August 2009

The Why and How of Exercise

Author: Amanda Nowak

Throughout my career as an exercise physiologist and fitness trainer, I have had numerous conversations with people about their desire to start an exercise program. Typically, an event such as a high school reunion or a wedding date inspires people to hit the gym. However, plenty of individuals start exercising because of a physician’s recommendation. It wasn’t until I started working with older adults that the health benefits of exercise became so apparent. Sure, my clients felt stronger, looked better and had increased energy, but they also reported improved blood lipids, decreased blood pressure, less reliance on their medications and no more pain! While exercise may not always be prescribed with a pen and paper, it truly is one of the best forms of medicine.

Before you dash out the door to go walking or start a set of push-ups, it is important to clearly understand what type and intensity of exercise is required to achieve health benefits. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), exercise is any type of planned, repetitious activity that is performed to enhance or maintain one or more components of physical fitness: body composition, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength and endurance. Unlike exercise, physical activity is any movement that increases energy expenditure. It is important to differentiate the two types of movement patterns to determine how to achieve your results.

The Surgeon General’s report suggests that individuals who participate in moderate physical activity on all, if not most, days of the week will obtain significant health benefits. However, if your goal is to lower your triglycerides, reduce your dependence on insulin or simply lose weight, you might consider swapping your beach cruiser for a mountain bike. Simply put, physical activity is good, but regular exercise is better.

The dose-response relationship between exercise and health benefits demonstrates that individuals who participate at higher durations and intensity of exercise achieve greater results. Public health recommendations suggest participating in moderate exercise five times per week for 30 minutes per session or vigorous exercise three times per week for 20 minutes per session.

The terms moderate and vigorous are specific to each individual and are defined based on percentage of maximal heart rate or maximal oxygen uptake. These terms do not necessarily describe the specific activity that is required to achieve a desired heart rate or intensity level. For example, a sedentary adult may find walking at three miles per hour to be a vigorous activity, while a marathoner may need to sprint up a hill to elicit the same heart rate response. That same marathon runner will also need to participate in longer, more frequent training sessions than the sedentary individual to attain greater physical fitness. To summarize, in order to achieve health benefits, the mode, intensity, and duration of exercise is specific to an individual’s current fitness level and desired goal.

Before starting any exercise program, it is essential to clearly define your goals, create a timeline for achieving your goals and define a system to measure your progress. While goal setting is one of the most important steps to achieving desired health benefits, not all goals are created equal. A goal such as “I want to lose weight” is not measurable, whereas, “I want to decrease my body fat percentage by five points” clearly defines the parameters to achieve results.

Setting a specific goal is important, but it is not always best to shoot for the moon. While you may envision yourself crossing the finish line of a triathlon, your brand new Nike’s will fall short without proper training. To avoid injury, exercise programs must incorporate slow, gradual progression. Creating smaller, more realistic goals will help in monitoring your progress and bring you closer to race day.

A specific and well-designed exercise program usually takes six to eight weeks to produce noticeable results in physical fitness. However, individuals typically report pleasant side effects within the first two weeks of beginning a program. In general, people who participate in regular exercise experience heightened levels of energy, decreased anxiety and an improvement in overall mood. Exercise has also been shown to decrease some of the emotional and physiological side effects of mood disorders such as depression as well as increase positive factors such as self-esteem and self-efficacy.

While exercise can clearly benefit your mental health, there are numerous physiological benefits as well. One of the most well researched areas of exercise physiology is the effect of activity and the prevention of chronic disease. Participating in regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer. By conditioning the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems through both aerobic and strength training, individuals can increase cardiac output, improve circulation, decrease resting heart rate, reduce body fat and increase bone density. Exercise can also help to manage chronic conditions, reduce the symptoms associated with disease, and decrease morbidity and mortality rates.

Clearly, there are numerous benefits to regular exercise; however, sticking to a program is a common obstacle for many people. To increase exercise adherence, try simple tips like working out at the same time every day, training with a friend or carrying your gym bag in your car. Remember, physical fitness is not a destination but rather a journey throughout your lifetime.

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