The need for regular exercise is well publicised, government recommendations set weekly requirements at a minimum of three, thirty minute sessions. These guidelines are designed to maintain a basic level of health, but not to improve your level of fitness.
What are some key goals for exercise?
- Cardiovascular strength
- Respiratory function
- Lymphatic flow/waste removal
- Muscular strength
- Bone strength
- Joint function and health
- Stress reduction
- Weight control
Not to mention the number of possible personal reasons and goals that an individual might have that motivates them to exercise, this could continue into a very long list.
As our lifestyles have evolved, so too has the way we use our bodies. In the past most people were active throughout the day so the notion of ‘exercise’ was redundant. As time has progressed and the majority of workers have moved into the office, the need for conscious exercise to promote good health has increased, thereby prompting the increasing popularity of gyms and health clubs. One of the problems here is the type of routines that gym goers perform. As an example, after a day behind the desk, people rush down to the gym in time for their 45 minute spinning class and ‘blast’ away at full pelt, then straight home for a nice evening in front of the television. The problem here is the contrast from nothing to full power and back again in a short space of time. Although this has benefits for cardiovascular health and is preferable to no exercise, this approach puts a lot of stress on the body and can lead to an increased risk of injury or illness. Our bodies are better designed for ongoing exercise – e.g. roaming the plains all day hunting woolly mammoth! Fortunately the world has moved on from here.
A key parameter in exercise is achieving a balance between the various exercise goals. As such, the exercise routine should incorporate as many factors in the above list as possible; all too often a routine will lean in favour of one area, neglecting others. For example a body builder may focus on muscle size and aesthetics, not giving sufficient focus to cardiovascular strength, flexibility, and muscle resilience.
So what exercises take a wide account of this list and are well-rounded enough to give complete health benefits?
One of the greatest exercises for health is an easy one to perform, although neglected by most: walking. It may not test the cardiovascular system as greatly as more intense activity, but a prolonged walk (30 minutes to an hour) every day / other day over varying terrain, and at a pace that leaves you slightly breathless, will lead to a boost in vitality by oxygenating the body, improving circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid; in the right conditions, it is also great therapy for the mind.
Swimming is another exercise which is fantastic for the cardiovascular system as well as working all the major muscle groups of the body. It has the added benefit of not involving weight-bearing, which is very helpful if you are over-weight, recovering from an injury or suffering from lower limb osteoarthritis.
Tai chi, yoga and pilates are great for building flexibility, core body strength and control whilst also focusing on mental balance as well. They also provide the benefits of group practice at fixed moments in the week, which may help to maintain the commitment to, and enjoyment of, exercise.
On a personal note I’d like to highlight a favourite activity of mine. Rock Climbing is passion of mine and I’d like to use it as an example of a well rounded, health-promoting activity. It provides fantastic functional strength training for the complete muscular system as well as taxing the cardiovascular system in a moderate way. However for me, it is a meditation, whilst spending time in some of the beautiful climbing locations this country has to offer, it uses the mind in a way no other exercise can. It is a constant game of puzzle solving, how do I ‘crack’ this route? As well as dealing with fears and natural reservations which are inbuilt for good reason. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly gets you out of the gym.
In short, when planning your exercise routine, think about how it will work on all aspects of your physical health, and how it may enhance your mental outlook as well; favour activity outdoors because of the obvious benefit of fresh air to body vitality (yes, even in a park in the middle of London!), and at all times, be aware of your posture when exercising to avoid unnecessary strains.