When it comes to Fitness info and advice, it is just as easy to get confused as it is with Nutrition.
Because we live in an age with the power of the Internet, everyone’s voice can be heard. This can be a wonderful resource for us but it also can lead to overwhelm and misinformation. There are many books, blogs, podcasts and personal coaches out there who will give you contradictory advice, and many of them try to differentiate themselves from the noise by being new, cutting-edge, or different.
Like nutrition, however, in the world of fitness – basic is good. You don’t need brand new “never been done before” ab exercises to get a flat stomach. There is no need to succumb to “shiny new object” mentality in order to achieve fantastic fitness results.
The basic formula?
1. Do the right things
2. Do them consistently
3. Do them with intensity (elbow grease matters)
Items 2 and 3 are all up to you – but Item #1 is about having accurate knowledge. The goal of this article is to help you define what foundational fitness elements are going to give you the maximum return on your time/effort investment.
To start, here are six well-established elements that make up physical fitness. Which of them are top priorities for you?
FOUNDATION 1: AEROBIC CAPACITY
Aerobic capacity is the health of your cardiovascular system. The way to improve this is to simply get your heart rate up above its resting rate, and to sustain that elevated heart rate for a consistent period of time.
You don’t have to get fancy with this – literally any activity that raises your heart rate counts as exercise. You should aim to get a TOTAL of 30 minutes a day of elevated heart rate. That can include walking briskly between meetings for 5 minutes, 6 times a day. It can be one walk or workout during your lunch break. Walking, skipping, running, jumping, swimming, hiking, playing spots, dancing, and vacuuming your house all count.
There is more information about safe and effective way to introduce aerobic activity in The 5 Levels of Fitness.
FOUNDATION 2: MUSCULAR STRENGTH
Strength is your muscles’ ability to exert force over other objects. Obviously, strength is improved by training your muscles in the same way you would train your heart by raising its beat per minute rate. Strength training is a crucial part of anyone’s fitness regimen – even Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a strength training routine!
This is another area where it is very easy to get swept up in all the new trick moves being performed in Instagram and YouTube videos. But the secret of strength training is just like cardiovascular – pick some basic compound moves that really work your muscles, and then do them consistently.
The all-time favorites, if you do nothing else, are 1) Deadlifts 2) Squats 3) Bench Press (or pushup) and 4) Planks. There is more information about safe and effective way to introduce strength training activity in The 5 Levels of Fitness.
FOUNDATION 3 (FOUNDATION 1-2 RESULT): BODY COMPOSITION
Body Composition is an individual’s ratio of lean muscle tissue, bone tissue, body fat, and water in the body.
Most people who are on a diet, trying to lose weight, or trying to “get fit”, are really concerned with A) reducing body fat, and B) increasing lean muscle tissue. These two things are what results in a lean, firm body most associated with our concept of health and fitness today.
It is important that they be focused on together. A focus on reducing body fat without also preserving or increasing muscle mass will result in a body that is commonly termed “skinny fat”. This is not an accurate term, but still conjures up an image of someone who can fit into a small size of clothing but whose body still appears flabby underneath its skin.
Conversely, a focus on increasing muscle mass without also reducing body fat is going to result in a bulky appearance. Some fat will smooth out under the skin as new muscle stretches it, but the individual is not going to look lean and toned if they have a layer of fat over their muscle. They are only going to look hulky, like a football player.
Overall Body Composition is changed through a combination of Foundations 1 and 2.
Simple Body Composition Plan:
If you are more than 20 pounds overweight, focus primarily on caloric deficit with steady-state cardio activities which will shed excess fat and water very quickly. Do not worry about strength training right now. Ensure you are getting a variety of cardio exercises for 30-40 minutes, 5 to 6 times a week. Your heart rate should be between 60-80% of its max heart rate, which is low to moderate intensity cardio exercise. Eat 20-25% less calories than you need.
When you dip to 10-20 pounds overweight, reduce cardio to 3-4 times a week and begin to incorporate strength training exercises 2-3 times a week. You can do double-duty with a strength training based regimen that keeps your heart rate up, thus combining strength and cardio into one workout. Eat 15-20% less calories than you need.
When you have less than 10 pounds left to lose, focus primarily on strength training. You want to be doing strength training for muscular strength a full 3 times a week, supplemented by cardio (endurance) based strength training or HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) 1-2 times a week, and a low-to medium intensity steady state cardio one time a week. Eat 10-15% less calories than you need.
If you are underweight, depleted, or recovering for a major illness and need to gain weight, focus your efforts on strength training. You want to be doing slow, controlled (not cardio based) strength training 3-4 times a week. On the off days, fill in your time with LISS cardio (Low Intensity Steady State, like walking briskly for 30-45 minutes). And remember to eat a caloric excess in the range of 20-25% of healthy, nourishing food.
*Please note, I have not been trained in obesity management nor in food disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The information above is meant as general guidance and is based on my training in a Fitness Nutrition Certification, along with my personal experience & self-education. If you have been medically diagnosed with a specific condition, please follow the guidelines your medical provider has given you.
FOUNDATION 4: FLEXIBILITY
Flexibility is not commonly associated with “fitness”, but it is a crucial element to avoid injury and be able to perform exercise correctly. Have you ever tried to perform deadlifts with extremely tight hamstrings? Or squat deeply with tight hips? Have you tried to run longer distances with really tight hip flexors or a tight low back?
Exercising with very tight muscles can range from annoying to excruciating to impossible. Being tight in certain muscle, ligament or tendon groups can hamper your fitness goals, and cause chronic pain and injury.
It is important to stretch after EVERY workout, both cardio and strength training – even if for just 5 minutes. If you have to prioritize stretches, focus on your low back, hips/groin, and hamstrings. Those groups tend to tighten up the most for people who sit or stand all day, and they tend to hamper the most amount of exercises.
Taking up a regular practice like restorative yoga can be incredibly beneficial to improve range of motion and comfort in your own body. It also alleviates stress by causing a focal point, and can calm the mind with its meditative, calm and still properties.
FOUNDATION 5: BALANCE
Balance is the final piece of the fitness puzzle. Like flexibility, it gets less attention than it should. Balance is associated with agility, and can also help reduce the risk of injury during exercise. It is crucial for playing sports. And like flexibility, it increases your range of motion and the ability to perform a greater range of exercise types.
Even a small balance issue can place you at risk for sports and exercise-related injuries like ankle sprains, muscle strains, falls and fractures. Improving balance can be very simple – as little as 5-10 minutes, twice a week performing balance exercises will show improvement. You can also try incorporating balance into your strength training routines.
Doing more bodyweight exercises and working with free form weights is a great way to work on balance. Strength machines that are on a cabling or rod system take the need to balance and stabilize away from you. This is so that your body can focus on the pure strength ability of a particular muscle group. For this reason, learn to view strength machines as more “speciality equipment” than an idea place to start your strength training sessions.
Incorporating strength exercise that require balance and stability will result in far greater set of muscles being worked, and may result in experiencing soreness in places that you don’t expect. This is a good thing!
FOUNDATION 6 (FOUNDATION 4-5 RESULT): BODY STRUCTURE
Just as Body Composition is a result of Aerobic and Strength based Exercise, Body Structure is a result of Flexibility and Balance training (in addition to your natural anatomy and any chronic habits you have like desk-sitting).
Body Structure refers to the alignment of your skeletal system, along with your ligaments, tendons and joints. Body structure can be assessed by your overall posture, and any misalignments you have noticed in your legs, arms, or core. The reason this is so important is because misalignments or inequality between sides of the body can result in a more likely injury on that side of the body. Things like equal shoulder blades, a neutral spine, and equal hips can really make a difference in how you progress through your fitness program.
Body structure should be of particular concern to people who have jobs that require them to stand or sit for long periods. Over hundreds or thousands of hours, holding the body in particular ways (such as arms resting on a desk, or legs crossed under a table) can result in severe misalignment of the musculo-skeletal system, as well as very poor muscle tone in the core.
This is one reason why people with desk jobs have a much higher incidence of low back pain, even doing little or no activity to cause it.
If you have a desk job, it is crucial to focus on core strength training, as well as flexibility exercises like yoga or other basic stretching to help counter the effects that sitting for hundreds of hours per month has on your body.