Exercise | Why, when and how

Do you struggle with exercise as much as I do? The very thought of putting on my gym kit and heading off for an hour long workout fills my stomach with dread and my brain with annoyance at spending even that small portion of my day actively doing something I dislike. And then after sweating and aching and contorting my poor body into all sorts of unnatural poses and positions in full view of the eyes of my far fitter exercise companions, I still have to shower, wash and dry my hair and head back home, a considerable portion of my morning having disappeared without trace.

I really can’t seem to change my mind on this one. I can exercise as a ‘duty’ but it’s never turned into fun! Yet I know, because everyone repeatedly tells us all so, that ‘exercise’ is one of the keys to living that long, healthy and happy life. Keep your muscles, bones and tendons strong and fit and you will pass far more gracefully into your older years than those of us who slacked and never properly suffered in the name of exercise.

I do think how easy we have it in comparison to our not so distant forebears and am grateful. A couple of hundreds years back, the concept of ‘exercise’ didn’t really exist. Life was far more physical. Whether you were doing the household chores - beating rugs, churning the butter and wringing heavy wet laundry - or working on the land, tilling and planting the fields, your day would have been one long, endless combination of movements, carrying, lifting and stretching and walking miles on a daily basis as a matter of course. Exhausting - and very fit making. The vast majority of the population were hundreds of times more active than we are today with our sedentary, laptop and computer lives; driving where they used to walk, moving from bed to chair, to office chair, and back again. Repeated daily, for years on end. We appreciate the comfort and ease of how we choose to live now, but in doing so tend to forget the ‘side effects’ that can come with living our ultra cushy lives. Less physical fitness eventually equates health problems of various kinds.

The comparison between now and then was brought vividly to life for me one sunny August a couple of years ago when I went to an agricultural fair somewhere in the depths of rural England. The organisers had yoked a large horse to a plough and were offering us the opportunity to go back in time - to an England before the two World Wars, or perhaps to modern day Cuba, where Hugo Chavez’s tractors lie rusting petrol-less in the fields and the crops are brought in by hand, with primitive ploughs, under the blazing sun. The plough was a collector's piece really, one of those agricultural antiquities you see the film star hero move like butter through the earth, carving endless straight lines through the fields in a Merchant Ivory epic. ‘Ploughing a straight furrow’ I think it’s called. I paid my money and prepared to make my mark. How difficult could it be? But I couldn’t even lift the plough to put it in the right position before I thwacked the horse, let alone attempt to actually plough. It weighed a ton, and my muscles couldn’t budge it. Not even an inch. And I wasn’t the only one! Young, fit looking men with well-oiled muscles failed miserably, to their obvious dismay. 

We seem to have lost much of our body strength and, without regular exercise, it just isn’t going to come back. Exercise keeps muscles strong and joints flexible. And if you can’t get out of a chair when you are older because your legs just won’t carry you, you will have a problem. Start now, and reduce the odds of long term pain later.

Why exercise? 

Perhaps, like me, you need a reminder... It’s not just about looking thinner and more fabulous so that your clothes look great and everyone stares in admiration as you walk down the street! (Though obviously, all that helps.) When you reboot your body physically, you also reboot your mind.

It’s mainly all about oxygen. The more you move, the more oxygen gets delivered to your cells and tissues, helping them stay fit and healthy, upping your energy levels, getting rid of toxins and keeping your body’s systems working efficiently. Oxygen also keeps your mind in tip-top shape, increases your energy levels and speeds up metabolism. All good enough reasons in themselves to re-commit to exercise. In combination it’s impossible to say no.

So it’s a yes for exercise then...

The annoying thing is that just one sort of exercise won’t really do it. You need a combination of three different types to stay fit and healthy. That probably means committing to it each and every day to cover all the bases.

1. Resistance training

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This is particularly important for older age. Did you know that some women can lose up to 70% of bone density in the first years of menopause? A terrifying statistic. So if you want to ward off osteoporosis (and all its unpleasant friends), get weight training regularly. Research has shown this re-builds your bone density levels - use handheld weights or resistance machines in the gym, adapting the number of reps according to whether you want to build muscle mass or tone. Increase both weight and number of repetitions as you progress and get stronger.

2. Stretching

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Stretching is essential to keep limbs supple, and muscles and joints flexible. Add in yoga or Pilates or a gentle stretching class to your exercise regime as a way to release tension. If you stretch at home, always ease slowly into each position, and hold for 20 seconds or so before releasing gently, breathing steadily throughout. Never make any sharp movements that might stress your body.

3. Aerobic/cardio

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Adding something aerobic into the mix gets your muscles moving and that oxygen flooding in. Try group classes, swimming, cycling or running, plus regular walking at a steady fast pace is excellent. Download Thierry and Mary Anne Malleret’s excellent book '10 Good Reasons to go for a Walk' for all the reasons why.

The main thing is to take your pick of exercise and then stick with it. A minimum of three times a week, for 40 minutes or so, will improve your heart rate, get your circulation going and boost your metabolism.

Make sure you warm up properly before you start any exercise, to stretch your connective tissue and ligaments, and cool down slowly before you finish your workout. Breathe consciously all the way through, exhaling as you stress your body, and inhaling as you relax and release.

None of this needs to be complicated. But the jury is no longer out, I'm afraid, we definitely all need to exercise as we get older. Make quite sure you find something to do that you enjoy, because otherwise, like me, you are unlikely to stick to it, however well intentioned you are when you begin. And if you can, join classes or gyms that are close to home, so there’s very little opportunity to avoid going. They say it takes 30 days to get into it - through the painful part and out the other side.

Best of luck. I will be thinking of you....

 

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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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