For many people, exercise will be high on their New Year’s resolution list
No one can deny that 2020 was a year that challenged our commitment to maintaining our health and wellbeing, topped off with the end of year seasonal food and drink indulgence!
This past year has highlighted to us the effects of the loss of passive exercise in our daily lives, such as commuting, moving around the office, walking to meetings, and recreational pursuits, etc. Research has shown that being in lockdown-mode resulted in an average step count reduction of around 50% for many of us.
Have you noticed the effects of a reduction in passive exercise in your daily life? Are your joints feeling a little bit stiffer? Have you noticed you’ve put on a couple of pounds or more? Do you struggle with energy levels throughout the day, and need a regular coffee or tea to pick you up?
With a wide readership, exercise is a tricky subject to address, because ‘exercise’ of course encompasses an enormous arena of information! There will be those amongst you that are disciplined and committed to exercise and have just got on with it and adapted throughout these difficult changing times. Others who are less committed, may have struggled but still made an effort, whilst others may fall into the camp of minimal effort.
Wherever you are on the exercise spectrum right now, it’s always good to be reminded about its incredible all-round benefits to our general health and wellbeing. Reviewing these benefits at the start of the New Year will hopefully motivate you; whether you are still promising to do some exercise, have fallen off the training plot, or are doing well and want to achieve more.
Extensive research has shown that regular exercise gives us all-round support to our health, both mentally and physically.
Exercise for your physical health
Exercise helps to keep your immune system in tip-top form, helping to fight off infection by boosting the circulation of white blood cells and flushing bacteria from your lungs and airways.
The World Health Organization reports that those who exercise more, have lower rates of all causes of mortality, including coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, colon and breast cancer. As you will know, many of these diseases are major risk factors for COVID too.
Taking regular exercise will strengthen your bones and joints and help keep your musculoskeletal system in optimum condition, including helping with posture and balance, and will reduce aches and pains.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, inactivity can worsen arthritis symptoms, increase lower back pain, lead to depression and anxiety, and problems with your skin and complexion.
Exercise for weight control
Regular exercise will boost and regulate your metabolism and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Exercise to improve your sleep
Studies have shown that exercise reduces mental fatigue and improves sleep. Quality sleep is critically important for cell repair, the healthy functioning of the immune system, and for mental and general health.
Exercise for your mental health
Exercise has significant benefits for emotional and mental health. It increases the release of mood-boosting chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin which eases pain and increases a sense of mental wellbeing. For example, dancing has been shown to increase oxytocin, promoting social connection and bonding. All exercise, including the gentler forms, such as tai-chi or yoga can help reduce circulating stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Tai-chi and yoga also include a mind-body element, and along with breathing exercises, are a great way to promote mindfulness, at the same time as working out!
A famous Duke University study (1999) found that depressed adults who did 45 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week improved mood as much as those who took antidepressants instead of exercising. Other research studies have linked exercise to improved memory, quicker learning and delayed onset of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise to slow down the ageing process
Research is showing that exercise appears to hold back ageing at the cellular level by slowing down the ageing process of brain cells, restoring, repairing and fixing things that are broken. It also increases levels of a molecule that protects telomeres (the protective caps on the end of chromosomes).
The World Health Organisation advises 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week
That’s just over 20 mins per day; along with muscle strengthening exercises two or more times per week.
This amount of time commitment to exercise is apparently the ‘sweet spot’ for health benefits. For some of us, this may seem quite a lot to achieve, but remember this includes ALL exercise such as walking, housework, gardening, washing the car, walking upstairs, etc.
If you include intense forms of exercise, such as, high intensity interval training (HIIT), then you will require less time commitment—just 75 minutes per week to get to the ‘sweet spot’ of exercise health benefit.
Try and include two types of exercise into your week:
Aerobic exercise: where you are getting your breath to speed up, encouraging your blood to flow faster, and your heart to pump faster, shooting oxygen out to the rest of your body.
Strength training: to build muscle and strengthen bones. Note: You don’t need to go out and buy weights to perform strength training, there are many alternative ways of carrying out such exercises, e.g., using your own bodyweight as resistance. (see YouTube for a multitude of examples.)
Remind yourself why you need to exercise – Read about the many benefits of exercise!
Take the first step – There’s an old saying with exercise – “it’s easy to fall off and so hard to start!” Taking the first step to get going again is always tricky, but it does get easier the more you do. Once you get going, you’ll very quickly start to feel the all-round health benefits and want to do more.
Plan exercise into your day – Prioritise exercise in your day and stop putting it to the end of the ‘to-do’ list. Reserve time specifically for exercise and it will give you heaps of benefits in return.
Be innovative – Try different modes of exercise, dancing, cycling, yoga, walking. You might be surprised at what you take to! Mix-up what you listen to: music, podcasts, audiobooks, fitness app, etc. Challenge friends remotely or members of your household to work on a specific exercise challenge.
Set goals and monitor progress – Perhaps set goals to help motivate you and keep you going. Make them achievable, start small and build up. Make a note of how you are doing. In a matter of a few weeks you will be surprised at how far you have come!
Celebrate achievements – Celebrate your wins, even if they’re small. It will motivate you to keep going.
Alessio Barone is an experienced physiotherapist, sports massage therapist and Pilates teacher at the Lloyd’s Wellbeing Centre.
If you are an active person who trains or plays sport regularly, the restrictions placed on you due to the Coronavirus pandemic would have significantly changed your lifestyle; no gym or playing your favourite team sports. You may have also found your training time limited by having to take up additional new challenges around working from home, such as dealing with new work regimes and balancing personal relationships.
We are all, of course, hoping that 2021 will bring about an easing of restrictions and a return to our normal routines, allowing those that regularly exercise to get back to what they thrive on! It will be easy to fall into the trap of rushing straight back into your old fitness routine, once protocol allows. Be cautious, it’s not as simple as picking up where you left off, as even a few weeks of downtime may set your fitness and technique back quite considerably.
In my experience as a physiotherapist (and former personal trainer, PE teacher and sports coach), I have seen a lot of patients, coming to me for help with aches and pains and struggling to complete their training plans. Most of them have unknowingly fast-tracked their path to injury by rushing into training without any proper planning or professional help, such as an initial physical assessment, advice on proper technique, and regular monitoring and evaluation of progress.
For example, previously I worked as a physiotherapist for marathon runners, and treated many people suffering injuries such as cramps, pulled muscles, and ligament strains. They generally had similar stories – too little preparation, incomplete training, and poor technique. Therefore, as we hopefully, slowly get back to normality in this new year, I thought I would share some advice to those of you that regularly exercise, to help you safely rebuild your fitness, so that you can get back to your old routine while reducing the risk of potential injury.
Research and planning
In sports, planning is just as important as regular training, particularly if you are training to reach a goal.
A good starting point is to fix a deadline for yourself then count the weeks back to the present, being realistic about how much time you will have to dedicate to training. My advice is to adjust your deadline and move it back to factor in your current fitness level, and to add some extra time in case you encounter any sudden or unexpected variation in your planned routine.
Be progressive: volume before intensity
One great rule is to increase the volume of training before increasing the intensity. By volume, I am referring to the number of sets, reps, weekly sessions, duration, frequency, number of exercises per muscle group, etc. On the other hand, intensity refers to the force, weight, or speed. To burn more calories, increase the number of repetitions/duration or reduce the rest period between sets.
To increase your cardiovascular fitness, increase time or distance before increasing speed. For example, if you are running add 5 minutes or 1-2 miles to each session. This way your body will keep improving every week, without pushing too hard, too quickly.
Finally, after some time of slowly increasing the volume of your training, then consider progressively increasing intensity and muscle stress.
Master your technique
Even if you consider yourself experienced in your chosen physical activity, there are always things to correct or improve upon.
Ask for advice, read more, invest in some private coaching, or consider a postural analysis. Consider having your training plan reviewed by a physiotherapist, osteopath, or fitness coach.
Eat, hydrate, sleep, repeat
Try to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle by reducing processed and sugary foods. Reduce your alcohol intake, and if you smoke, try to cut down—or better, cut it out completely! Explore other dietary options, such as ketogenic or vegetarian/vegan to find the best match for your performance (there are some good TV documentaries available about these options).
Adding supplements like vitamins, minerals, protein shakes or super foods is another great option worth exploring. Ensure you are adequately hydrating and aim for 2-2.5 litres of water today. And finally, sleep for at least 7 hours, but aim for 8-9 if you can.
Listen to your body
It will give you signals as to how it’s coping. Persistent or recurrent aches or pains are signs of micro-injuries or misalignments/body compensation which need to be assessed by your physiotherapist, osteopath or doctor. Pain due to lactate accumulation usually comes during, or at the end of a strenuous activity and can often lead to strong cramps. Lying down with your arms and legs elevated can help to move the excess lactate through the liver and reduce its effect on your body.
It is best not to suddenly stop all movement when you come to the end of a training session; you should always warm down gradually. Try 3-5 minutes of light exercise after finishing you training session to de-fatigue or de-stress your muscles. Using hydrotherapy post-training is also a great way to assist your circulation with the cooling down process post training session, such as having a cold shower/bath.
Pain appearing after 24 hours and lasting up to 72 hours from training is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is a normal symptom that that may follow harder training sessions. DOMS results from the rupture of a small amount of muscle fibres (less than 2-5%), which stimulates the body to build up more muscle fibre, thus increasing muscle mass and improving strength.
During DOMS, it is good to reduce the intensity or train another part of your body, or change the activity (for example, doing cardio instead of say, lifting weights). If the pain persists over 72 hours, the muscle damage and inflammation is too great, so you will need to reduce the intensity first, and the volume if this is not enough.
Every journey starts with a single step!
Discover, grow, explore, and accept change as part of your training journey. Keep going, keep training, respect yourself and the amazing body you have, no matter where your current fitness level is. Be consistent, commit with gratitude and compassion, try all you can to make the best version of you in 2021 and beyond!