Fitness is the new “hot-trend”. You just have to scroll through Instagram to see a plethora of posts dedicated to home-based workouts, HIIT regimes, Weight Training, Running, swanky new exercises classes… the list is endless. There are a multitude of health benefits to be gained from regular workouts including
- Weight loss
- Lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes
- Reducing blood pressure
- Improving mental well being
Weight: obesity and overweight
Weight loss is a lot of peoples main motivation for getting into exercise and for good reason. Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in the Western World. According to Public Health England around 60% of people were overweight in the period between 2013-15 and one in four women were categorised as obese and trends show this problem is growing. Obesity is one of those terms we all hate to use: it has negative connotations and often upsets people when they are labelled this way. Essentially it means that a person is 20% heavier than their ideal body weight. But what’s the problem? Being overweight is not simply an “aesthetic” issue (although this can be what motivates some to change) but more importantly is a major health issue which can contribute to multiple long-term health problems like Type 2 Diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, high blood pressure, asthma, difficulties conceiving, psychological distress and depression, joint problems such as arthritis and cancer to name but a few. The good news is that most of these health problems can be reversed by losing weight. Great. Simple. Or is it? Many people struggle to lose weight even when they are highly motivated. It involves a complete shift in life-style: diet and exercise are both key components and it can seem daunting, time-consuming and expensive. So where to start?
Benefits of exercise
Losing weight is often people’s goal but what if you’re already a healthy weight, why should you exercise? In recent years there have been a few papers published in reputable journals like the British Medical Journal (BMJ) which extol the benefits of exercising other than the aesthetic changes. A study in October 2017 showed that the risk of developing depression can be reduced by 1-2 hours of exercise per week by 44%. Another shows that one in 12 deaths can be reduced globally by between 1-2 hours per week and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) can be significantly lowered. And it’s even been linked to boosting “brain-power” in another study with one 45 minute session of “moderately intense exercise” advised in the over 50s per week.
So we know why we should exercise and the benefits of regular training but how to we start, and where? In January, thousands of people sign up to gyms with New Year deals and heads full of resolutions to “go to the gym”. Very often, people do really well for the first couple of weeks and then they just stop. There are loads of reasons for this: they don’t know what to do when they actually get to the gym, it’s boring when they’re there and often, it can be quite intimidating. The gym works really well for some people, and obviously there are people who seem to spend their lives there (I’m fairly guilty of that) but there is no “one-size fits all” for exercise. So here are my tips for where to start:
- Find an activity that you enjoy: there’s no way any one will stick at anything they find boring or unpleasantly uncomfortable for any period of regularity so it’s best to think of group activities or exercises that you find fun.
- Think outside the box: again, exercise is not just jogging, lifting weights, going to a class or (my personal nemesis) swimming, but can consist of activities that you can do in your daily life. Such as walking or cycling to work, rock climbing, dance classes, team sports etc.
- Think about starting a fitness routine with a buddy: it’s very difficult to stay motivated if you’re going it alone. It can be helpful to find a friend or family member to encourage you to keep going.
- Have a goal: Targets are useful. They give you something to work towards and keeps you motivated. Just make sure that the initial target is achievable at first and then you can revise it and start to “think bigger” as time goes on. Some people find it helpful to think of things like “I want to be able to fit into that dress I bought 3 years ago” but I tend to find goals such as “Aim to be able to run/swim/cycle 5-10km in a certain time-frame in 3 months”.
- Keep work outs varied where possible. The body gets used to moving in certain ways so I have often found it useful to “mix-up” my work out routine.
- Try and include some resistance training. This can be the tricky one. When people first start exercising the emphasis is generally on cardiovascular or aerobic type exercises like running, spinning, swimming. This is a great way to initially build fitness and get into the routine of regular training but eventually it can be beneficial to add in weights (resistance training) in fact, the guidance is that we should all do more resistance training than cardio. This can be quite a daunting prospect initially particularly for women: the fear of building muscle mass and becoming bulky stopped me from lifting weights for years, but the truth of the matter is, it’s very difficult for women to build muscle in that way and using weights in training is an efficient way to tone up and burn fats, thus making it ideal for improving the function of the heart and reducing blood pressure.
If you think you may fall into the overweight or obese category I would advise you to see your GP. They may want to assess your cardiovascular risk and check for any of the complications that I listed above. In some areas the GP can also refer you to an exercise programme to help you get started with “exercise on prescription”. Also check out the NHS website’s section on fitness for more information on how to get started and the guidelines for activity according to age-group.