Guidelines For Beginning an Exercise Program

Copyright 1995 Health ResponseAbility Systems

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The following guidelines, prepared by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, are intended for the average healthy adult. They tell you what your fitness goals should be and how often you should exercise. The guidelines also advise how long and how hard you must exercise to achieve health rewards.

If you're just beginning a physical fitness program, keep in mind:

Health Check

If you're under 35 years of age and in good health, you probably do not need to call or see a doctor before beginning an exercise program. But, if you are over 35 years of age and have been inactive for several years, you should consult your physician before starting an exercise program.

If you currently have -- or have ever had -- any of the following medical conditions, you should consult with a physician prior to beginning an exercise program, according to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports:

Vigorous exercise involves minimal health risks for persons in good health or those following a doctor's advice. Far greater risks are presented by habitual inactivity.

What Is "Physical Fitness?"

Physical fitness is a condition that helps us look, feel and do our best. More specifically, it is: "The ability to perform daily tasks vigorously and alertly, with energy left over for enjoying leisure-time activities and meeting emergency demands.

It is the ability to endure, to bear up, to withstand stress, to carry on in circumstances where an unfit person could not continue, and is a major basis for good health and well-being."

Physical fitness involves the performance of the heart and lungs, and the muscles of the body. And, since what is done with the body can affect what is done with the mind, fitness influences to some degree qualities such as mental alertness and emotional stability, according to the Council.

Fitness is an individual quality that varies from person to person. It is influenced by age, sex, heredity, personal habits, exercise and eating practices. You can't do anything about the first three factors. However, it is within your power to change and improve the others where needed.

The Four Components Of Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is most easily understood by examining its components. There is widespread agreement that these four components are basic:

  1. Cardiorespiratory Endurance: The body's ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues, and to remove wastes, over sustained periods of time. Long runs and swims are among the methods used to assess cardiorespiratory endurance.
  2. Muscular Strength: The ability of a muscle to exert force for a brief period of time. Upper-body strength, for example, can be measured by various weight-lifting exercises.
  3. Muscular Endurance: The ability of a muscle, or a group of muscles, to sustain repeated contractions or to continue applying force against a fixed object. Pushups are often used to test endurance of arm and shoulder muscles.
  4. Flexibility: The ability to move joints and use muscles through their full range of motion. The sit-and-reach test is a good measure of flexibility of the lower back and backs of the upper legs.

A Fifth Component: Body Composition

Body composition is often considered a component of fitness. It refers to the makeup of the body in terms of lean mass (muscle, bone, vital tissue and organs) and fat mass.

An optimal ratio of fat to lean mass is an indication of fitness and the right types of exercises will help you decrease body fat and increase or maintain muscle mass.

Your Personal Workout Schedule

How often, how long and how hard you exercise, and what kinds of exercises you do should be determined by what you are trying to accomplish, not by what someone else is trying to accomplish.

Your fitness goals, present fitness level, age, health, skills, interest and convenience are among the factors you should consider. For example, an athlete training for high-level competition would follow a different program than a person whose goals are good health and the ability to meet work and recreational needs.

Your exercise program should include something from each of the four basic fitness components. Each workout should begin with a warmup and end with a cooldown. As a general rule, space your workouts throughout the week and avoid consecutive days of hard exercise.

Here are the amounts of activity needed for the average, healthy person to maintain a minimum level of overall fitness. Included are some of the popular exercises for each category.

The Keys To Finding The Right Kinds Of Exercises

The keys to selecting the right kinds of exercises for developing and maintaining each of the basic components of fitness are found in these principles:

Some activities can be used to fulfill more than one of your basic exercise requirements. For example, in addition to increasing cardiorespiratory endurance, running builds muscular endurance in the legs. Swimming develops the arm, shoulder and chest muscles.

If you select the proper activities, it is possible to save time by fitting parts of your muscular endurance workout into your cardiorespiratory workout.

Aerobic Basics: Measuring Your Heart Rate

Heart rate is widely accepted as a good method for measuring intensity during running, swimming, cycling and other aerobic activities. Exercise that doesn't raise your heart rate to a certain level and keep it there for 20 minutes won't contribute significantly to cardiovascular fitness.

The heart rate you should maintain is called your target heart rate. There are several ways of arriving at this figure. One of the simplest is maximum heart rate (220 - age) x 70%. Thus, the target heart rate for a 40-year-old would be 126 (220 - 40 = 180, and 180 * 70% = 126).

Some methods for figuring the target rate take individual differences into consideration. Here is one of them:

Resting heart rate should be determined by taking your pulse after sitting quietly for five minutes. When checking heart rate during a workout, take your pulse within five seconds after interrupting exercise because it starts to go down once you stop moving. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply the number by six to get the per-minute rate.

Weight Control Vs. Fat Control

The key to weight control is keeping energy intake (food) and energy output (physical activity) in balance. When you consume only as many calories as your body needs, your weight will usually remain constant.

If you take in more calories than your body needs, you will put on excess fat. If you expend more energy than you take in, you will burn excess fat.

Exercise plays an important role in weight control by increasing energy output, calling on stored calories for extra fuel. Recent studies show that not only does exercise increase metabolism during a workout, but it causes your metabolism to stay increased for a period of time after exercising, allowing you to burn more calories.

How much exercise is needed to make a difference in your weight depends on the amount and type of activity, and on how much you eat. A medium-sized adult would have to walk more than 30 miles to burn up 3,500 calories, the equivalent of one pound of fat. Although that may seem like a lot, you don't have to walk the 30 miles all at once.

Walking a mile a day for 30 days will achieve the same result, providing you don't increase your food intake to negate the effects of walking.

If you consume 100 calories a day more than your body needs, you will gain approximately 10 pounds in a year. You could take that weight off, or keep it off, by doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. The combination of exercise and diet offers the most flexible and effective approach to weight control.

Since muscle tissue weighs more than fat tissue, and exercise develops muscle to a certain degree, your bathroom scale won't necessarily tell you whether or not you are "fat." Well-muscled individuals, with relatively little body fat, invariably are "overweight" according to standard weight charts.

If you are doing a regular program of strength training, your muscles will increase in weight, and possibly your overall weight will increase. Body composition is a better indicator of your condition than body weight.

Lack of physical activity causes muscles to get soft, and if food intake is not decreased, added body weight is almost always fat. Once-active people, who continue to eat as they always have after settling into sedentary lifestyles, tend to suffer from "creeping obesity."

Ignore Fashion, Dress For Success

All exercise clothing should be loose-fitting to permit freedom of movement, and should make the wearer feel comfortable and self-assured.

As a general rule, you should wear lighter clothes than temperatures might indicate. Exercise generates great amounts of body heat. Light-colored clothing that reflects the sun's rays is cooler in the summer, and dark clothes are warmer in winter.

When the weather is very cold, it's better to wear several layers of light clothing than one or two heavy layers. The extra layers help trap heat, and it's easy to shed one of them if you become too warm.

In cold weather, and in hot, sunny weather, it's a good idea to wear something on your head if you exercise outside. Wool hats or ski caps are recommended for winter wear, and some form of tennis or sailor's hat that provides shade and can be soaked in water is good for summer.

Never wear rubberized or plastic clothing. Such garments interfere with the evaporation of perspiration and can cause body temperature to rise to dangerous levels.

The most important item of equipment for the runner is a pair of sturdy, properly-fitting running shoes. Training shoes with heavy, cushioned soles and arch supports are preferable to flimsy sneakers and light racing flats.

When Should You Exercise?

The hour just before the evening meal is a popular time for exercise. The late afternoon workout provides a welcome change of pace at the end of the work day and helps dissolve the day's worries and tensions.

Another popular time to work out is early morning, before the work day begins. Advocates of the early start say it makes them more alert and energetic on the job.

Among the factors you should consider in developing your workout schedule are personal preference, job and family responsibilities, availability of exercise facilities, and weather.

It's important to schedule your workouts for a time when there is little chance that you will have to cancel or interrupt them because of other demands on your time.

Avoid exercising strenuously during extremely hot, humid weather or within two hours after eating. Heat and/or digestion both make heavy demands on the circulatory system, and in combination with exercise can be an overtaxing double load.

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