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Exercise Fundamentals
  • Exercise Fundamentals

Exercise Fundamentals: The Other Half of Weight Control

Let's face it: Dieting is difficult, and permanently upgrading your eating habits takes determination, too. When making these changes, you need all the help you can get—and luckily there is one inexpensive, medically approved strategy that will not only boost the effectiveness of your diet, but also keep the pounds from coming back. For good measure, it will give you a better-looking body, and a healthier, happier life.

The strategy is simple: Eat less. Exercise more.

Why Dieting Is Not Enough

If you still secretly believe, as so many people do, that you can slim your body and keep it slim forever with one crash diet, you are headed for disappointment. At first, your efforts may be successful. But if you diet without exercising, you are at risk of becoming a fat person in a temporarily thin body. Remember that 95 percent of all dieters will eventually regain the weight they have lost if they do not make permanent changes in their eating habits—and do not increase their level of physical activity during (and after) a diet.

In addition to boosting the results of your diet and keeping extra pounds off afterwards, exercise offers you these valuable health bonuses:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • Increased endurance, strength, energy, and productivity
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved body tone and enhanced attractiveness
  • Reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • Protection against adult-onset diabetes
  • Help with smoking cessation

And there is more. Exercise not only increases your body's metabolic rate and helps you burn calories faster, it also stabilizes your body's insulin and blood sugar levels, and can decrease your appetite. Regular exercise also fights the effects of aging and can even extend life. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health indicated that men and women aged 86 to 96 tripled the muscle strength of their legs when they worked out with weights. This is especially good news for older seniors, who may be able to avoid life-threatening hip fractures and other disabling injuries if they embark on well-supervised exercise regimes. Other studies have shown that weight-bearing exercise can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, the "brittle bone" condition that afflicts many women in their postmenopausal years.

How Muscle Building Helps

If you think that muscle-building exercise (weight training) is only for the bulging biceps crowd, think again: Muscle-building exercise is one of our strongest allies in the war against fat.

Here is why: Both fat and muscle tissue burn calories just to maintain themselves. A pound of fat burns two calories a day—but a pound of muscle burns 30 to 50 calories a day. The more muscle tissue you have, the more calories you burn each day—even if your day's most strenuous exercise is channel surfing.

On the average, muscle mass shrinks by 10 to 12 percent between the ages of 30 and 65. Middle age tends to be a time in life when people slow down and become less active, which itself depletes muscle tissue. And when muscle tissue shrinks, a vicious circle begins: Your ability to burn calories plummets—and your fat deposits grow.

Trying to reverse this process with a crash diet alone may just make matters worse: Crash diets can rob the body of muscle as well as fat. In a quick 30 pound weight loss, for example, 4.5 pounds of muscle could vanish—and that lost muscle means that your body will burn calories much more slowly than it did before. The obvious solution: You need to build—or at least maintain—muscle while you are losing weight.

For shedding pounds and keeping them off, for maintaining your health and extending your life, for improving your looks and boosting your outlook—for all these things, exercise needs to be a regular part of your life.

Beginning an Exercise Program: When to See Your Doctor

If you are under 35 and in good general health, you can probably begin most exercise programs without permission from your doctor—as long as you start out slowly, warm up and cool down as recommended, and build up to peak levels over a period of time.

But if you are over 35, seriously overweight, habitually inactive, or a smoker, it is wise to consult a physician before you begin. (Seek your doctor's approval, too, if you are planning to work out with weights for the first time.)

No matter what your age, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends that you see your doctor before beginning an exercise program if you have any of the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart trouble
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of strokes or heart attacks
  • Frequent dizzy spells
  • Extreme breathlessness upon minor exertion
  • Arthritis or other bone problems
  • Severe muscular, ligament, or tendon problems
  • Any known or suspected diseases or conditions, including back problems

If you have any of these conditions, your doctor may recommend an exercise stress test. It is a simple, painless procedure that takes about 30 minutes to complete. As you use a treadmill or stationary bike, your heart rate, blood pressure, and other readings will be monitored. Based on your test results, your doctor will help you design a safe and effective exercise program for your individual level of fitness.

Make Exercise An All-day Event

Here are ten good ways to get more exercise out of your daily routine:

1. Hop off the bus a stop early and walk to your destination.
2. Get off the elevator a floor below yours and take the stairs.
3. Do not drive from store to store when shopping—park far away and walk
4. Do not call pals in other offices at work—walk over to see them.
5. Walk to work—or walk at least part of the way
6. Do not order in lunch—walk out for it.
7. Never sit when you can stand, or ride when you can walk.
8. Reserve part of your lunch time for walking and/or stretching.
9. Do your own house and yard work.
10. After a while, get off the bus or elevator two stops sooner; speed up your walking. 

Consider this: For people in good health, the risks of inactivity are potentially far more dangerous than those associated with vigorous exercise.

Once you begin your program, you will notice sustained results within eight to twelve weeks. You will find you have plenty of energy to perform your daily routines—with energy in reserve to meet peak demands. You will have the vigor for leisure time pursuits, whether you enjoy hiking through a museum or up a rocky hillside. You will gain endurance and be able to walk, jog, run, or swim farther than you could before you became fit. Your muscles will be strengthened and your body will become more limber and flexible.

As you approach your "personal best" level of fitness, your body fat will decrease; your muscle mass will increase. You will have a leaner, more attractive body, and you will experience a generous boost in your self-esteem.

What is the Right Exercise Program for You?

You have made the decision to incorporate exercise into your life. Now you face a dizzying array of options from which to choose. What kind of exercise is best? How can you find the time to exercise? Should you exercise with or without supervision?

Think about your lifestyle. If the exercise program you are considering does not fit into it, it will be hard to stick with that program over time. Consistency and regularity guarantee the success of your weight loss/fitness exercise program, so choose a program that can become as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth.

Think of your new exercise plan as a package of components that you can vary according to your needs, your moods, and your individual level of fitness. If you seek maximum weight loss and health benefits, the triad of aerobics, muscle-building exercise, and stretching is essential. You can combine them in some kinds of exercise (like fitness walking and jogging), vary your exercises, and add other options for variety.


The most important component of your exercise program should be aerobic ("in the presence of oxygen") exercise. An aerobically fit body uses oxygen efficiently during exercise; over time, aerobic exercise conditions and strengthens the body's heart and respiratory systems so that it can function well during sustained physical activity.

Aerobics provides exercise for your heart muscle, which, like other muscles, needs a regular workout in order to maintain its strength. For your heart to receive maximum benefits from aerobic exercise, it must be worked at (or near) the upper end of a "target heart rate" (THR) range, where it is being effectively but safely stressed. For the way to calculate your THR, see the nearby box.

Start by working toward the low end of your range; build slowly over time to the higher end. If you have consulted a doctor before beginning your exercise program, be sure to follow his or her advice with regard to your THR.

Determining Your "THR"

Subtract your age from 220, then multiply that result by 0.6 and 0.9 to get the lower and upper limits of your Target Heart Rate range. The THR range of a 40-year-old, for example, is 180 (that is 220 minus 40) times 0.6 and 0.9, or 108 to 162 (heartbeats per minute). Take your pulse by counting the number of heartbeats for 10 seconds; multiply by six to find your heartbeats per minute.

How Long Should Your Aerobic Workout Be? Estimates of the ideal amount of aerobic exercise have been on the increase. Past recommendations called for at least three 20-minute sessions per week. Now the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults get a total of at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most—preferably all—days of the week. Moderate physical activity is any exercise that requires about as much energy as walking 2 miles in 30 minutes. Children need a total of 60 minutes of exercise each day.

To achieve optimal fitness, The American College of Sports Medicine recommends aerobic exercise three to five times per week, at 60 to 90 percent of the upper limit of your THR, for a total of 30 to 45 minutes. The workout can be continuous or intermittent, as long as each exercise segment is at least 10 minutes long. To lose weight, the recommendation rises to exercising at least five times per week.

Stretching for Flexibility

The Warm Up. Five or 10 minutes of warm-up stretches will help you avoid muscle stiffness, soreness, and even injuries. Stretching also enhances your body's flexibility, a key component of overall fitness. Finally, stretching adequately before your principal exercise prepares you mentally for the activity at hand.

When performing general warm-up stretches, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds; do not bounce. When you feel a definite, but not painful, pulling sensation, you will know that you are stretching adequately. Make sure to stretch the muscles you will be exercising; runners, for example, should concentrate on leg and lower back muscles; rowers should stretch arm and upper body muscles. Stretching exercises are recommended two to three days a week to enhance performance, improve range of motion, and prevent injury.

The Cool Down. After a workout, let your heart rate return to normal while you do a low-intensity exercise, such as slow walking. Do cool-down stretches—which can be the same as your warm-up stretches—to keep blood from pooling in your legs, to prevent dizziness after a strenuous workout, and to help prevent muscle soreness. Spend at least 5 minutes cooling-down.

Muscle-Building Exercise

Exercising with weights or resistance-type exercise machines such as Nautilus is essential for dieters (and everyone else), for these exercises build calorie-burning muscle. In one study, a group of people followed the same diet and exercised for 30 minutes three times a week. Half performed aerobics exclusively; the other half cycled for 15 minutes and worked on Nautilus machines for 15 minutes. After eight weeks, the aerobics-only group lost 3 pounds of fat and a half pound of muscle. But the group that combined aerobics and strength training lost 10 pounds of fat—and gained 2 pounds of muscle.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which once recommended aerobics alone for fitness, has now added muscle-building exercise (strength training) to its guidelines. They suggest two or three weekly sessions, 8 to 12 repetitions each, of 8 to 10 different exercises. One set of eight to ten repetitions is sufficient to increase strength and build muscle mass, although three sets may provide a slightly greater benefit. Lifting free weights, working out on Nautilus machines, and doing exercises like sit-ups and push-ups are good. Make sure you learn how to use any equipment properly so you can get the maximum benefit and minimize your risk of injury. As with aerobics sessions, make sure your strength-training sessions include an adequate warm-up and cool-down period.

Circuit Training

Circuit training combines the heart and respiratory benefits of aerobics with the muscle-building and toning benefits of strength training. It differs from strength training in two ways: It uses lighter weights and more repetitions; and, unlike strength training or exercise machine workouts, where several sets of repetitions of each exercise are performed before moving on, in circuit training you move quickly from one exercise to another in sequence. Depending on your level of fitness, you repeat the circuit one or more times.

Studies show that circuit training burns more calories than strength training, and is a real energy booster. An added benefit: Those who enjoy this fast-paced workout say it helps beat boredom.

Circuit training can be done in a gym or health club, where staffers can design a program tailored to your needs (see the section on "What to Look for in a Gym or Health Club"), or in your own home (follow the program in the nearby box).

Whether you circuit-train in the gym or at home, you are likely to gain muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance in two or three weeks; after five to eight weeks, you should begin to see an improvement in muscle tone.

The Big Four: Biking, Running, Swimming, Walking

Fitness experts call these the "Big Four," since when it comes to aiding weight loss, aerobic conditioning, fitness, and general well-being, these activities are among the best. In addition, each is easy to learn, adaptable, relatively inexpensive, and can be done alone or with others. If you are lucky enough to enjoy doing these exercises, they can also make up most of your fitness program. Bad weather's no deterrent, either; today stationary cycles and treadmills take exercise indoors.

Walking. According to Casey Meyers, an expert on walking and author of two books on the subject, this most natural and basic of human activities has been recognized as a serious form of exercise only since the mid-1980's. In his book Walking (Random House, 1992) he argues that, mile-for-mile, once you shift to a run you are using less energy (burning fewer calories) and less oxygen than if you had increased your speed while still walking. This fact, he claims, dispels the myth that running is superior to walking for weight loss and aerobic fitness.

When it comes to weight loss, whether you run a mile or walk it briskly (15 minute per mile), you will burn the same number of calories.

There are four levels of intensity for fitness walking.

  • Low (Strolling): 18 to 30 minutes per mile. Start with strolling when you begin walking for fitness, especially if you are seriously overweight or have not been getting exercise.
  • Moderate (Brisk Walking): 14 to 17 minutes per mile. Most fit walkers can handle a 15-minute-per-mile pace in comfort.
  • High (Aerobic Walking): 10.0 to 13.5 minutes a mile. At this intensity, walking and running overlap; at this pace, a slow run or jog begins. You are walking aerobically only when you reach your THR.
  • Very High (Race Walking): Less than 10.0 minutes a mile. This is considered a track and field event and has been part of the Olympics since 1908; it is a competitive sport and not a daily exercise.

As with any other form of exercise, studies show that you will reap the most rewards from walking if you walk three times a week for at least 20 to 30 minutes each time, reaching your THR. Your goal, over time, should be to walk three miles every time, no matter what your pace. However, the faster your pace, the more aerobic benefits you will realize and the faster you will burn calories

Running/Jogging. Running or jogging is arguably the most popular form of aerobic exercise in America today. Millions of runners now take to city streets, country lanes, and parks everywhere as part of their regular exercise routine.

Is there a difference between running and jogging? According to running expert Bob Glover, the only difference is the spelling. He calls everyone a runner, no matter how fast or slow their pace.

Who can run? Almost anyone in good health, with no history of chronic illness. As with any other form of exercise, however, if you are over 35, smoke, or have any of the medical conditions listed earlier, check with your doctor before you begin.

Getting off to a running start is simple. All you need is the right footwear. Good running shoes must fit perfectly, and be light, flexible, and durable. Look for these qualities:

  • Thick, layered sole from heel to toe
  • Resilient heel wedge and reinforced heel cup
  • Molded Achilles tendon pad
  • Flexible midsole
  • Padded tongue
  • Studded rubber sole

Before you run, do 10 minutes of stretching and warm-up exercises. Once you are running, begin slowly, and aim to run a mile or so in 15 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week. Alternate running with brisk walking, especially when you first start your running program; work up to your THR over time.

When you can run a mile comfortably, you can increase your distance gradually—but not by more than 10 percent a week.

Running is not without risks. Injuries are common to runners—it is estimated that nearly 60 percent will suffer at least one injury serious enough to temporarily prevent training. Many injuries are caused by easily avoided conditions such as ill-fitting shoes; rocks, bumps, holes and other unfavorable road or track conditions; running farther or faster than your fitness level allows; and bad running technique. You are more likely to sustain injury if you run competitively.

Heat-related conditions such as dehydration, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps can be very serious. They are also easily avoidable. Wear light clothing; do not run on very hot and humid days; and drink plenty of fluids during longer runs. On hot days, drink about eight ounces 15 minutes before you run, and every two miles during the run. Always include 10 minutes of cool-down exercises after your run.

Biking. Nearly 100 million Americans are bikers. People ride for transportation, fun, fitness, and competition. But no matter what the reason, biking is a great aerobic conditioner and muscle-toner. It also promotes flexibility, especially of the hip and knee joints. Since it is a non-weight-bearing exercise, biking is good for those who are overweight, inactive, or over 40.

Biking for fitness is only slightly different than biking for pleasure. Follow the general guidelines for an aerobic workout; warm up and cool down appropriately before and after biking; and bike steadily for about 30 minutes at a rate that keeps you within your THR.

There is one major drawback to biking—it can be hazardous. Though no exercise can ever claim to be "perfectly safe," according to running enthusiast Bob Glover, more people are injured when biking than during any other aerobic activity. You can greatly reduce the risks by following these safety tips:

  • Wear a hard-shell helmet at all times when riding. Purchase one at a reputable bike shop or sporting goods store; it should bear a safety label from the Snell Memorial FoundationTM. Learn how to adjust the helmet for a snug, safe fit.
  • Remember: Bikes are vehicles. Ride with the traffic. Obey all traffic signals and signs. Signal your intentions to those around you.
  • Make sure you are visible—the brighter, the better. Apply reflective tape to your bike, including the spokes
  • Anticipate! Watch ahead for turning cars, jaywalkers, car doors that may fly open in front of you, and dogs.
  • Wear a whistle around your neck or equip your bike with a loud horn, buzzer, or other noise-making device.
  • Never listen to music through headphones while biking.

Swimming. A water workout is great aerobic exercise. And because water packs 12 times the resistance of air, it is ideal for toning muscles while burning fat. In water, your weight shrinks to just 10 percent of what you weigh on land. This eliminates stress on ligaments and joints, and lessens the risk of fractures, sprains, and strains. This is particularly important for the elderly or pregnant. Water-based exercises are ideal for those with arthritis, as well as for obese and sedentary people. Exercising in a swimming pool can also be a real physical and psychological stress beater.

At a hefty 600 calories a mile, swimming expends more energy than almost any other form of exercise. Experts advise using the crawl or backstroke when swimming for fitness. Be careful that water temperature is not too cold or warm—the ideal is 82 to 86 degrees; avoid eating heavily before your swim.

Water exercise also offers a wide range of workout possibilities. Special exercises have been developed for use in the water. For example, try the "water jog," which is nothing more than jogging in water while pumping the arms. You should begin slowly, aim for a 10 minute jog, and build up over time to 20 to 30 minute sessions. For a more challenging workout, jog in water that is chest-deep.

Aquatic equipment like boots, wings, barbells, and other devices are also available for water exercises, as are flotation devices that allow non-swimmers to do water workouts.

If you swim or exercise frequently in a pool and find yourself irritated by chlorine, you can purchase eye goggles; nose clips and water-tight ear plugs are a good idea, too.

For Fun, For Variety, Try . . .

Many less traditional and some previously out-of-style forms of exercise are in vogue now. Football players study dance to improve their footwork and coordination; women are entering the boxing ring; and children and adults are taking up all forms of martial arts. Different forms of exercise can add variety and interest to your routine. You can probably find classes for most of them at your local gym, health club, adult education center, or Y.

Calisthenics, the "granddad" of modern exercise regimes, are the exercises you remember from gym class: jumping jacks, squat thrusts, toe-touches, push-ups, and sit-ups. Performed correctly, they are excellent calorie-burners, can provide aerobic conditioning, and can tone and strengthen muscles.

Use calisthenics as a warm-up to your regular routine, for a break, or even as your entire routine with an aerobics component. As with any exercise program, be sure to include a warm-up and cool-down period, and to work at your personal level of fitness, building up gradually over time.

Yoga. Whether you think of it as a way of life or as a way of exercising, yoga can reduce stress and enhance your mental well-being. On the physical side, certain yoga exercises are good for increasing flexibility and strengthening muscles. In addition to classes and private instruction, there are a variety of books and videotapes for everyone from beginners to advanced practitioners.

Plyometrics. Remember the medicine ball? It is making a comeback as a fun addition to your regular aerobic workout. Plyometrics, the stretching and sudden contraction of muscles as when catching a heavy ball, can build muscle strength and increase power. For more information on these exercises, including a routine for wheelchair athletes, read Plyometric Exercises by sports physiologist Dr. Donald Chu (Bittersweet Publishing Company, Livermore, CA).

For a change of pace in your aerobics workout, substitute a medicine ball for hand weights. Make sure to start out with a small, lightweight ball, about 18 inches in diameter, weighing from two to nine pounds. The weight you select should depend on your personal level of fitness; the lower the level, the lighter the ball. Medicine balls are generally available at fitness retailers.

Dancing. Ballroom dancing. Line dancing. Square dancing. Disco dancing. When done continuously and energetically for a half-hour or more, dancing is a great form of aerobic exercise—and a fun way to meet people.

The martial arts, including karate, t'ai chi ch'uan, kung-fu, judo and aikido, vary in their efficacy as total exercise programs, but all may aid your ability to fight stress and remain calm under duress. Some, like karate, are ancient forms of self-defense; others, like t'ai chi ch'uan, are considered "soft martial arts" rather than training for protection.

These disciplines are taught in martial arts schools and many community centers. Before you sign up with a martial arts school, check its credentials and get references to make sure they have an appropriate program for you.

Boxing. You do not have to be a fighter to consider boxing as a fitness activity. In gyms across the country, women, as well as men, are discovering that boxing is an excellent aerobic workout that conditions upper body and leg muscles. If the notion of sparring with a partner seems too aggressive, try a punching bag to absorb your energy. Check the yellow pages under "boxing instruction," or call health clubs to find a program in your area.

When to Stop

How much exercise is too much? It all depends on you and your personal level of fitness. But, fit or not, knowing when to stop is vital in order to avoid injury.

While you should feel sweaty and slightly breathless in the middle of your aerobic workout, and be able to hear your heart pounding in your chest, you should not become dizzy or nauseous, or feel sharp pain. If you do, stop and take a rest; see your doctor before resuming exercise if symptoms continue. But if you experience:

  • Faintness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pressure or discomfort in your chest
  • Bursts of very rapid, slow, or irregular heartbeat
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Severe joint or muscle pain

STOP exercising at once, and consult your doctor before going back to your program.

Source: From the PDR® Family Guide to Nutrition and Health™