It seems that everyone wants to be fit and in good shape. The past two decades have seen people paying more and more attention to health and fitness. We have finally realized the overwhelming benefits that attention to our health provides. But, what does it mean to be fit?
Some people equate fitness with losing weight and being slim. But slim people can be unfit also. Other people equate fitness with lots of muscle. Some people think fitness means being able to do 100 push-ups or run a marathon or compete in athletic events
What does it mean to be a fit person? It mans that you possess each of the five components of fitness: cardiovascular, muscular endurance, flexibility and low body fat.
The Five Components of Fitness
Cardiovascular fitness is the capacity of the heart and lung to deliver oxygen to working muscles. It means that you can walk or run or do other aerobic activities for thirty minutes or more and not get out of breath.
Muscular strength is the amount of force a muscle can exert during contraction. Muscular strength allows you to perform everyday tasks like lifting and carrying heavy objects with ease.
Muscular endurance is the number of times that a muscle can repeatedly exert the same force without fatiguing. If you have the muscular endurance, your legs don’t get tired out when you go hiking, and your arm doesn’t wear out from two sets of tennis.
Flexibility is the range of motion possible around a joint. With good flexibility, you can perform exercises comfortably and with a wide range of motion. Flexibility adds grace to your movements and keeps your muscles relaxed while you are doing an activity.
Low body fat is the body composition of someone who has a greater amount of lean body mass (muscles, bones, nervous tissues, skin, and organs) and a lower amount of body fat. You can always tell a person with low body fat– they don’t have any “extras” like flabby hips and thighs or a “spare tire”.
We will discuss each of these five fitness components in turn, but first we should note that all of them are of equal importance, and no one component should be ignored. You could be aerobically fit but unable to carry a heavy suitcase, nor do you want to be a bodybuilder who can’t pass a treadmill test. You don’t want to be a solid long-distance runner with a “spare tire” around your middle, nor do you want to be a great racquetball player who can’t bend from the hips or stretch your hamstrings. Let’s look at the five components of fitness and see what each brings to our total health and wellness.
Aerobic Exercise Improves Cardiovascular Fitness
To increase your aerobic capacity, you need to do aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any activity that requires additional oxygen for prolonged periods of time, and hence places demands on the body to improve its capacity to process oxygen. The key to improving cardiovascular fitness through aerobic exercise is to consider three variables:
Exercise Intensity (how hard to exercise) — Exercise intensity should be approximately 60% to 85% of maximum heart rate reserve, which can be determined by using heart-rate monitoring techniques.
Exercise duration (how long to exercise)– Exercise duration may vary, but cardiovascular fitness is best achieved by a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. If you are a beginner, you may not be able to do continuous exercise for 30 minutes. You should do whatever amount you can and slowly build up.
Exercise frequency (how often to exercise)–Exercise frequency should be a minimum of three times per week to achieve cardiovascular fitness.
Understanding Heart Rate Monitoring
In the past decade, heart rate monitoring as a way of determining exercise intensity has become a raging fad. Students in aerobics classes stop mid-way through class to count their pulse rates, stationary bicycles come equipped with heart rate monitors, and you can even buy expensive electronic tools to carry with you as you jog, just to be sure your heart is pumping at the right number of beats per minute. The whole point of measuring your heart rate is to help you exercise at an intensity that is challenging to you, but not so hard that you exhaust yourself too quickly. If you’re a beginning exerciser, you might feel comfortable exercising at about 60% of your maximum heart rate, while a more advanced exerciser can probably exercise at the 85% level or higher. Eventually, you want to push yourself to train at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate. Exercising at 75% of your maximum heart rate will make you moderately aerobically fit, but for maximum aerobic fitness you will have to exercise at a higher heart rate. You would want to achieve maximum aerobic fitness if you were training for competitive sports such as long-distance cycling, running or swimming. Generally, this kind of fitness can only by achieved by exceeding your anaerobic threshold–by training at the highest end of your aerobic capacity or beyond.
Determining Your Maximum Heart Rate and Aerobic Training Range
The maximum heart rate is the maximum number of beats per minute (BPM) that the average heart can beat during exercise. Maximum heart rate changes with age. It is estimated that the maximum heart rate is highest (approximately 220 BPM) when we are children of age 10 or so, and falls off as we get older. You can determine your current maximum heart rate simply by subtracting your age from 220. If you multiply that number–220 minus your age–by 60% and 85%, you will find your aerobic training range–60% at the low end and 85% at the high end. For a workout that is aerobic in nature, you should try to keep your heart rate within your aerobic training range. In general, only highly trained athletes would train at much more than 85% of their maximum heart rate. (The 60% to 85% range is suggested because it is difficult for untrained athletes to maintain exercise at a rate higher than that. If you can, however, you should–remember that you always want to push yourself to your personal best. Some marathon runners can run at 90% of their maximum heart rate for more than two hours.)
Here’s an example of an “average” 40-year-old beginning or intermediate exerciser trying to find his or her aerobic training range:
Here’s an example of an “average” 40-year-old beginning or intermediate exerciser trying to find his or her aerobic training range:
At 40 years old, the exerciser’s maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute. That’s 220-40 = 180.
Now, if we multiply 180 by 60% and 85%, we find their aerobic training range.
180 x 60% = 108 180 x 85% = 153
So, if you are 40 years old, you would want to have your heart beating between 108 and 153 beats per minute when you are doing an aerobic activity that lasts approximately 30 minutes or longer.
Checking Your Training Heart Rate
Now that you know what your training rate should be, how do you determine what your heart rate actually is when you are exercising? All you need is a watch or clock with a second hand. Wait until you’ve been exercising for 10 to 15 minutes, so you are past the warm-up stage but not too far into the hardest part of the workout. Then, slow down a bit, and lightly press your index and middle fingers of one hand against either your radial or carotid artery. Your radial artery is on the inside of your wrist; your carotid artery is just below your lower jaw, on either side of your neck. (Most people can feel their pulse in their neck more easily than in their wrist. See which way is fastest and easiest for you.) Now, looking at your second hand, count your pulse beats for 10 or 15 seconds. If you count for 10 seconds, multiply that number by six to find your number of beats per minute. If you count for 15 seconds, multiply that number by four. This is your training rate in beats per minute. Now, how does it compare to your training range?
Resting Heart Rate
One important time to monitor your heart rate is when you are resting. Your resting heart rate can be used as an index of your general level of aerobic fitness: the lower your resting heart rate, the more fit you are. Regular exercise is going to lower your resting heart rate, which will benefit you every time you are not at rest and your heart needs to pick up the pace. It’s a good idea to know what your resting heart rate is now, because as you become more fit, your resting heart rate is going to drop, and that will mean that your heart can perform with less effort. The best time to measure your resting heart rate is when you first wake up in the morning, before getting out of bed. This is the ideal time both because you are fully rested and because you have not recently had a meal, which can raise your heart rate. Look at a clock with a second hand, and count the beats at your wrist or neck for a full 30 seconds, and then multiply by two. That number is your resting heart rate.
Muscular strength exercises are the fastest and quickest way to reshape, build, strengthen and tighten all the major muscle groups of the body, helping you get that fit and lean look. These types of exercises are very effective in improving your overall appearance and posture as well as increasing bone mass, which means a lower risk of diseases like osteoporosis. Having muscular strength also increases the strength of joints, therefore decreasing the risk of injury.
How to Get Strong
Many people shy away from weightlifting because they think it will give them large, bulky muscles like the kind you see in bodybuilding magazines. Many women especially steer clear of the free weights in the gym for this reason. But it’s important to know that with weight training, you can shape your muscles any way you want. You will only get big, bulky muscles if you lift extremely heavy weights in a very rigorous training program. You’ll need to try different weights for each separate weight lifting exercise until you find a weight that you can lift approximately 12 times without exhaustion, with good form and without rest between repetitions. For every exercise you do, that weight amount is going to be different, so this takes some trial and error. I suggest you always go for a lighter weight rather than a heavier weight at first. In my training, I do three sets per exercise, on the average. The first set is always my warm-up set (even though I’ve already completed my ten-minute general warm-up before touching a weight) and I perform 12 to 15 repetitions or “reps” in this set. My second set is my working set. I pick up a heavier weight than the warm-up set and try to do ten repetitions. My third set is my challenge set, and I try to perform seven to eight repetitions on this set. The most important element in weight training is maintaining correct posture and good strict form in your movement, so that only the muscles that you are working are contracting. If the weight you are using causes you to compromise your form, it is too heavy. Never work your muscles beyond their ability to train with perfect form. The main problems to watch out for in all exercises are the locking of joints, arching of the lower back, and jerking and fast movements.
Benefits of Strength Training
So now you can lift weights. What good will that do? Well, for starters, your strength is not the only thing that will improve. Your body is going to look different as well. Your body fat will drop, and you’ll have a longer, leaner look. Also, your chest, back, abdominal, arms and legs will become stronger. Your posture will improve, your bone mass will increase, your resting heart rate will probably drop, and you’ll decrease your risk of injury to your joints and bones. Not too bad for a little weight training two or three times a week, and you can do it in as little as 30 to 45 minutes per workout.
Muscular endurance is the length of time or number of times a muscle can exert force without fatiguing. It is sustained activity at below maximal effort, unlike muscular strength, which is brief activity at maximal or close to maximal effort. Muscular endurance can be improved by using lighter weights or resistance than you would use for increasing muscular strength, and increasing the number of repetitions to 15 to 30 repetitions per set. Muscular endurance can also be improved by playing sports which require the repetitive force of certain muscles. Your muscular strength exercise regimen in the gym can easily be converted into a muscular endurance training session by simply lowering the weights to a level where you can do 20 to 30 repetitions per exercise. With endurance training exercises, you want to do three sets. The first set is a warm-up set (try to do at least 25 to 30 repetitions of an exercise). Set two is the working set (try to do 20 to 25 repetitions). Set three is the challenge set-the set in which you try to go for that “extra” push, without compromising your form, of course. You should do 15 to 20 repetitions in this final set. You can either keep the same amount of weight in all three sets, or increase the weight just a little in each successive set.
This is one component of fitness that a lot of regular exercisers overlook or don’t spend enough time doing. Ironically, it can be one of the most enjoyable elements of a workout! Most people I know finish their workout and off they go, without a proper cool-down and stretch. Stretching, or working on flexibility, is immensely helpful in maintaining fitness. Increased flexibility will help you reduce your risk of injury and increase the range of motion of your joints. Stretching regularly will definitely lengthen your athletic career by helping muscles and joints stay flexible and workable, and by helping to prevent debilitating muscle and joint injuries. Stretching and relaxation exercises will also help reduce the recovery period between workouts.
How to Stretch
Some people are more flexible than others. While much of flexibility depends on genetics, anyone can improve their flexibility through proper stretching. Proper stretching means stretching when the muscles are warm, such as towards the end of a warm-up, or at the very end of a workout. Cold muscles and tendons do not have enough elasticity to be stretched- they must be warmed first. Proper stretching also means static stretching- holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Avoid any bouncing movement when you stretch. Although you will sometimes see people do it, there should be no bouncing or ballistic movements in stretching, as these moves can actually cause tiny tears in the muscles being stretched. Stretching should never involve any pain, even if you are very inflexible. I suggest you do three sets of any given stretch. In the first set, you get into position, making sure you are maintaining good posture, and try to feel your range of movement by slowly breathing out. Then relax and let go of the stretch. In the second set, start by taking a couple of deep breaths, and then on the third breath, slowly exhale and get back into position, trying to go a little further this time without feeling tense and uncomfortable. Keep breathing and reaching into the stretch. As you exhale, try to let all the tension in your body dissolve. Let go of the stretch and gently “shake out” the area being stretched. In the third set, repeat what you did on set two, and try to go just a bit further, still maintaining a relaxed posture throughout the whole stretch. Remember, you are stretching to the point of your own limitation and not to the point of pain.
How Often to Stretch
Keep in mind that flexibility is often one of the most difficult components of fitness to achieve. No one becomes flexible overnight. It is a slow process, especially if you haven’t done much stretching previously. One of the greatest things about stretching is that it is a relaxation exercise and doesn’t require a lot of effort, so it can be done almost daily, even on days when you are ill or otherwise unable to exercise. (Just be sure to do a short warm-up first to prepare the body for stretching.) And it takes very little time to stretch each of the major muscle groups of the body. The more often you do it, the more flexible you will become. I recommend that no matter what your level of fitness, you should spend 5 to 10 minutes stretching 3 to 5 days a week.
Lowering Your Body Fat
Take two people of the same height, same body type and frame. One appears lean and fit; the other appears overweight and out of shape. If you put them both on a scale, you’ll find that the person who looks overweight and out of shape weighs the same or even less than the person who is lean and fit. What’s happening here? Since muscle is two and a half times heavier than fat, the answer is very simple, and it ties in to both exercise and nutrition habits. When you exercise on a regular basis and eat a healthy diet, you are constantly challenging your muscles to perform, causing them to get stronger and more dense and to weigh more. At the same time, you are burning off fat. In other words, you are turning your body into a lean and healthy machine. You are gaining muscle weight and you are losing body fat. People who are very muscular can weigh more than people of the same height who are sedentary but have much slimmer figures and wear smaller-sized clothes.
What’s a Reasonable Body Fat Level?
Most women have somewhere between 15 and 38 percent body fat. They should have approximately 15 to 25 percent body fat. (Marathon runners and other advanced athletes may have lower percentages.) Most men average between 12 and 24 percent body fat. Men should have approximately 10 to 19 percent body fat. Physically fit men may go as low as 6 to 12 percent.
Different Types of Exercise—Cross training
We’ve discussed the five components of fitness–cardiovascular exercise, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and low body fat. The key to improving overall health and fitness is finding a balanced workout program that will target all five components. One of the best ways to achieve balance in your exercise program is to cross-train–vary your exercise program with different activities. Athletic shoe companies are doing their best to make us believe that cross-training is a brand new workout concept that they’ve just invented, but the truth is that cross-training, or variety training or split training or whatever else it is called, has been around. The bottom line is that this concept really works, and it works for everyone. My own personal exercise regimen involves quite a lot of cross-training. I vary my program all the time. For instance, I’ll combine both long-distance and short-distance running. I’ll swim in the ocean, of course. (Living in Hawaii is like having a pool right at your doorstep.) Occasionally I’ll play soccer or do other sports activities like scuba diving. I’ll strength train with weights on the average of three times per week, and of course I teach aerobic exercise classes.