways; what time you spend sprawled on the couch should be used to snuggle your significant other, kids and/or pets something to give yourself some restful comfort. That means not just snuggling your laptop. Or a bag, box or carton of fake-food. Or that report you didn’t finish, do that at your at home standing desk. When you sit to rest, really REST, don’t sit and stress instead.
This is what you’re mostly reading this series for, right? And I will be covering how to build an exercise program in future articles so I’ll stick to bare basics here. The ACSM defines exercise as “planned, structured and repetitive bodily movement done to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness.” This is your workouts, the components of which are aerobic (or cardiovascular), strength and flexibility all of which must be included. Yes, three again, I can’t help myself…but then there’s no getting away from this triad, these are all required for healthy fitness.
Three often shifts into four, however, but really the fourth, neuro-motor training, is someting that I feel should be included as part of all training, which is why I do not have a separate section for it. Incorporating static balancing positions, using instability devices, doing control movement that involves balance and coordination should be a part any exercise program….at the individual’s capability and needs.
Most of us do find that we are more naturally suited to one or two of these while one or two come to us harder; it’s rare to be naturally really flexible, really strong and have really amazing endurance…and those who do tend to end up competitive athletes. Typically someone very strong is not likely to be real flexible or have cardiovascular stamina and someone very flexible might not be real strong and so forth. And most people love to work their strengths, to do those things that their body naturally is adept to, often neglecting, giving up on really, forms of exercise that might come harder. This even goes so far for some that they actually attack the other components as pointless, wasteful and deny the science behind them; sadly, this includes a growing number of “fitness experts.”
While it can be lovely to revel in what we do best, which ever that is, we can also enjoy the challenge of developing what comes hardest. Striving to find a balance of all three facets is vital and all three feed into the others. Without one of these physical traits being brought to our own personal optimum, the others will fail too.
I know most of you are primarily interested in strength training, so no sales pitch here on that, but without also balancing that with stretching for flexibility the body can become tight and lack range of motion. Without a strong cardiovascular system, well, we can just plain stop if it is weak or damaged enough; and heavy weight lifting can put a strain on the heart with no benefit to it, so we must exercise it too.
The frequency for each of these forms of exercise is different. Stretching can and should, especially if you are not naturally limber, be done at least after cardio or strength training and anytime you wish after warming up the muscles with activity as “cold” muscles can tear more easily It should always be done in a slow, static way with not bouncing movement.
Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise can be done from 3 to 5 days a week, and can be done on consecutive days. Doing more per week has not been found to be more beneficial but can increase your chances of injury especially if you do the same activity each time. Remember, this doesn’t include daily physical activities. For general fitness and health the best cardio exercise is the one(s) you will do; for those on the warrior path I highly recommended that you also consider the survival focused ones, such as running and hiking (preferably with a pack of the weight and style of your go-bag…if not your go-bag itself). While any aerobic exercise will strengthen your heart and lungs, you only get good at the ones you actually do.
Strength training, that which most of you love the most, we might do the least of, depending on how many body parts we work in a session, how intense we are lifting and our bodies’ individual needs. A given body part must be rested (that is from actual strength training, that doesn’t mean skip stretching, cardio or physical activity) for at least 48 hours. For those who have trouble gaining muscle, resting longer, combined with heavy workouts, is far more likely to bring results than lifting more often as counter-intuitive as that may seem. As the primary form of strength training, I recommend “traditional” weight lifting, combining single joint and multiple joint exercises utilizing free-weights and body weight.
Of course, there are exercises that combine two or more of these fitness components and these can be added in to ones regime. Most Yoga forms, for example, combine stretching and strength training, although the strength aspects can be hard to develop if you’re not already strong and lifting can help you get there. Some involve cardiovascular periods as well. Pilates similarly can combine some stretching with strengthening. Kettlebell work is often very aerobic, some training programs with them are actually more-so than they are strength training (and be careful with these as some create unsafe momentum, be aware of your posture and form). But all forms of “dual” methods should be in combination with focusing on each component. These are also best used to help keep things changing and for “active rest” phases which we’ll discuss more in the strength section.
But with the three components, people again start to think “hours and hours in the gym” and few of us have that. Not having the time is the number one excuse people use, but again, it doesn’t have to take that much time. First, unless you are choosing to do a mixed training, there is no reason you have to do both cardio and strength training in one session. For weight training depending on how intense you work out, it could be just half an hour. Depending on how you split your workout and how long your body needs to rest (which does vary as noted above, but is always at least two days for a given body part), this might just be two or three days a week…it might be more but chances are if you’re splitting it that much your sessions are short. A twenty minute to half hour run, especially if you are otherwise physically active, is enough for cardiovascular health, if you have no more time than that (remember to give yourself some time to stretch and cool down). On days you have less time, it’s okay to work out a bit less than on days you have more. It really is. In fact, as you progress, you’ll find that every change you make helps confuse the body and that is important, especially in muscle building but it can also help in cardiovascular work as well.
Okay, now you’re thinking “rest isn’t activity; it’s the opposite of activity.” This is, in fact, probably where a lot of us get in trouble with it. There is so much to do, especially now that we’ve added in all this exercise and physical activity, that rest is just a waste of time. But it isn’t, it’s a key component of our activity. Without enough rest, including enough sleep, our bodies can not perform adequately nor recover properly. And rest must mean rest, as I noted above just because you’re sedentary doesn’t mean you’re resting; being stressed in a seat or prone position is not rest.
Muscle builds during the rest periods, not during exercise. It’s the recovery. So think of sleep and relaxation as an actual part of your training, a time where the activity takes place inside you rather than outside.
When it comes to sleep, this could be one of those things where I could tell you to do what I say and not what I do. Or I could lie and tell you I’ve got a great relationship with sleep. Or admit that I don’t but make excuses about my night time work schedule just making it too hard. But instead I’m going to be honest that I do not and I’m going to take an attitude of “we’re in this together, what can we do about it?” I’m totally a work in progress and recently I have learned a few things about sleep that I think are helpful and that I’m TRYING to use to fix my relationship with it.
First I want to dissuade anyone who has the idea that just because you habitually sleep very few hours and manage to drag yourself through everyday like that, with the help of caffeine and sugar most likely, that you are one of those Short Sleepers. You’re not. Okay, a short sleeper might have bothered to read this for entertainment, what with all the time they have on their hands (although I suspect another motive, as you’ll see), but they no more need suggestions on physical activity or exercise as, well, they not only have the time to do all that but they have a lot of energy. Constantly, and all the time.
Conventional recommendations regarding sleep for we who are human as been “an average of 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.” It’s that uninterrupted part that is usually the problem. So, pretty much all of us wake up in the wee hours of the morning and we know it’s The Insomnia! We will not get enough sleep! We will not be able to do what we need to do during the day! We must now worry over everything that we have to do during the day! OMG! Also we must worry about everything we did yesterday that we messed up because we have The Insomnia! What about that presentation next week! We’ll have The Insomnia and screw it to hell! We must get The Insomnia fixed!
Again, the conventional advice is to not lie in bed tossing and turning and worrying, but to get up and go to another room and do something. This “wisdom” says that you will only toss and turn and worry with The Insomnia if you stay in bed. Well, the problem is, light makes you more awake. Getting up makes you more awake, for that matter. And the tossing and turning might be that because that’s what we’re told is expected, because we’re told that this waking up is The Insomnia. I remember being told as a child when I’d wake up how I would suffer at school for not sleeping through the night. So I’d lie awake listening to the hours tick by (clocks that chime the hours are not your friend). I started this worrying about The Insomnia early. I think many have.
But it may be that while there is real insomnia, and I do not mean to make light of those with a real problem with it (but obviously, that’s outside of my scope of abilities), this may not be it. Sleep studies have shown that it’s normal for people to wake up after a period of sleep and stay awake for a period of time. And that for people who don’t fret about it, it’s not a problem. They drift along in lovely day dreams, meditate, happily plan out a worry-free day, have sex, snuggle, then they drift back to sleep. And awake far more rested than those of us who may simply be convinced that interrupted sleep is The Insomnia!
So what do we do? Well, stop worrying! It’s that simple. Um, yeah…not so much, right? But it’s the goal. We need that rest, we need to learn to accept the waking and not make it worse by getting up, we need to not rely on drugs that make keep us unconscious but don’t usually make us feel rested (note that most sleep aids warn about morning tiredness! So what is the point?). But, obviously, “just get over it” doesn’t really work.
I’m on a mission with this. To make my house darker before I intend to go to sleep and accepting that I won’t fall asleep for awhile and that that’s okay. Then when I wake up, to just accept it and stay there and work on reprogramming my brain. I try to think about good things as my mind willfully tries to make me think of bad things. This will take effort and time. I might listen to relaxing music (such as these Gaelic lullabies) and am considering some meditation tapes. Sometimes, yeah, I resort to watching something a bit boring, but not so boring it doesn’t keep my somewhat distracted, to watch but in bed, despite “conventional wisdom.”
Yes, when any Shit Hits the Fan and we’re in crisis, we might have to go long periods without sleep. However, practicing not sleeping does not make you better at not sleeping. It just can’t, the body doesn’t work that way. It’ll just mean that you’re judgment is always off, that your body is not working at it’s best and therefore that you will not manage in a crisis as you really need to. So forget “you can rest when you’re dead,” that thinking may just make you, or someone you love, dead all the sooner if you maintain it as a constant philosophy. Instead, sleep when there is no crisis, doing what you need to do to do it well, so that your body and mind are ready for when you absolutely must go without. And even during a crisis, get what rest you can when you can to keep yourself able to go for the long haul.
Copyright © 2011, 2015 Saigh Kym Lambert