Exercise is defined as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.” Because our modern world has led us to become more sedentary in our daily lives, we had to come up with an activity that involved setting aside a specific amount of time in our schedule to do “exercise,” in order to improve our health and decrease the many risks associated with being overly sedentary. Also, in a world where food (calories) are readily available, especially high calorie foods (that can be accessed with very minimal energy expenditure), the need for burning calories is deemed necessary. Decreased daily movement/activity, combined with increased intake of calorie dense foods, increases the risk of weight gain and chronic health issues. Especially as we get older and less mobile but continue to eat the same amount of calories.
This was very different to our ancestors who did all that they could to minimise energy expenditure, because food was scarce, there was no such thing as processed food and it was important to conserve energy for times that really required burst of energy like hunting/foraging for food and running from threats. If our ancestors decided to stay sedentary they would have died from starvation, animals or the elements, hence they were forced to move. Nowadays, humans can be sedentary and still meet all their needs for survival (e.g. food intake).
One can argue that from an evolutionary perspective, it is understandable why most of us prefer to be sedentary throughout our day as it is in our evolutionary, genetic makeup. The mismatch between our modern environment and genetic makeup as humans, is a driving factor behind chronic disease, which means that despite the challenges of our modern world that interfere with our evolutionary genes, we must adapt to our environment. Adaptation has ensured our survival throughout time as a species.
Many of us work jobs that involve sitting at a desk all day, we drive to and from work or sit on public transport. Then we come home and relax at dinner or on the couch. When you really think about it, we spend most of our day sitting. After sitting all day, you would think we would feel well rested, however evidence shows that lack of movement is a significant contributor to general fatigue and poor energy. Movement and exersize stimulates the production of mitochondria in our cells, which are the energy powerhouses of each cell. The more you have of them, the more energy you will have. Your body actually craves movement and small stressors. Also, moving more and increasing exersize makes people “feel healthy,” which usually has a flow on effect to improving other aspects of their health such as their diet because people don’t want to “ruin” the benefits they are getting from exercise by having a poor diet.
While it is still important to exercise, it may also be just as important to move at a low intensity, as much as possible throughout the day just like our ancestors once did. Sitting and being sedentary for long periods of time are closely associated with poor health outcomes and chronic disease.
Furthermore, due to our overly sedentary lives, people are being urged to walk 10,000 steps per day. This actually does have some merit as studies show that the average Australian adult only achieves 5,117 steps per day, far below what’s recommended.
No long term, randomised controlled trials to determine the health effects of 10,000 steps per day versus say 5,000 steps per day over five, 10, or 20 years exist. This is obviously due to its impracticality and ethical reasons.
However, several population studies do indicate that people who increase their daily step counts over time (likely above 7,500 steps) decrease their chances of dying, lower their BMIs, decrease their waist-to-hip ratios, improve sleep, improve their insulin sensitivities, as well as decrease cardiovascular disease risk.
Also, a recent trend has been the use of fitness trackers to measure steps. In intervention studies, fitness trackers do show a moderate effect on increasing step count and/or physical activity, which in turn lead to better health outcomes like weight loss and improved cholesterol over 3 months.
It seems that for some, having a visual, tangible record of daily activities is what makes a difference. However, in saying this, these studies are short term and it is estimated that one third of people abandon them after six months.
In light of the evidence, we should all try to incorporate more movement into our everyday life. Here are some suggestions on how you can incorporate more movement into your daily lives, especially for those who work a desk job:
- Use the stairs at work instead of the elevator
- Ride a bike, scooter or run/walk to work, as well as other destinations
- Walk to ask a co-worker a quick question instead of sending an e-mail
- See if your company would accommodate standing desks as part of a health-promoting program
- If standing desks are out of the question, use a yoga ball instead of a chair to engage more trunk muscles
- Walk to a different floor than yours to use the bathroom
- Start a walking group for before or after lunch instead of spending more time sitting around
- Set up computer prompts or alarms to remind you to get up and move around every hour
- Initiate a fitness challenge at the workplace
- Walk after dinner instead of plopping on the couch for another hour of TV
- Go on a family hike or walk instead of watching a family movie
- Park further away from work or your destination
- Finding a hobby or fun activity that involves being active and getting outdoors – exersize and movement doesn’t always have to planned and formal. Simply running around with the kids and/or dog, playing social sport, hiking in nature, gardening/renovations etc can all be part of your daily/weekly movement regime.
While incorporating more movement into our daily lives, it is still important to implement some form of formal exercise regime into your daily routine, due to the known health benefits. There is a lot of conflicting information about the best forms of exersize for your body and this is because there are so many different options due to the fact that humans have had to come up with various exersize regimes due to our sedentary lifestyles, whereas once upon a time, daily movement was just a natural part of our lives because it was necessary for survival.
Too much of the modern fitness paradigm focuses on exercise and physical activity as a means to lose weight or lower one’s Body Mass Index (BMI) by burning as many calories as possible, as if this is the most important health marker. This is why many people see exersize as some kind of punishment for the food they ate the night before.
The general assumption is that if you are thin, have low body-fat, you will live a longer and healthier life. To an extent this seems to be true, but the current research is finding a different marker of potential health and longevity: muscle. According to studies in The American Journal of Medicine, strength and muscle mass are better predictors of longevity than BMI. The current recommendations are to focus on resistance training/strength and conditioning. Although a lower body-fat percentage is a marker of health, building muscle may be even more important.
The best ways to lose fat and build muscle are to move constantly and use resistance (bodyweight and then progress to external resistance once body weight is mastered) to train the primal movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, vertical press, vertical pull, horizontal press, and horizontal pull. Furthermore, for general wellbeing, strength and conditioning is probably your best form of exercise to engage in. Here are some of its main benefits.
Strength training increases your resting metabolism.
The more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolism will be and the more fat you will burn at rest. While it is impossible for fat to turn to muscle due to chemical structures, increasing muscle mass, increases your ability to burn fat at rest. Muscle is your body’s fat burning machinery. This is because it needs a lot of energy in order to be sustained in the body; therefore it will burn fat for its daily metabolic needs, even while you are at rest (note: this is considering you are not ingesting copious amounts of calories beyond your energy needs throughout the day). In terms of weight loss, whether you are on a low fat or low carb diet, as long as you are in a caloric deficit, body fat will be used to upkeep muscle metabolism at rest, as long as adequate dietary protein intake is consumed to support muscle mass. If you are eating above your caloric needs, as well as adequate protein, muscle will still be built but fat loss won’t occur as efficiently as you are not giving your body a chance to burn body fat to maintain muscle mass. Following a meal plan like this should keep you on the right track.
Also, during strength training, your body primarily uses muscle glycogen (storage form of glucose in the muscles) to fuel the muscles energy demands. Therefore, the enzymes and hormones such as insulin that help store glycogen are up-regulated and their sensitivity is increased. This means that when you eat your post workout meal, a lot of your nutrition will go to replenish your glycogen stores (especially carbs) that were depleted during your workout, instead of going to your fat stores. Also, as you might know, when you go to the gym and lift weights, you actually cause damage/micro-trauma to muscle tissue due to the stress you place on them. This causes an adaptation of your body to rebuild this muscle plus a little bit extra in order to deal with the stresses of your next workout. This can only happen if you give your body the raw materials (i.e. dietary protein) to carry out this process. If adequate dietary protein is not consumed, then the body will break down muscle tissue and muscle will not be built properly, therefore losing the benefits of strength training and increased muscle mass.
Protein intake becomes even more important when combining weight loss and strength training together. This is because when the body is is in a weight loss phase (caloric deficit), the body starts to activate evolutionary mechanisms that resists weight loss (e.g. lowered metabolic rate, decreased energy and increased hunger). The body resists against weight loss, no matter what weight a person is at, and it prefers weight gain. This is is because from an evolutionary perspective, when we were hunter gatherers, food was scarce and these evolutionary mechanisms helped us survive. Therefore, when we are in a caloric deficit, this activates these evolutionary pathways which used to be activated in food scarcity and famine. In order to decrease energy demands of the body, it starts to eat away at its own muscle in order to use it for energy and also decrease the energy demands of the body because muscle is metabolically expensive. This can be prevented by eating enough protein in order to prevent muscle loss and supply the building blocks for muscle building.
Strength training can improve blood glucose control.
Strength and conditioning has been shown to be an effective strategy, along with a healthy diet, stress management and healthy sleep habits, to improve blood glucose handling. Those with metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes can use strength training as an effective therapeutic tool to manage their blood glucose levels. This is because strength and conditioning increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles, and insulin resistance in muscle is usually a key feature of these conditions. Muscle also contains a lot of storage space for glucose.
The importance of muscle mass.
Retaining and building your muscle mass is very important for both health and fat loss. Your percentage of muscle mass is an independent predictor of health as muscle acts as an organ reserve, decreases inflammation in the body (inflammation drives disease) and it also promotes stronger bones, as well as mobility. The pull of skeletal muscle on your bones during strength training stimulates your bones to remodel and become stronger, therefore decreasing the risk of osteoporosis.
As you age, muscle and bone loss inevitably occur, which is why it is in your best interest to build muscle mass and strengthen your bones before their inevitable decline in old age. People who engage in strength training throughout their life (or even in their older years) have been shown less likely to develop osteoporosis, sarcopenia (muscle loss/frailty), as well as less likely to have falls, broken bones and they are more mobile/balanced in their old age.
Building muscle mass to strengthen bone health and increase balance/mobility can even save your life, as it is very common to see elderly people fall and break their hip, then later die of hospital acquired infections like pneumonia. Also, broken bones, especially at an old age, leads to more impaired mobility and increased sedentary behaviour, which can increase muscle loss and frailty due to not using muscles. So basically if you value your lean muscle (which you should), start lifting.
Strength training’s health benefits are far reaching.
Strength training also helps with posture, injury prevention, joint health and joint mobility (stronger muscles takes toad off joints), co-ordination and makes you generally stronger so you can do more stuff’ in your life without getting injured. It basically makes you more athletic. It has also been been shown to increase and balance sex hormones like testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone.
Also, like all forms of exercise, it can increase our mental health and mental wellbeing, including cognition, memory, self confidence and mood regulation. Especially exercising in nature.
What do I actually mean by strength training?
Let me just clarify that when I speak about strength or resistance training, I am not referring to things like yoga or pilates which people claim is strength training. Top Melbourne based strength coach Will Levy from Melbourne Strength and Conditioning, neatly points out that “once someone can perform movements/exersizes proficiently with their own bodyweight (adaptation principle) then no further strength (or muscle mass) will be built without an adequate stressor i.e. adding load (progressive overload principle).” This means that in order to get stronger, increase your muscle mass and therefore burn more fat, you need to start adding resistance training to the equation (e.g. lifting weights). This needs to occur in a progressive manner in order to force the body to adapt and get stronger. Increasing reps, weights or volume of certain exercises, as well as increasing the difficulty of exercises at each session, will force the body to adapt to the new stressor, which in turn will avoid plateaus.
Moreover, it must be noted that exercises like yoga and pilates will increase your strength and muscle mass to a certain point if you have not done extensive amounts of strength training (with weights or body weight) before. Once you have mastered your body weight in certain movements, it will eventually lead to plateaus because there is no increase in load on the body as these exercises only involve body weight.
Once body weight is mastered and your body adapts, it is unlikely more muscle mass and strength will be built due to the absence of increased load as your body weight doesn’t really change that much. People may think their strength is increasing as they can do more poses and while this is likely for newbies to a certain point, as a person gets more experienced, the increased ability to do certain poses is usually due to nervous system adaptations, meaning your nervous systems becomes more efficient at activating certain muscle for certain poses. This is not because you are actually increasing muscle mass and causing muscle growth. Don’t get me wrong, high level yogis performing extreme poses certainly requires strength and practice, it is also extremely impressive and does build muscle mass due to the amount of time they spend under tension in certain poses. However this level of yoga practice is unlikely to be achieved for the general population and even for those yogis, they will eventually hit a plateau in terms of their strength and muscle mass once they have mastered their body weight at various poses.
There is no doubt these types of exersize have benefits for mental health, mobility, co-ordination, proprioception and flexibility and they are great compliments to a strength training regime, however they don’t increase muscle mass like strength training, which means they don’t carry the same benefits as strength training.
The best exercises to do are big compound lifts that involve large muscle groups. These are things like deadlift variations, squat variations, pressing and pulling variations. These lifts stimulate more muscle fibers than a typical isolation exercise (e.g. bicep curl), therefore eliciting a larger amount of metabolic stress, muscle damage, and mechanical tension on your muscles, hence leading to increased muscle growth. It also stimulates your fast twitch muscle fibers, which are your most explosive muscle fibers.
These are the most prone to growth, which will ultimately help you increase your muscle mass. Lastly, engaging in exercises that requires many muscle groups is more functional to real life. For example, lifting the couch involves your whole body, rather than isolated muscle groups.
A note to the ladies.
Ladies, lifting weights will NOT make you big and bulky. That is a massive over exaggeration and a myth. You guys simply do not have enough testosterone to become big and bulky. The female body builders and figure competitors that appear big and bulky (which is up to interpretation) have spent hours in the gym, have an extremely meticulous diet plan, probably take many supplements and hormones to enhance muscle growth, and are also genetically gifted. They are the 1 per centers of the population. Trust me, your two to three sessions per week of lifting weights will not make you big and bulky, but rather, it will help you achieve the “toned,” strong and tight body that you are looking to achieve. It may also make your breasts appear perkier. So put away those useless 2kg pink dumbbells and start lifting heavy!
Lifting for kids?
Lifting weights in childhood or during growth does not “stunt a child’s growth.” This is yet another myth. Like anything, if done improperly/excessively, lifting weights can cause harm, however if done properly, with the guidance of a good trainer, lifting weights in childhood can help kids become stronger, increase their muscle mass, become more athletic, lose weight, decrease the risk of postural/musculoskeletal issues from being sedentary, increase the strength/thickness of their bones and increase confidence/overall wellbeing.
A note on cardio and high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Cardio is a fitness slang term, which refers to any form of exercise, which causes the heart to pump at 60% – 70% of its maximal rate for greater than 20 minutes. This means that strength training can incorporate cardio, if you are doing high reps with moderate weights. This is ideal as you get both the benefits of conditioning your muscles, as well as your cardiovascular system.
If you don’t enjoy strength training and rather do cardio, by all means, go for it. After all, exersize is better than no exercise. However, ideally you want to be incorporating some form of cardio as well as strength training into your weekly exersize regime. this is to get the best of both worlds.
Common forms of cardio exercises are walking, running, cycling, swimming, cross trainer, stationary bike and rowing. Cardio exercise can be done after your strength training sessions or as seperate sessions, at intensities that raise your heart rate for periods longer than 20-30 minutes.
Cardio doesn’t raise your resting metabolic rate like strength training or have the same “body sculpting effects,” because it doesn’t help build muscle mass, therefore you are unlikely to see changes in body shape.
Fat is burnt to support energy demands of steady state cardio, however as mentioned above, the body resists against fat loss, which is why cardio can increase cravings post workout in order to replenish the lost fat from the workout. This is compared to strength training that raises metabolic rate post training and post workout nutrition goes to repairing muscles, not replenishing lost fat stores. If a person is aiming to lose weight by simply doing cardio, by all means it can increase caloric output, however the individual won’t have that increased spike in resting metabolism post cardio compared to post strength training. Protein is still essential in this case to prevent muscle loss while in a caloric deficit. Also, after a while of cardio training, your body becomes more efficient at burning less calories, therefore the energy output for cardio is less. However cardio has great benefits on your cardiovascular health.
Furthermore, it must be noted that running is a form cardio exercise that has benefits on cardiovascular health, as well as some benefits for bone mass, bone strength and muscle mass, due to the impact of running on the body. However, this type of cardio may not be suitable for those who are overweight and those that have knee and ankle pain. These people may need to do low impact cardio like cycling, swimming etc.
Lastly, HIIT training is a form of cardio interval training, which involves alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exersize (e.g. sprints) with less intense recovery periods (e.g. jogging). HIIT is the concept where a person performs a short burst of high-intensity (or max-intensity) exercise followed by a brief low-intensity activity, repeatedly, until too exhausted to continue. This can also be done on other types of cardio equipment such as cross trainers, treadmills, rowers and stationary bikes. Though there is no universal HIIT session duration, these intense workouts typically last under 30 minutes, with interval times varying based on a participant’s current fitness level. For example, most people work on the minute and a beginner may start with 10 seconds high intensity with 50 seconds low intensity, working for a total of 20 minutes. It is important that each session, the individual is increase high intensity working periods and therefore decreasing low intensity periods.
When comparing HIIT to cardio, studies show that they both have similar effects on weight loss, which are actually quite minimal. However, both forms of exersize benefit health beyond weight loss, such as decreasing inflammation, improving glucose metabolism, increasing fitness and increasing overall health. Based on this information, cardio should be incorporated alongside a strength training regime. One can combine the two or run the sessions on seperate days. It is up to the individuals preferences on how they want to incorporate their own cardio sessions.
How do you put this all together into an exersize?
When it comes to strength and conditioning there are two options, free weights of machine based weights. Compared to machine based weights, free-weight training is a bit more difficult (harder to learn movements and do them safely), especially if you have had no experience in the gym.
Have a listen to this recording of Melbourne based strength coach Will Levy, who not only discusses how to find yourself a good PT to help you integrate free weights into your training regime, he also brushes over the benefits of strength training and gives a basic outline on how one could simply incorporate both cardio and strength training into their weekly exercise regime without a PT and using machine based weights, while still getting the basic benefits of strength training.
One thing Will doesn’t touch on, which I think is worth mentioning, it that when seeking out a PT, is that any idiot can make you tired. However, a good trainer knows how to help coach you to become stronger and reach your goals with good technique and without getting injured.
Watch out for overtraining.
Any type of exersize is in fact a stressor on your body. It creates inflammation and initially weakens tissues (e.g. muscle, bone, ligaments etc.). However, in the right amounts, this stressor causes your body to adapt and become more efficient. This is referred to as hormesis, where small amounts of stress can have positive effects on the body due to adaptions, which allow the body to deal with the stressor more efficiently when it is exposed to it again. Hormesis from exersize is part of the reason as to why we see changes in performance as we progress in our training.
The positive adaptations that occur from all types of exersize, especially strength training, happen when you are at rest, which is why things like rest, good nutrition (protein especially) and sleep are very important between workouts as it gives your body a chance to recover and put into place adaptation mechanisms.
This is also why managing your training load (i.e. intensity, volume, frequency and duration of sessions) is very important, as it prevents prevents a person from causing too much stress to their bod and overtraining. It is simply not possible to do everything at your “max” every session, which is why any exersize regime should be well thought out and programmed in away that builds you up to your “max” effort over a certain amount of weeks, with a “de-load” period after your “max” is reached.
Overtraining and/or not giving your body adequate time to rest in between sessions leads to your body being in a constant state of stress and inflammation, which can inhibit progress in training, decrease weight loss, decrease energy, increase risk of injury and lead to other unwanted symptoms that make you feel lousy.
Don’t forget to play as well.
In our modern world, taking time out to play and have fun is sometimes frowned upon and we have less time to engage in it due to the increased demands of work and life in general. However, it is vital to our health and it is innate when we are kids, but taken out of us when we enter adult life. When we play and have fun, we do it without a purpose, it is voluntary, it is improvised, it feels good, we loose sense of time and self and it can be addictive in the best of ways.
Play is a great way to release stress, have fun and engage in multi-planar movement without even realising. Play can be with your kids, a partner, a friend/s, your dog or even yourself (e.g. running around, wrestling, playing outdoor games or sport). Playing can also involve interacting with the natural environment around you, such as carrying a tree log, carrying a person, climbing a tree or skimming rocks.
Lastly, to keep you fresh and motivated during the year (every so often or even weekly) try take up other active pursuits/sports that are fun, involve learning new skills, are in nature, are with friends and that makes you use your body in a different way, as well as using a different type of fitness/muscle groups. This keeps you mentally fresh and breaks up monotony of formal exersize regimes you always do on a week to week basis (e.g. surfing, martial arts, hiking etc). Also, all of your formal training through cardio and strength training will give you a great base level of fitness, strength, power, speed and mobility to become better at these active pursuits.
What to do now?
In conclusion, ideally you would want to be engaging in strength training three to four times per week and you can add your cardio at the end of your strength training sessions. This is while also making sure you try to incorporate low intensity movement in to your daily life as well as play.
Fitness is an ongoing process, not a destination, so make sure you set yourself up to engage in a exersize regime that allows for sustainability over the long term and doesn’t lead to burn out.