Wintry weather. The best reason not to step outside for either a walk/run or not to get in that cold car and drive to the fitness center. Yes, running in very cold weather is not necessarily the best choice for some, and waiting for the car to heat up and defrost takes just enough time for you to talk yourself out of going.
As the earth moves away from the sun, nature’s pattern is to slow things down. Trees redirect their blood flow from appendages to the core. Birds leave town for the widest waistline of the planet. Bears, rodents and other hibernators prepare for a long winter’s night.
We humans follow the same path. There is a rhythmic response to cold programmed from a long time ago. We slow down. We seem to be hungry more often. Making any effort is, well … an effort.
This is the time of year when the difficulty of maintaining (or worse, starting) a fitness plan rates a 10-plus on the scale of impossible achievements. But it doesn’t have to be that bad. Some basic fitness facts will lay the foundation of how to get through the winter and not gain 10 pounds.
There are five components of fitness we need to consider:
- Cardiovascular – the fitness of the muscle of your heart and the transportation system of blood vessels. Also the best mode of exercise to keep unnecessary weight down.
- Muscle strength – can you pick up something heavy once or twice and not pull your back out?
- Muscle endurance – can you paint that room today and still be able to move tomorrow?
- Flexibility – unrestricted joint movement from the neck to the knees and beyond.
- Body composition – how much unnecessary weight are you carrying?
Stop laughing. Maintaining fitness can be done in as little as three times a week, taking about 45 minutes to one hour. And, it can be done at home with limited space or equipment. Will you lose 45 pounds in 2½ weeks? Not on your life. But it will help the quality of that life and possibly begin to improve the quantity of the years ahead.
Before we begin, when was your last checkup? Your physician should be aware of the plan and advise accordingly. List any medicine you are taking. Certain prescriptions govern intensity choices, and it is extremely important to have that information.
According to the American Heart Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and just about every expert out there, cardiovascular fitness ranks No. 1 for many reasons. Your heart strength improves considerably. Blood vessels are sponged clean. Pressure on those vessels lightens up. Muscles get stronger. Joints loosen up. Feel-good hormones are released, and hunger is put at bay for a bit longer. Can you ask for any more benefits from a simple walk?
The more you do, the more fat storage will convert to usable fuel, and the sooner you will see improvements in waistline girth, body weight and newfound energy. How soon? Certainly not as fast as those infomercials promise, sorry. Your body needs about 10-12 weeks of continuous effort before any visible results (like fitting into that item of clothing you haven’t discarded yet).
Where to work out? A basement? Only if it is inviting. Too many fail when the treadmill or cycle is surrounded by laundry or near the hot-water heater. The environment must be welcoming, or at
least not offensive.
What type of equipment is best? We all have walking “down;” therefore, a treadmill is the best piece to jump right on and get going. Once you find a comfortable pace (which depends on your initial cardiovascular fitness and the length of your stride) you can challenge yourself with intervals of three minutes comfortable and one minute a little tougher. Tougher means either speed or incline. Keep the same speed, but kick up the incline to about 2-5 degrees, and you will feel like you are running.
How about other types of equipment? A cycle is best only if your knees are bad, but understand since two-thirds of your body is sitting on that seat, your caloric expenditure will be less per bout of exercise. Elliptical machines are excellent choices, but form is important. Please check the instruction manual/DVD before you begin. One caution with the elliptical: Watch your speed (strides per minute). Try to cap the strides per minute at around 140. Any faster just elicits a “spinning” motion with no resistance.
When choosing a piece of equipment for at-home use, think “How many body parts are involved?” Obviously, the more muscles you bring into the workout, the more calories you will expend.
When addressing the strength components of health-related fitness, your main considerations are “How heavy?” and “How many?” If you have just purchased a multi-station strength-training piece and are new to resistance work, it might be best to hire a personal trainer to come to the house and start you on a program that is safe, effective and easy to follow.
But for moderate strength gains, a stability ball, resistance tubing or dumbbells, from about 5 to 15 pounds, should do the trick. The basic program for moderate strength is three sets of 10 repetitions for each major muscle group (lower body, chest and back). The “how many” component is based on the “how heavy” component. The heavier the resistance, obviously, the fewer repetitions you will be able to do.
Lower body: wall squats, chair squats, side-lying leg lifts
Chest: push-ups, chest press, chest fly
Back: one-arm row, tubing horizontal row, pull down
Described as having full range of motion around a singular joint (your shoulder) or a series of joints (your spine). This means that you can reach overhead for that item on the closet shelf and not have to raise your shoulder to your ear in the attempt. Take notice the next time.
Our muscles move our joints. This happens because the fibers of muscles lengthen and shorten to open or close their respective joints as the brain instructs. Think about how much time you spend sitting. Do you even sleep all curled up, knees bent? Those back-of-the-thigh muscles, your hamstrings, are in a shortened state sometimes for hours. Spending one to three minutes stretching these muscles in particular will help release the tightness in your low back. The rule is: Stiff low back? Check the hamstrings. Why? Because these two muscle groups run in opposite directions from the hip girdle.
Hamstrings head south from your lower hip bones past the back of your knees, and your back extensors run north from the upper hip bone along the vertebrae of your spine. If the hamstrings are inflexible, tension builds, and guess what happens next? Keeping the hamstrings pliable is a priority for keeping the low back safe.
You don’t need to buy the yoga video and try to pretzel yourself daily for 45 minutes. It would be wonderful if you had the time. People who practice yoga regularly are more fluid than the rest of us. Even twice a week would begin to erase the stiffness we carry as if it were the norm. But, a few minutes daily can make a difference and possibly prevent that back spasm.
Stretching for flexibility takes about 30 seconds for each major joint. Again, you don’t need to purchase much, if anything at all. With each stretch, breathe slowly about six times. You’ll find that takes about a half-minute. The stretch is held just at the point of tightness, not into the pain. Your body, amazing as it is, has a protective mechanism called the stretch reflex. Push that stretch too far, and it will tighten to prevent a tear. If you stick with it, you will find that point of tightness will be further and further into the joint’s range of motion.
The simplest way to stretch hamstrings is to put one leg up on a chair, stool or any immovable object that is as high as your standing knee. Flex over with your upper body in good posture until you feel that pull. Breathe. Repeat right and left leg twice.
Body composition is the distribution of your body weight: fat-free mass and fat mass. Your FFM is the weight of everything you are made of except your fat. Your fat mass can be at the level of an athlete, way too little and, for most of us, way too much. With winter upon us, the fight gets a bit tougher. We are less active. We wear more clothes. We eat more food.
When you are home on a cold, nasty day, what’s there to do? Nibble here, snack there, sit and read or catch a couple of “Law & Order” reruns? It might be earned after an exhausting week, but even finding 30 minutes of constant movement will rev up your metabolism for a while, lubricate the joints, release some feel-good hormones and deliver oxygenated blood to your muscles. And, you will be proud of yourself. You made an effort. You succeeded.
Getting outside is the better choice (weather permitting). Fresh air and sunshine are the Godiva for your cells. Layer yourself with warmth and take a walk. If that is not possible, then look around. Bi level home? Use the stairs and complete two or three laps. Do this a few times during the day. One-level house? Time yourself and just walk through the rooms for five to 10 minutes a few times a day. Find a chair (no, not the recliner), sit/stand for 10 repetitions and walk away. Come back in two minutes and do it again. Easy, simple and done in less than four minutes!
You don’t need a whole gym in your basement or office. You just need your brain to engage your muscles to move your bones, which requires your heart to deliver more blood, and a little creativity. Carrying too much FM is not only uncomfortable and discouraging but unsafe. Obesity is now the second-most preventable risk factor for heart disease. A few pounds gained here and there add up, and before we know it … “What size is that?”
Now is the time we make those promises to ourselves with the best intentions. During this cold-weather season, it is more difficult to find the dedication to keep them. So, don’t be ridiculous. Small, incremental goals are reachable and therefore motivational. And the upward cycle continues. Hang in there, the sun is on its way back. Any day now. ■