Studies show that less than 5% of adults get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Most children aged 8-18 now spend more than seven hours a day in front of a TV, computer, or video game. Are you one of the majority? If so, it is time to get moving.
Medical advances have kept us living longer and longer; unfortunately, our quality of life is not necessarily better due to premature aging. When you think about aging, the two most critical elements are the ability to move and think.
When it comes to moving, from about age 40 to 50 onwards, we start to lose 1-2% of our muscles every year. At the same time, we also lose strength. If you want to be able to play with your grandkids, carry your own groceries, live independently, or travel until your golden years, it is critical to maintain strength and function. The sad news is there is no pill for that! If you don’t exercise your muscles, you will lose physical function as you age.
When it comes to the brain, one cannot stress enough the importance of exercise. Research in the last decade has confirmed that living a physically active lifestyle is one of the most crucial things you can do to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you are not yet convinced, the next section discusses the many benefits of physical activity. Then discover the kind of exercise that gives you the most bang for your buck but only requires 20 minutes twice a week. Lastly, learn about some other forms of exercise that are crucial for your well-being.
Benefits Of Exercise
Exercise strengthens bone and prevents osteoporosis
As you age, you lose bone as well as the strength of the bone that is there. On the other hand, the more weight and stress you put on the bone, the more it grows. Therefore, doing weight-bearing exercises is a tremendous way to maintain bone density and strength.
Exercise lowers blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity
Diabetes occurs when a person has abnormally high levels of blood sugar or glucose and the body is resistant to insulin which helps regulate glucose levels. When your blood sugar elevates after a meal, the sugar is first taken into your muscles (and liver). Healthy, active muscles consume a lot of sugar. Every time you exercise, you increase the number of receptors on the cells and the number of channels in the cells to let blood sugar in. The body becomes more sensitive to insulin which helps pull sugar out of your bloodstream. After exercise, your muscles chew up sugar for the next 48 hours. Hence, if you do it regularly, you get long-term benefits of preventing and controlling diabetes.
Consistently high blood sugar and insulin resistance are extremely bad for your heart and your brain. Diabetes and heart disease often go hand in hand. Once you have diabetes, you are going to have heart disease. Diabetes also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which many researchers now name it type 3 diabetes.
Exercise boosts brain structure and slows Alzheimer’s
Maintaining an active lifestyle, which includes not only exercise but also active hobbies like gardening, yard work, dancing, and recreational sports, helps preserve gray matter volume in the brains of older adults. Gray matter consists of neurons which are essential to cognition that includes attention, memory, language skills, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making.
Exercise provides protective effects to the brain by reducing the damaging plaques and beta-amyloid peptides associated with Alzheimer’s.
Exercise prevents clogged blood vessels in the heart and the brain
Exercise is important for the heart and the brain because they are both dependent on blood flow.
- It enhances the health of the blood vessels by allowing them to open up more.
- It improves the effect of the nervous system on the heart. When you exercise, your nervous system shifts from the sympathetic tone, which is the stress tone, to the parasympathetic tone, which is the rest tone. That is why people who are physically active have lower heart rates.
- It is important to have more rest tone because the calm and relaxation that comes with exercise is in effect all day, not just when you exercise.
- Exercise increases the density of capillaries, the smallest blood vessels, and expands your blood volume.
- It may help lower blood pressure in some people.
- It may contribute to better sleep. People who are physically active usually have fewer sleep problems.
Exercise helps with weight control, in particular, belly fat loss
Belly fat is dangerous. It is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Fat cells in the abdomen are different from fat cells in the thigh or arms. Abdominal fat cells produce more harmful, inflammatory chemicals that result in many chronic, degenerative diseases.
If you try to lose weight by merely dieting, you run the risk of losing muscles and lowering of your metabolism. Having more muscles helps boost your metabolic rate by burning more calories. When you start exercising, you may realize that your pants fit differently but your weight has not changed much. The reason is muscles weigh more than fat and with exercise, you are losing fat while building muscles.
What Kinds Of Exercise Are Essential?
1. High Intensity Interval Exercise
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 30-60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days a week. It is not surprising that most people are unable to meet the minimum requirement. The number one reason given for not exercising is lack of time.
What if it only takes 20 minutes and you only need to do it twice a week? If you have time to watch TV or surf the Internet, you have time for exercise.
Mounting research is showing that the ideal form of exercise is not related to long distance or duration after all. Rather, short bursts of high intensity exercise has been shown to beat conventional low to moderate intensity cardio as the most effective and efficient form of exercise. Here is why.
To get cardiovascular benefits, you are required to work both types of muscle fibers:
- Slow twitch (red muscle) – activated by long duration, low intensity activities
- Fast twitch (white muscle) – activated by short duration, high intensity activities
Traditional cardio exercise works only the red muscle fibers and not the white fibers, which will weaken over time.
Additionally, your heart has two different metabolic processes – the aerobic which requires oxygen for fuel and the anaerobic, which does not require any oxygen. Conventional low to moderate intensity cardio works primarily the aerobic process.
This is the reason you may not see the results you desire even when you are spending an hour on the treadmill or elliptical several times a week. You are only working half of your muscle fibers! High intensity interval exercise works all your muscles (red and white) as well as both your aerobic and your anaerobic processes.
How to do it?
Total time: 20 minutes.
You can use any exercise equipment like stationery bike or elliptical for your high intensity interval exercise. If you are using a treadmill, it may be better to boost the incline rather than the speed to prevent tumbling off the treadmill. If you are sprinting outdoors, make sure you warm-up properly to prevent injuries.
Warm up for 3 minutes.
Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should be gasping for breath and feel like you cannot possibly go on for another few seconds. It is best to use low to moderate resistance and higher speed to increase your heart rate. The aim is to reach 85-95% of your maximum. To calculate your approximate maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
If you do not have a heart rate monitor, estimate your rate of perceived exertion. When you warm up, you are at a 5 on a 10-point scale. When you sprint, the goal is to go up to 8 or 9. You feel your heart rate goes up, you are out of breath, or it is hard to talk.
Recover for 90 seconds. You are still moving but at a much slower pace and decreased resistance.
Repeat the sprint/recovery 7 more times before cooling down. When you first start out, depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do 2 or 3 sprints or your version of sprinting may be just getting out of your comfort zone and walking faster. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions and increasing your speed until you are doing 8 sprints during the 20-minute session. You can also vary the interval patterns, such as the length of the sprints and the recovery time, to make it more challenging.
Is it safe?
You may think that this sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen but in reality, it is very safe. In a study that tracked more than 21,000 men for 12 years, the risk of a sudden death from heart attack was 1 per 1.51 million episodes of vigorous exertion. You run a greater risk to your heart by sitting on the couch all day.
However, always start slow and build up intensity as you progress. If you have a heart condition, check with your physician before launching a new exercise regimen.
When to do it?
Some people like to do it first thing in the morning, some at lunch, and some after work. The key is to get off your couch and do it. Whatever works for you is what works. Some people do find that exercising too close to bedtime interferes with their sleep.
To reap the benefits of high intensity interval exercise, you need to do it at least twice a week. If you are looking to lose weight, you should do it 3 times a week. This type of exertion mimics how our ancestors lived – chasing animals for lunch or being chased for lunch! You recreate exactly what your body needs for optimum health that includes the production of human growth hormone (which declines with age), the burning of excess belly fat, and improved cardiovascular health and stamina.
Having said that, do not do it more than 3 times a week and always have a day’s rest in between. Also, it is wise to alternate among different types of exercises (running, biking, swimming, jumping rope, etc.) because without variety, your body will quickly adapt and the benefits will begin to plateau.
2. Strength Training
This is a key component of overall health and fitness. Strength training is important for everyone – male and female, young and old. Strength training helps you:
- Develop stronger bones.
- Control your weight by reducing body fat, increasing lean muscle mass, and burning calories more efficiently.
- Reduce your risk of injury and contribute to better balance and coordination as you age.
- Boost your stamina and mood.
- Prevent and manage chronic conditions such as arthritis, back pain, diabetes, and depression.
With strength training, most people will probably need someone to teach them how to get started. This is where YMCA or your local gym comes in. You want to challenge your muscles so that they grow stronger, but you also want good form to prevent injuries. Do 2 days of strength training per week.
Some women do not want to do strength training because they are afraid of looking too muscle-bound. The truth is that once they get into it and see how nice their toned shoulders and arms become, they never look back. So give it a try.
3. Core Exercises
Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body. Core exercises help:
- Support your back and reduce occurrence of lower back pain.
- Protect your body so that it is less prone to injury.
- Improve balance, stability, coordination, and flexibility.
- Make you look good by toning and flattening your abdominals.
- Enhance your athletic performance in any sports.
Core exercises are more than just doing abdominal crunches or sit-ups. They train your deepest abdominal muscles that surround your entire waist. Any exercise that forces you to stabilize yourself can be considered a core exercise. A large number of them, such as squats, lunges, planks, side planks, back bridges, push-ups, oblique twists, and superman, can be done at home with no equipment and just your own body weight. You can learn them from a personal trainer or even from watching a video online.
Pilates and yoga are also excellent for strengthening your core muscles.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends stretching at least twice a week to improve flexibility and range of motion. However, there is currently another camp in the sports medicine and fitness communities that does not support stretching. In their opinion, there is no conclusive evidence that stretching can truly enhance athletic performance, prevent injuries, or muscle soreness.
To stretch or not remains controversial. Nevertheless, if you decide to stretch because it makes you feel better and improves your mobility, keep in mind the following do’s and don’ts regarding stretching.
- Do dynamic stretching before exercising but after a proper warm-up. This involves movements that closely mimic what the body does during a particular sport activity. For example, a swimmer will be doing arm circles, trunk and shoulder rotations. The purpose is to promote blood flow through the muscles, loosen them, and get them ready to perform the full range of motion required for the sport.
- Do static stretching after exercising and cooling down. This is done when the body is still and involves stretching to a point of tension and holding that stretch for about 30 seconds. Stretching after exercise helps release tension and prevents the muscles from tightening up.
- Don’t bounce when you stretch.
- Don’t stretch to the point of pain as you run the risk of damaging muscle tissues, tendons, or ligaments.
- Don’t stretch an injury. Instead, P.R.I.C.E. (protection, rest, ice, compression, elevation) immediately.
- Stretch all major muscle groups and stretch both opposing muscles. Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle that acts against it, such as the front of the legs (quadriceps) are opposed by the back of the legs (hamstrings). Imbalances can lead to injury or postural problems.