The benefits of exercise are myriad. It makes you feel good about yourself, burns excess body fat, grows and maintains muscle, strengthens bones and joints, helps flexibility, deepens sleep, improves appearance, creates a high, provides goals to achieve, lifts depression, relieves stress, increases self esteem, reverses and prevents disease and helps you feel alive and youthful… that is, if you do it right.
Exercise would be as normal as breathing in the wild setting. If we were not industriously finding food, building shelters and fighting off saber-toothed tigers we would not survive. Under those circumstances eating was the reward for exercise. In the modern world we don’t have to exercise to any extent to get our food. We may have cleverly changed our circumstances but we have not changed the rule that eating is the fuel and the reward for exercise. If you are not exercising you should not be eating… or at least doing very little of it. This is a natural law rarely quoted these days. Ignoring and violating it results in a penalty, obesity and disease.
But today, when essentially all of our needs are met at arm’s length, being sedentary is normal. Getting rewards for physically doing nothing is also possible. So the decision has to be made to exercise. Why do it? Because it is what your body is designed for and health cannot result without it.
Exercise can take many forms. There are four categories: work related, aerobic, strength and sport. Work-related exercise can burn calories and bring benefits if it is not extreme and relentless. The same motions and impacts done over and over, day after day, can actually tear the body down over time and result in work-related injury. Carpel tunnel syndrome from merely typing day after day at a keyboard is a good example. Be careful of excessive and repeated monotonous activity. Additionally, the body adapts to the same movements and will not improve unless there is added stress. For full benefit, other full- body exercise is important even if you have an active job.
The other three forms of exercise take conscious effort. Aerobics – running, cycling, swimming, fast walking, rapid weight lifting – helps stimulate metabolism and increase respiratory and circulatory strength, as well as endurance. Strength training–lifting weights or the like–maintains or grows strength, improves physical appearance and increases bone density reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fracture. Athletic sport can combine aerobics, strength, speed and flexibility. The ideal is a sport you can prepare for by using aerobics and strength training. Improvement goals in the sport help motivate and focus on fitness goals.
Like anything else in life that is worthwhile, exercise benefits take effort. It may mean some sweat, soreness, fatigue and even an occasional injury. In fact, if you never experience an injury or soreness, there is a good chance you do not have enough intensity, and will not get results either. “No pain, no gain” is pretty true.
Exercise like you mean it – none of the namby-pamby, faking it stuff. If you do not breathe hard or briefly exhaust muscles two to three times a week, you are probably not doing yourself any good. Do you go to a gym and spend lots of time lying on a soft mat stretching (a proven worthless “exercise”)? Did you spend $120 on those Nike cross-trainers, pay that big club fee and shop for that just right, looking good leotard workout suit to lie around stretching? (Ya gotta love this picture!) Do you do nice and easy, slow, partial reps with five lbs. while gabbing with friends or a trainer? Don’t kid yourself. Nothing comes easy. Yes, you will have to breathe hard and strain and grunt a little and even experience some soreness.
I know your personal trainer might tell you to take it easy, avoid getting sore, and the like. If your trainer looks like he or she works out, they are lying to you because they would never achieve their toned look without effort and discomfort. If they don’t look like they work out, then they shouldn’t be training you.
Recently at a gym I saw a personal trainer who looked as if training really wasn’t a part of her life, instructing a client. Weights used were minuscule, range of motion far less than it should be, constant chatter, frequent swigs on a sugared sports drink and lots of long breaks in between sets. No sweat, no strain, no breathing hard, no pushing to limits. I believe some trainers make it as easy as they can to make sure people return. Since most people don’t want any discomfort, these trainers keep workouts easy, comfortable, casual – and meaningless.
The body is naturally lazy. If the shape it is in is sufficient to do the exercise without effort, then the body will stay as it is. If you push, cause some physical stress, try for steady increases and gains, and even look for the pain, your body will respond with a new and better body capable of doing what you have demanded. Demand nothing, get nothing.
Begin an exercise program that will make a difference. Learn how to do resistance (weight) training. Emphasize compound movements like squats, dead lifts, bench presses and Olympic lifts. Avoid exercises under weight load that are not normal movements regardless of what you see in a magazine or gym. Examples include stiff legged dead lifts, behind the neck pull downs and behind the neck presses. Concentrate on good form and technique to begin and don’t rush into heavy weights. Set goals, achieve them and set new ones. Stay with it. A workout that matters is one that leaves you with little left over. For me that’s about twenty to thirty minutes. If you can work out for hours or can chat as you are doing your reps, then you do not have the intensity you should. Three times a week of intense exercise will create dramatic results if you stick with it.
You ladies who stay away from the weights because you “don’t want big muscles” need to find a better excuse. You will not grow big muscles unless you start taking male hormones. Similarly an adolescent boy or man in his eighties cannot make themselves look like Arnold no matter how much weight lifting. For the young boy that is because the anabolic male hormones have not kicked in, and for the elderly man it is because those hormones have ebbed. Weight lifting for women will improve appearance, stimulate strength and perhaps most importantly help increase and maintain bone density so as you get older you will not be as likely to develop osteoporosis or fracture bones. Weight levels for women should be chosen so that by the time you do 15-20 reps you are at failure. Don’t try to push yourself with big weights. Move weights up slowly as your 15-20 reps get too easy.
In this regard a word of caution is in order for you guys wanting to use mega-weights to pack on Herculean slabs of muscle. If you are hoisting much more than body weight you are putting enormous stress on joints, cartilage, ligaments and tendons. Over time the wear and tear will come back to haunt you with arthritis of other limiting joint and back injuries. You want staying power, not ego stroking or just a flash in the pan puffy body. Although most muscle gurus will tell you that you cannot gain serious muscle without using serious weight, the evidence does not bear that out. It may be true that if you are taking anabolic steroids and want to look like an Angus bull you may need to lift extraordinary weight. I’m not sure on that but I am not talking about freak show here, but rather fitness and health for a lifetime.
Even moderate exertion for a body part over time can greatly increase its size and strength. Although I have lifted for decades (both sides of my body equally), my right shoulder and arm are dramatically larger than the left from tens of thousands of overhand swings of a badminton racket weighing only a few ounces. Many athletes develop significant musculature in the legs without ever lifting heavy weights. Softball pitchers can develop strength and size in the pitching arm almost double that of the other. Assuming you are reasonably lean, your weight reflects the capacity of your frame. A 150-pound person lifting 250 pounds is asking for trouble because 150 pounds is designed to hold 150 pounds.
Pull downs of 150 pounds is reasonable. Bench presses of 150 pounds are reasonable. Dead lifts and squats of 150 pounds are reasonable. Why? Because your frame already is handling 150 lbs. when you squat and rise (squats), pull yourself up on to a branch (chins) and push yourself up off the floor (push ups). To safely increase musculature it is much better to increase reps than to increase the load over body weight. Stick with it, be patient, have the long view and you can stay strong and look fit for a lifetime. Start swinging around the mega-weights and the right injury could sideline you for a lifetime, giving you an excuse to be weak and flabby. (I say excuse because one can always do some form of exercise regardless of their condition or limitations.)
Two or three times a week, do 15-30 minutes of aerobic work. Do it intensely enough that you breathe hard and work up a sweat. Be careful of long distance jogging, since the impact on joints can be counterproductive. If you like to run, do short sprints instead. Be careful of intense aerobics on the same days as the resistance work. Your body needs recovery.
Find an active sport you can participate in. The exercise, challenge and camaraderie of this activity can be one of life’s greatest joys.
I am not just telling you, this is what I do. Exercise and sport have always been a part of my life. I have tried about everything and have suffered with injuries from mistakes. But to this day I lift respectable weights and continue to set new goals, run sprints at good speed and compete with guys less than one third my age in difficult sports like two on two sand volleyball and one on one competitive indoor badminton (not the back yard version but the indoor, 220 mph smash kind). My ability to do these things brings great joy to life by giving me something physically to achieve, camaraderie and the sense that I am still alive and capable. Even after umpteen gazillion decades of life I am still challenging myself with weights and pressing myself with aerobics and tough sports. And yes, I do get injured. I’ve had them all, it seems. I’m presently recovering from overdoing it with stiff-legged dead lifts (lifting a heavy barbell from the floor by bending over with the legs stiff–the reason I told you above not to do this) coupled with heavy full squats (barbell on back and squatting up and down). These are difficult weight lifting movements to help increase running speed.
I just recovered from shoulder and elbow injuries from too many smashes in badminton and jump serves in beach volleyball. I’m not complaining nor bragging, just letting you know that I practice what I preach. The benefits I derive, in spite of the inevitable set backs and injuries, I would like everyone to enjoy.
When you exercise, when you challenge yourself with exercise – not just coast with motions – you send a signal to the body that it needs to be alive and healthy. Your body responds to the call.
On the other hand, it can be overdone. It’s easy to figure that if a little bit helps, a whole lot will transform us more quickly into the Adonis or Venus to which we aspire. Much more than three vigorous workouts a week can yield negative results and increase susceptibility to injury. Be particularly careful of impact activities such as running on cement or the like. Although you may feel fine while doing it, your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are being unduly stressed and eventual crippling injuries can result. If in doubt, note the career of almost any professional athlete. They peak in their twenties and retire almost always not because of lack of skill or desire, but because of overuse injury.
Keep the prototypical wild model I continue to harp about in mind. In the wild you might occasionally have to totally exhaust muscle and be unable to catch your breath running after prey or running from or wrestling with a predator. These events of extreme exertion and exhaustion are not without potential damage from the shower of physiological free radicals created when demands exceed metabolic capacity. Free radicals are like sparks in the fireplace. If the fire is modest there are few and they are contained. But if you stoke it up to roaring the sparks spitting out into the living room could set the house afire. Extreme exercise is like a roaring fire and the free radicals created can damage body structure and lead to premature aging, structural damage, immune suppression and disease. Although pushing toward the limits once in a while may help increase exercise capacity, doing it too often can, over the long term, work the opposite effects. It can be a matter of too much of a good thing.
This may seem like I am sending mixed messages, and I am. First I tell you to buck up and go at exercise like you mean it and even expect some soreness, sweat and huffing and puffing. Then I tell you that intense exercise can cause damage. How we approach exercise mirrors life: nothing good comes easy and going to extremes is dangerous. Wisdom and judgment are necessary. Besides using the wild archetypal model, listen to and observe your body. No change means you are probably being too wimpy. Dramatic change, weakness, constant exhaustion and injury may mean you are overdoing it.
You will also have to make accommodations for age… but not before it is absolutely necessary. No “too old” excuses before your time. You can be fit and athletic in your fifties and beyond. But with time everything does wear and become more fragile and thus break more easily. You cannot force your body at 70 to be what it was at 18 regardless of exercise and diet. You can most certainly reach new physical levels in your 30’s through 50’s. What age takes away in physical vigor, it gives in desire and commitment. The danger is imposing an overly ambitious will on a body without a capacity to match. With age you will notice that exercise that is too intense will feel like you are tearing down, not stimulating growth. It is. The fine line between improving or maintaining strength and fitness, and doing damage gets thinner and thinner with age. So listen to your body and adjust. Be content with being the best you can be, not trying to be what you cannot possibly be. No ninety-year-old has ever won an Olympic event or set a world’s record.
Think about the long term. You want staying power. You want to be able to exercise for life, not for a short spurt and then be incapacitated.
Your body is a gift and responsibility. It is a moral duty to take care of it. Exercise like you mean it but use the wisdom of moderation. Enjoy the health that results and the wonderful, feel-alive dimension that is added to life as well.
Dr. Wysong is a former veterinary clinician and surgeon, college instructor in human anatomy, physiology and the origin of life, inventor of numerous medical, surgical, nutritional, athletic and fitness products and devices, research director for the present company by his name and founder of the philanthropic Wysong Institute. He is author of The Creation-Evolution Controversy now in its eleventh printing, a new two volume set on philosophy for living entitled Thinking Matters: 1-Living Life… As If Thinking Matters; 2-The Big Questions…As If Thinking Matters, several books on nutrition, prevention and health for people and animals and over 18 years of monthly health newsletters. He may be contacted at Wysong@Wysong.net and a free subscription to his e-Health Letter is available at http://www.wysong.net. Also check out [http://www.cerealwysong.com]