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To Exercise or No? How Many Choices Do I Have?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you put off exercising? Would you secretly rather do anything but that? If so, join my club. You probably won’t change your mind, but you might start worrying a bit more about not exercising.

I never did like working out. It bears the same relationship to real sport as masturbation does to real sex.    
– David Lodge, 1935

As the owner of a treadmill that is dusty from disuse and functions as an off season hanger and saddle holder, I am, without a doubt, the last person in the world qualified to write an article about the importance of exercise in every day life. Still, there’s something about being a non-authority and setting a poor example that empowers me in a way I never thought possible. For me, exercise represents a royal family of excuses and procrastinations, which permit me to put off until next year that which I couldn’t possibly consider today. I hate it and yet more than a part of me (which gets a bit flabbier with every day that passes), knows that I must or at the very least should surrender to both the laws of gravity and the postponement of such.

I am an active person who cleans house (sometimes), shops, showers, cooks, rides horses, reads, writes, walks, eats and watches television. Doesn’t any of that count as significant exercise? Well, maybe more for the horses mentioned, but one burning question remains. How many calories can I actually burn walking from the car to the house (many steps), the kitchen to the den (fewer steps) and then to the bedroom? (fewer still)? About 27, I’d say. (Notice I did not round off the number.) I do walk briskly around the complex where I live whenever I feel like it and the weather is nice, but I am not consistent. Thus, my accomplishments in this endeavor executed in the manner I choose to tackle them are tantamount to an old Italian expression that boasts of making a hole in water.

For the young it seems that exercise, like carbohydrate reduction, is unnecessary. Somehow those hamburgers, French fries, pizzas and cheesecakes don’t count or reside upon significant body parts until you get to be about forty. Some might say this disgusting phenomenon occurs even earlier in life and perhaps it is true for them, but for me everything started to fall apart (or began to sag) about then. Middle age reminds me of an appliance that doesn’t break down until the day after the warranty expires, even though I should not refer lightly to a stage that I am about to pass through ever so not gently. What will happen to my not so young frame? Will it be discarded like an old Chevrolet and replaced by newer, better-toned parts? Well, I’m not into used cars and I can’t let that happen. Can you?

Regular exercise is the most dramatic adjustment you can make to ensure good health. It can help improve your outlook and appearance, and increase productivity. It also contributes to reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, increasing HDL (good cholesterol) levels, lowering blood pressure and triglyceride levels, reducing weight and improving all aspects of cardiovascular health. For women specifically, researchers at The University of Southern California found that one to three hours of exercise per week during the reproductive years cuts breast cancer risk by 40 percent. For middle-aged men, physical activity is associated with the reduced risk of prostate, upper digestive and stomach cancers as well. Physical fitness can be defined as the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor, without fatigue and with ample energy to enjoy leisure pursuits. It has three basic components known as the three pillars: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance and flexibility.

Cardiovascular endurance is reflected in the sustained ability of the heart and blood vessels to carry oxygen to the body’s cells. This can be achieved by brisk walking, running, online skating, swimming, cycling, rowing and aerobic dance. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity over the course of most days is enough. For greater cardiovascular benefits, you would need to perform moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise (at 60 to 90% of your maximum heart rate) 3 to 5 times a week, with each session lasting 20 to 60 minutes, in addition to warm up and cool down activities. The safe level of the pulse rate is determined by subtracting your age from 200. The pulse should not exceed this amount per minute to be on the safe side. If you cannot add or subtract, are older than 200 or were absent from school on the day they did that, play ball or walk to work.

If you are middle aged or older or plan to live long enough to become middle aged or older, all three muscle fiber types, slow, fast and super fast, must be exercised. The average person has approximately 60 per cent fast muscle fibers and 40 percent slow type. Muscular fitness consists of the force a muscle produces in one effort and the ability to perform repeated muscle contractions in quick succession. It can be achieved by performing moderate intensity resistance workouts twice a week, lasting at least 15 minutes per session, not counting warm up and cool down. Flexibility refers to the ability of the joints to move without discomfort through their full range of motion. This varies from person to person and from joint to joint. Good flexibility offers protection to the muscles against pulls and tears, since short, tight muscles may be more likely to be overstretched. For best results, perform flexibility exercises 3 to 4 times per week.

Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program if you have a medical condition like high blood pressure, chest or shoulder pain, dizziness, breathlessness after mild exertion, are middle-aged or older and haven’t been physically active, or if you are planning a vigorous exercise program. Good, moderate exercises to consider include: walking, using the stairs, gardening or housework (ugh!), dancing and exercising at home. Set guidelines that will help make your exercise time enjoyable. (I postpone it forever and I usually have a good, although somewhat flabby time.) Exercise the same time every day so that it becomes a part of your daily routine. Set realistic goals that relate to your own individual needs. They should be specific, not vague. For example, "I’ll walk 10 miles this week" works a lot better than "I might try to exercise today if it doesn’t rain or there’s not a good movie on or if I’m in the mood."

Avoid the "too much, too soon" syndrome, and I am not referring to the 1950s movie about Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sara. Do not overdo exercise once you have decided that you can’t put it off any longer and become convinced that the gods will somehow get even with you if you don’t. Start a new exercise at a relatively low intensity and gradually increase the level of exertion over a number of weeks. In general, don’t increase your training load by more than 10% per week. Forget about "no pain, no gain". Exercise should require some effort, but pain is a warning sign and should not be ignored. General muscle soreness that comes after exercise is another matter and usually indicates that you are not warming up sufficiently or that you are exercising too long or too strenuously.

Avoid rapid jerky movements and twisting and turning as they can set the stage for injury. As you move your limbs, keep the muscles contracted and move them as if pushing against some resistance. Of course, the movements of jerks to your right or left are not and cannot be your responsibility. The limbs you save can only be your own. Keep your back aligned even though by doing so you won’t be able to watch it like your Uncle Vinny said you should. Do it anyway, particularly when jumping or reaching overhead. Use good footwear. Improper or worn out shoes place added stress to hips, knees, ankles and feet, which receive 90% of all sports injuries. Choose shoes suited to the activity and replace them before they wear out. (Do not use the same rule of thumb when selecting spouses or fruit and get rid of those high-heeled sequined sneakers.)

Avoid high-impact aerobics. Don’t bang into anyone unless they bang into you first. Most instructors as well as students suffer injuries to their shins, calves, lower back, ankles and knees because of the repetitive jarring motion of some aerobic routines. Substitute the marching or gliding movements of low-impact aerobics for the jolting, up and down motions of the high-impact variety. Always warm up and cool down. Slowly jog for 5 minutes before your workout to gradually increase your heart rate and core temperature. Cool down after exercising with 5 minutes of slower paced movement. This prevents an abrupt drop in blood pressure and helps alleviate potential muscle stiffness. Replace fluids lost through sweating. This is particularly important in hot weather when you can easily lose more than a quart of water in an hour. Neglecting to compensate for fluid loss can cause lethargy and nausea and interfere with your performance. (It’s not nice to throw up on exercise equipment, even if it is your own.) Even if you don’t feel thirsty, it’s important to drink at regular intervals when exercising.

All in all, these suggestions should prepare you for the safe, happy exercise road ahead. I hope you have a good time, as I am still not in the mood to take my own advice. I think I am having a bad hair day and even if I’m not, I have other things to do. What are they, you ask. Well, for one thing, I have to find my Uncle Vinny and ask him something very important and for another, I have to find some nincompoop who will take my high-heeled sequined sneakers off my hands!

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Copyright 2003