Did you exercise today? Congratulations — you’re already ahead of the pack.
In 2012, only about 1 in 5 Americans met the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s physical activity guidelines, which call for 2.5 hours of aerobic activity per week plus two days a week of muscle-strengthening.
“We have a serious public health crisis where people are not moving — they’re sitting,” says Jennifer Huberty, an associate professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University. So the first step to a healthier body is to add some exercise to your routine, even just a little bit. (“Some physical activity is better than none,” says the CDC.)
But once you’re moving on a regular basis, how do you maximise that time to get more out of your workouts? We talked to Huberty and Shawn Arent, the director of the graduate program in exercise science at Rutgers, to get some tips.
1. Stop stretching before you exercise.
“We know that stretching before a workout is relatively ineffective and can actually be counterproductive by reducing power output,” says Arent. Evidence shows that “static stretching” — standing still while reaching for your toes, for example — does nothing to reduce soreness or minimize injuries and plenty to negatively affect performance.
Any sudden changes to an exercise routine can be detrimental, but the vast majority of casual exercisers would be better off without static stretching.
2. Don’t stop stretching altogether.
Static stretching may be outre, but so-called dynamic stretching — think butt kicks and walking lunges, where you are moving while flexing — is the new black. Limited evidence shows that it “may augment subsequent performance,” and at the very least does not seem to impede it.
Plus, flexibility is a worthy goal all by itself — one of the many reasons so many people swear by yoga. For best results, save the stretching until you’re done with your cardio and strength training. “A warmer muscle is a more pliable muscle,” suggests Arent, and so doing it after exercise makes stretching more effective.
3. Try using weights.
Cardio workouts are much more popular among Americans than muscle-strengthening activities. But people who hit the treadmill and then head home are really missing out. According to the CDC, strength training — whether pumping iron or doing other kinds of resistance training — can reduce the “signs and symptoms” of diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, depression, and more. It also helps with balance, weight control, sleep, and bone strength — while providing many of the same benefits as a cardio workout.
Reams of research have shown the benefits of strength training in a wide range of people including athletes, children, adolescents, cancer survivors, the elderly, and the chronically ill. “Everybody should be lifting weights,” says Arent. “There isn’t a single part of our population that wouldn’t benefit.”
4. Do more interval training.
If your cardio workout consists of 30 minutes of running or biking at a comfortable pace, it’s time to mix it up. Interval training is when you go all out, rest, and repeat — instead of maintaining a consistent pace. It has proven benefits in a wide variety of exercisers. Usually you want to make your rest intervals about twice the length of your work intervals, so 45-second sprints followed by 90-second strolls, for example.
With interval training “you’re spending much more time up around your maximum than even if you ran as fast as you could for the whole time,” says Arent. “Within 20 minutes, you can get a really effective workout.”
5. Don’t overindulge.
Indulging in a post-exercise calorie fest is a common, self-defeating mistake. People will hit the smoothie bar at the gym or chug a large Gatorade, Arent says, not realising that “a shake can have more calories than they just burned during the workout.”
Of course, not everyone is looking to lose weight, and it is important for everyone to hydrate and eat something not too long after working out. But most casual exercisers are not engaging in the kind of high-intensity training that protein shakes and sports drinks were designed to replenish.
6. Drink a caffeinated beverage.
You may have heard that coffee dehydrates you, but it doesn’t quite work that way — especially when you drink it before exercising.
“The water in a cup of coffee is enough to replace the water you’re going to lose from the caffeine,” says Arent. That means coffee is not a good choice for hydration, but for people without high blood pressure, it’s a great option if you need a pre-workout boost. It can increase the intensity of a workout, helping you get more out of the time you have, and you won’t tire out as quickly.
7. Hire a trainer.
When it comes to exercise, “most people don’t know what they’re doing,” says Arent, who says every time he goes to the gym, he could do an inventory of all the things he sees people doing wrong. But hiring a personal trainer for all your workouts is financially unfeasible for the vast majority of people.
The solution? If you can, schedule one session with a knowledgeable trainer, ideally someone with a kinesthesiology or exercise science background. Sometimes gyms offer a free session with a trainer to members. A person with the right knowledge can help you develop a workout plan best suited to your goals. You can even seek out more affordable trainers online, though do be sure someone’s qualifications go beyond looking sculpted.
If talking to a trainer is simply not an option, you can learn more about exercise yourself, rather than just proceeding blindly. The tips listed here are a good place to start.
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