Your Roadmap To Fitness In 2012

By Raymond Onyango.

I love this time of year. I love the sense of opportunity it brings. It’s a great chance to wipe the slate clean, to make a new beginning. It is an excellent time of year to put into action a strategy that will see you end the year fitter, healthier and looking better than you do now.  Of course many of us have already made big promises to ourselves this January. We have promised to loose weight and get into shape, we’ve promised ourselves we will eat better this year, get up early in the morning and take a walk around the block if not a jog. But the ugly truth us that we did this last year too, and maybe the year before…and we failed! Some of us failed because we didn’t put our plans into action. We simply talked about it, harbored good intentions but never made the effort, and an even greater number of us failed because we didn’t have a plan in the first place!

Not having a plan is, essentially setting yourself up for failure. My experience as a personal trainer has taught me that the great majority gym users are highly resistant to the idea of planning our fitness activities according to a schedule. Most will refuse to submit to an evaluation and of the few that do, a very small handful actually go ahead and make use of the programs I write. In fact most of the time as I write out my fitness programs I am aware that they will hardly be followed if at all; that the client will just as soon cast the program aside and prefer to work out in a totally random pattern. ‘I got bored’, is answer I get the most when I ask why? Another popular one is, ‘ I just don’t have the time’. What is clear from these answers is that the majority of us fail because we are both insufficiently stimulated and interested in exercise to get a regular rhythm up and going, or other wise way too ambitious in the scope of what we are trying to achieve in a very short time frame.

I have also come to learn there are two important things that are hugely motivating as far as adherence to an exercise program is concerned.The first of these is that you can only transform your body by choosing activities you really enjoy. Forget what you have heard about ‘no pain, no gain’. Truth is that most of us will bolt away from a fitness program the moment we perceive it to be painful or punishing. The other thing is that effort and progress are not always inversely proportional to each other. Many of us, I daresay the majority of us, put in lots of effort, but have very little to show for it. Many of the fellows who spend 3 hours at the gym are not exactly in great shape.

You could of course change all that this year, through this simple, cost efficient and hugely interesting approach to fitness, incorporating just 3 simple concepts that guarantee you a better body by the end of this year.

Here they are:

Cardio

The human body is a cardiovascular machine, the heart is the engine of the whole thing, and it runs the show, literally! That is why Cardiac arrest or heart attacks claim so many victims every year. If your heart stopped beating for just 3 minutes, you are almost certain to suffer serious brain damage, just 5 or 6 minutes and certain death is on the cards. But the heart can also kill you slowly, lack of Physical activity and poor nutritional habits often combine to impair heart function, courtesy of elevated cholesterol levels that coat our arteries with plaque, creating hypertension and precipitating strokes, heart attacks and metabolic diseases like diabetes.

The culprit is the kind of fat which settles around the waistline, also known as Visceral fat. Of the two types of body fat Subcutaneous, meaning under the skin, is the easiest to get rid of and most visible. Women in particular experience this as cellulite in the hips, thighs and under arms. IT may be a major cause of concern from a purely cosmetic viewpoint but it hold far fewer dangers for us than the other kind of fat; Visceral fat, which can hide even in slim individuals tucked around internal organs, such as the liver, from where it easily finds its way up to your heart…sending you to an early grave.

Men are statistically more likely than women to suffer heart disease precisely because they mostly carry their extra weight around the waist. In women of postmenopausal age incidence of heart disease and metabolic disorders increase when the body’s estrogen production shuts down. In younger women a link has been established between obesity and growing incidence of breast cancer. Anyway you look at it, the truth is that you cannot afford to miss out on cardiovascular exercise, the question is how to do it in a sustainable manner.

My number one suggestion is to pick an activity and build your fitness program around it. It doesn’t matter what it is, golf, soccer, jogging, basketball, squash. The only qualification is that you must enjoy it sufficiently enough to stay interested and stimulated. Most of us stop playing games right after high school or collage; right about the same time we begin to put on excess weight around the waistline. Games are fun because you move for movement’s sake, you are not counting calories or observing your heart rate, you are simply running after the ball because it feels good to score.  Games also fulfill many of our needs as well, we make good friends on the neighborhood soccer team or the squash ladder at the gym; and because so many people hold us accountable if we don’t show up, we are more likely to stay consistent. It works!

My number two suggestion is, ‘ get yourself an ipod, if you don’t already have one’. The ipod has revolutionized the way the world keeps fit; thanks to the power it gives its users to create individualized play lists. I have play lists on my Ipod for every conceivable situation, some that pick me up when I am under motivated, others I use for speed runs others yet for slow hills. In my spin classes’ participants will gladly make it up the most brutal hills if the music is great because outside of play, music is the one other powerful force that motivates human beings to move. An ipod can make you enjoy running, it can turn a stationery bike on the gym floor into something alive and happening, because good music is fun, and its motivating.

Strength Training

From the very moment our ancestors got off their front paws and took to walking on two feet, the human race has been locked in a constant struggle with a silent but ever present force called gravity. The entire human machine is held upright and manually operated thanks to a mind-boggling number of skeletal muscles all of which function together to maintain posture and generate movement. Skeletal muscles operate on a ‘use it or loose it’ principle. Its simple, if you use your muscles actively on a regular basis they remain strong, defined and up to the task of holding you upright and facilitating your movement. However in a world where many of us spend the better part of our day seated behind a desk, muscle wasting begins in our early 30’s. Each year on average we loose one pound of muscle and gain much more in fat, thanks to our sedentary lives. In a few years, back pain is almost a given, with up to 90 percent of all men experiencing some kind of back pain in their lifetimes, while aches and pains in the weight bearing joints of the knee and hips tend to affect women more often caused by a combination of uncontrolled weight gain and poor footwear choices such as high heels among other reasons. Along with your muscles, your bones also get more brittle and thin as you age. With better medical care human life spans are increasing, which means many of us are living long beyond the age our bones we initially designed to work. Bone fractures sustained from taking a fall are one of the leading causes of injury in individuals over the age of 65; many of them also have to cope with degenerative bone diseases such as arthritis and its precursor osteoporosis.

Strength training on a regular basis from an early age can greatly improve your quality of life in your senior years…and make no mistake, you will get old someday! The simplest movements are often the most effective. Push ups, Lunges, Plank, Cycling, Squats, Dips, pull ups..None of these exercises require any special equipment. The burglar proofing grill in your house will do for pull ups, you can do push ups on the floor, a dinning char will come in handy for the dips while the squats and lunges need no equipment save for your own bodyweight.

Talking of bodyweight, I am a dyed in the wool believer in bodyweight training also known as calisthenics. I have always maintained that my clients have no business getting on an isotonic gym machine or lifting weights until they have some mastery over their own body weight. The reasoning behind this is informed by belief that what you do in the gym should serve you well outside the gym. A good program needs to help you live your life better. It should definitely make you look better, but is should also improve your health and boost your energy levels on the job. For this reason you need to perform exercises that challenge you to remain aware of what your body is doing, so that you can learn from there how to correct your posture or lift a load carefully without overloading your spine, or sling a travel bag on your shoulder without throwing out your lower back.

Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you cannot build muscle tone from bodyweight exercises alone…even the worlds most elite military cadets are still trained primarily through basic body weight exercises such as pull ups and pushups, and we you can see for yourself how fit they are! The beauty of a bodyweight based strength exercise program is that you can take it everywhere with you. For instance you can do it at home in your bedroom or on the roadside after your jog anywhere you can find some space you will be able to workout, and that will help you stay true. If you need some ideas to get you started look at great websites such as crossfit.com, suddenly the whole world can become your playground!

Stretch

Your entire body, the whole of it is clothed in a translucent, tough sheath of connective tissue known as the myofascial sheath. Its helps muscles glide over each other during movement and also gives shape and structure to the muscles themselves. As we grow older however this tissue looses it pliability and alignment, restricting physical movement, binding muscles and nerves and creating pain in countless number of ways.

In yoga philosophy we hold that the body is the ultimate receptacle and store of all emotional energy, both positive and negative. It explains why your body language often speaks loudly even when your words don’t. Your good friends will tell when you have had a bad day from your drooping shoulders and defeated posture. On a good day you will walk taller, posture has a lot to do with confidence! Whatever the case regular stretching is the only way to gently realign your muscle fibers, release trapped nerves and keep all manner of body aches at bay.

One ingredient you need to stretch safely and successfully is heat. Never attempt to stretch cold muscles like I see so many people do in the gym. Heat is what enables your muscles to stretch safely by increasing their pliability, much the same way a glass blower manipulates molten glass into countless fascinating shapes – heat is the core ingredient. On a practical level this means you should save your deep stretching for the end of your work out during cardiovascular exercise or do it in between the sets of your strength exercise while your muscles are at their warmest.

The other thing that really influences a good stretch is your breathing. Each successful stretch should held for a period of time accompanied by at least 5 to 10 deep slow breaths. Breathing in this manner clams down your nervous system and inhibits the involvement of specialized nerve cells known as muscle spindles, which are embedded deep in your muscle belly and act to trigger muscular contractions. If you watch a man dozing on a chair, you will see him involuntarily jerk his head up every time the muscles spindles kick in.

The Golgi tendon organ on the other hand, which is also composed of specialized nerve cells embedded in your muscles does the opposite, by acting to get your muscles to relax and stretch further so as to avoid injury. By regulating your breathing you can get much deeper into any stretch without running the risk of injury. Stretching is something we should aim to do everyday or at a minimum, 3 times a week. Try a yoga class; once or twice a week this year and it will have a profound effect on your mobility.

Next week we begin to look at how we can take these concepts and turn them into reality! Until then, have an inspired week, will you!

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