Everyone in the groups have been making their own choices as to what type of aerobic activities they are doing to get exercise the past six weeks, and each week they are reaching most if not all of their goals. I have guided them to set goals they know they can reach, to pay attention to how their bodies’ feel with the level of activity they are doing, and to avoid overdoing it or trying to add too much more too fast. I’ve told them to stretch the goal no more than 5-10% after reaching the previous week’s goal, and if they feel they want to stay at their current goals to go with that.
Starting Off Slow with Enjoyable Activities
Several people were so motivated by their initial successes, they got extremely ambitious and exercised for much longer periods of time, exercised every day, or both. When I saw that, I encouraged each one of them to be careful and to scale back considerably. While this is not the advice you would expect from a fitness expert (or personal trainer as I am), it is good advice. Here’s why. When you overdo it, you set yourself up for an overuse injury, stressing your immune system or feeling overwhelmed at having to keep it up, and any of these can lead to getting derailed and losing your motivation to get going again. I’ve seen this happen too many times with my clients, and I have learned that it is better to build up slowly and safely to maintain enthusiasm and consistency.
A number of other people were picking activities they felt they should do, and while they have been motivated by the group accountability to stick with them it isn’t enjoyable for them. Doing exercise you don’t like won’t keep you motivated for long, so it is important to find activities you do enjoy. Sometimes it is hard to know what that might be, especially if you are so out of shape you can’t do much. One gal finds exercise boring and uninspiring, but she loves sports like tennis. So she is looking into getting Wii Sport to renew her tennis passion and get moving in a way that is safe for her current fitness levels.
Learning How to Pace Progression
At this point the groups need more guidance as they become more active, so that was the theme for this week’s sessions.
I showed them a way to know how much exertion they were doing, so they could safely and effectively increase their fitness levels and progress from moderate paces to the point they can increase their aerobic capacity. I introduced the chart below, which shows a commonly used scale for determining Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This is subjective based on a talk test, yet it works really well when you don’t have or don’t feel motivated to get a heart rate monitor.
As you can see, when you are below an 8 on the RPE scale, which corresponds to 85% of your maximum heart rate (on the blue band), you are in the moderate zone. And between 60-85% of your max heart rate (or between 3-8 RPE) you are in the fat-burning zone. At the moderate and moderately easy levels, this is considered heart healthy, and this is where you want to start when first exercising. It is also the exertion levels where you get some of the greatest improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity. Whereas, as you move up to difficult and very difficult intensities you get the greatest fat loss benefit. When you get into the anaerobic zone, above 85% of your maximum heart rate, you begin to overload your heart and increase your aerobic capacity. This is a good thing, but only when it is done in bursts of very short intervals followed by longer recoveries back in the aerobic zone. These bursts are called intervals, and they are very effective at increasing fitness levels and accelerating fat-burning.
But, as I cautioned the groups, the goal isn’t to just do interval training and higher fat-burning. The goal is to build up to that point and then mix up the cardio with both days of moderate and longer periods of exercise and days of more difficult interval-based exercise. You benefit from both and it allows for a mix of activities that are both intense and more moderate. Furthermore, the body will adapt to whatever you do repeatedly, so it is best to mix it up with different intensity levels, types of activities and lengths of time.
Everyone in the groups will now add their RPE levels each time they are active in their fitness journals, so they can see where they are and pace themselves to do a bit more every couple of weeks until they are able to sustain more difficult levels. They can even start doing some periodic intervals in their current routines that will move them up a level or two in RPE, by adding short bursts (either by increasing their speed or their incline – like a hill) whenever it feels right to do so.
Balancing Core Elements of Fitness
There are four primary areas of fitness: cardiovascular, strengthening, flexibility and balance. While there are different schools of thought as to which is most important and which you should start doing first, I explained to the groups that our primary goal is to establish a lifelong cardio foundation as the basis of a healthy lifestyle. The health benefits of maintaining aerobic exercise are too numerous to list here, yet they aren’t limited to just reducing the risks of diabetes and heart disease. Moderate levels of aerobic exercise improve arthritis, depression, energy, stamina, sleep, osteoporosis, mental focus, stress, digestion and more.
It is too easy to take on too much too fast, when you try to do cardio, strengthening, stretching and balance all at once, and very often it gets too overwhelming or too time intensive to maintain. That doesn’t mean that at some point, they won’t be doing all of this – as I now do in my weekly routine. But first I want them to develop a consistent aerobic practice they will stick with before adding in much more. The only exception is stretching, which is important for them to begin adding in now if they haven’t already done so.
In time, they will also add in core strengthening (which often goes hand in hand with greater balance) and full body strengthening. Some are doing a bit of this now, which is fine if it doesn’t get in the way of having enough time for being aerobic. I know many personal trainers would disagree with this approach, suggesting strengthening should come first or along with cardio, but I am a realist and focused on making sure everyone has long-term success at maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle. I am less focused on having them build muscle now or achieve rapid changes.
Those changes will come in due time and it won’t hurt them to wait until they can successfully and incrementally add new things into their routine they can sustain. I know from my own experience this works, even in my 40s. I started off with cardio my first year until I had it down, and then I added strengthening the second year, and the third year I added Pilates. Years later, I am doing all of them regularly, have maintained my lean body mass and continue to stay fit. Sure I could have built up my muscles and gotten leaner faster, but I didn’t lose anything by waiting a year. Instead I found a way to incorporate strengthening into my routine because I didn’t get too overwhelmed, and I’ve stuck with it into my 50s. Not many can say that.
Preventing Injury Before it Happens
One other thing I addressed was injury prevention, which becomes a greater concern the older you are and the more out of shape you’ve become. There is nothing worse than being derailed for months once you feel you are finally on track and making progress.
Again I had to learn this first hand by having an exercise-related injury from strength training, and I’m not alone in getting hurt exercising. The problem is muscle imbalances, where some of your muscles are very tight and short and others are weak and long, creating imbalances around joints and across the body. Some of the weakest areas are in the upper back and core.
When you have imbalances, which often occur from poor posture, prior injuries or being sedentary, you are prone to tearing muscles, ligaments and tendons when you become active. This is most common with weekend warriors, but it also happens doing any new activity that pushes you more than your body is prepared to do.
I am hoping to find a physical therapist in private practice who can offer preventive full body evaluations, so we know where their imbalances are and what physical therapy exercises can be done in preparation for strength training. I used to have someone who did this for my clients, but that PT is no longer available. So if anyone reading this blog knows of a PT who would be interested, please have them contact me.
Read What the Participants Have to Say
Find out what the group members are doing with their fitness and how they are doing in making other healthy changes in the comments below. Please feel free to add your own comments as you follow along.
To participate on your own or in a group, check out the contest website for details and tools at www.aHealthyLifestyleWorks.com/contest.
Have a fit and healthy week,