Movement is such an important aspect of health, but you may be wondering how much and what types to practice. As is true with most wellness matters, balance is key. However, what that looks like will likely vary from person to person. So let’s share some of the benefits and impacts of different workouts to help guide you.
Exercise is one of the most important things we can do for our health. A few benefits of regular physical activity are that it circulates blood and body fluids, promotes digestive motility, boosts energy, improves mood, productivity and calms anxiety. Exercise truly is medicine! In addition to these broad benefits, many of us go for it to help improve our body structure as it is also good for muscles, bones and maintaining a healthy weight. This is important throughout our lives, but even more so as we age because the trend is for muscle mass to reduce and metabolism to slow down in our older years.
Most popular forms of physical exercise can be categorized as either cardiovascular (i.e., aerobic) or strength based. Cardiovascular is great for your heart, lungs, brain and stress levels. This builds stamina and endurance and burns a significant number of calories. Strength training is broadly any type of muscle resistance work and can involve balance or core strengthening practices. Examples including lifting weights, using stretch bands, barre, most forms of yoga, and Pilates. Resistance training improves strength and is key for building and maintaining skeletal muscle. Good muscle mass is so important because it burns calories and uses energy while you’re actively performing the exercise, as well as while you’re at rest. When we stress our skeletal muscles, they will have to repair and remodel themselves, and this consumes even more calories.
Relative to cardio, the body may not burn a whole lot of energy to perform resistance forms of exercise, however having greater muscle mass can significantly improve one’s resting metabolic rate. In other words, our bodies adapt to the needs we create for our muscles, and the muscles that we have will become more metabolically active in response to weight bearing exercise. If one only does cardio, the body will likely shed fat, however it’s also feasible that the body will pare down muscle in order to be more streamlined for the exercise stressors that it is repeatedly exposed to. A leaner and lighter body is better adapted for speed, after all.
Studies have shown that the muscles of people who perform regular strength training have a resting metabolic rate that is 5-9% higher than those who train only with cardio forms of exercise. This may not sound like a lot, but it is substantial in terms of maintaining and sustaining a healthy body weight. Ultimately, this helps burn fat and keep it off because the muscles you have will become more efficient.
If you’re worried about maintaining a sleek physique, resistance training will not necessarily result in bulky muscles. Gradual, progressive training that rotates through different muscle groups is a great approach for toning muscles and losing inches, which help the body look more defined but will not necessarily cause one to bulk up—the bulking aspect usually takes a concerted effort, not to mention targeted nutrition. Because muscle weighs more than fat, one may not lose weight with resistance training, but there will be a difference in physique.
Obviously there are great benefits to including both aerobic and resistance exercise into your weekly routine. But how much of a time commitment is necessary? For starters, consistency is key, particularly at the outset. Regular repetition helps the body remodel and adapt. A typical goal for healthy adults is 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week to improve cardiovascular health, which translates to 30-45 mins, 4-5 days per week. If this works well for you, you may want to move beyond this to a daily practice if you can. Finding a way to incorporate some aerobic fitness activity into our daily lives is ideal, because moving blood is such a necessary counter to an overly sedentary lifestyle. It needn’t be intense—just something as simple as a brisk 20-minute walk is enough to yield benefits.
When it comes to resistance training, expert advice recommends 30 minutes, two or three times per week in order to see results. If you’re developing this as a new habit, there’s an inherent psychological benefit to being consistent with weights because you will soon begin to see the payoff in terms of increased strength. Mild muscle soreness will let you know that you’ve made an impact. Seek professional guidance to help structure your workout and to be sure you’re using proper form to avoid injury. This can have a very low price tag if you prefer— there are so many free videos available online to suit every preference. Working to develop your core strength is a fabulous place to start. It improves posture, balance, and helps relieve pressure on joints.
It’s never too early or too late to begin, no matter one’s age. Children benefit by improving coordination and developing habits and body structure that can last a lifetime. Older folks who are physically active benefit from improved cognition and better balance. Elders who are new to fitness or have special considerations should be sure to work with a trained professional, at least at the outset, to help understand one’s limits and get a handle on proper form.
For people of all ages, moderate, regular exercise boosts the immune system, helps reduce anxiety and has been shown to reduce inflammasomes. But the amount of exercise matters. Pushing it too hard can actually increase inflammation in the body, dysregulated immune function, and adds more burden to the adrenal system. Heavy exercise has been shown to increase inflammation, muscle damage, oxidative stress, immune dysfunction for hours or even days following prolonged intensive exercise. Running a marathon is likely to increase cytokines, stress hormones and significantly decrease both the innate and adaptive immune response markers. This makes sense when you consider how stressful this is for the body. Not to mention that increasing inflammation and stress hormones can detrimentally impact our sex hormones because they share the same parent substance.
In other words, more is not always better, particularly if you are under a lot of stress or have been feeling sick or run down. Likewise if you are trying to conceive, it’s best not to add unnecessary stressors to your system when resources should be focused on fertility instead.
Excess exercise will be too depleting. This may not be obvious to fitness buffs whose bodies are accustomed to high performance because the more immediate feedback is the positive sensation of an endorphin rush, but that is actually a stress response that masks the overall impact of the exertion. Scaling back is often advisable for those needing to conserve or consolidate reserves. This can look like a shorter duration (15-20 minutes is enough), a more moderate heart rate, and or switching to interval training. A good rule of thumb for figuring your target heart rate is to first find your maximum by subtracting your age from 220, and then calculate 75% of your max to find a good estimate for moderate.
If after hearing all of this you’re still itching to get back to high impact workouts, have a chat with your health care advisor about when is the best time to start ramping things back up. As with most things in life, balance is key. Find a level of exercise that moves your blood and boosts your energy without kicking in your stress response.
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