So You Want to Get Fitter?
In my opinion there are two key elements in making for a successful fitness regime. Both important but not always easy to define.
1st Element- Have Fun
If you had to choose an exercise to do, what would it be? What type of exercise do you like doing? (And bringing a glass of wine or a beer to your lips is not an exercise). Often people say to me in my clinic - "’when I was younger I used to like swimming or cycling or running" or whatever it may have been. If you dig deep enough into your memory, there will be something that you have a preference or better still, a passion for. You may not be able to see yourself at the Olympics to begin with but Rome wasn’t built in a day and with gradual practice, it will become increasingly enjoyable.
I like jogging. Actually it’s often more of a stagger - lurch kind of action. They say its not good for your knees, but I like it.
That early morning run, when the air is fresh and the birds are singing, not too many people out and about. It’s a time I use to try to simplify my life, plan ahead and to reconnect with myself, if that makes sense. It’s not for everyone but I like it, I can roll out of bed and get straight into it.
One of my daughters wanted to get fit. She had triplets a year or so ago and felt now was the time to take action. Get away from the children, refresh and get fit. She was a bit overweight and wanted to get rid of the pregnancy flab. She lived in the country so the easy option was to go for a jog in the country air. Well, that went down like the proverbial with her body. Apart from just about shredding her lungs, her knees became so inflamed that she could barely walk.
The first thing she did wrong was launching into it with too much enthusiasm and without thinking it through. She was very unfit from sleepless nights, hadn't been able to go out easily with three babies in tow and generally not able to find the time to get away from being a mum.
Secondly I think she was probably a dolphin in a past life. She just doesn’t have the body type to be a runner. Swimming and activities with less impact would suit her better.
Find things you like to do
So, it is crucial that you find things that you like to do within your present level of fitness. That doesn’t mean that you have to do the same thing for the rest of your life. One of my patients wanted to get fitter and lose weight. The thing that she really liked to do was cycle. She liked being outside, couldn’t stand the thought of gyms. Cycling was low impact and it burned calories while she was enjoying herself. What started off being a simple get-out-and-exercise regime developed into a sport. She joined a club, met new people and with coaching, started to compete in races.
There are many exercises that can be done just sitting in a chair, or lying in bed. You don’t have to leave the house, The benefits of just a little increase in fitness are huge, It takes just one baby step, and then another. You will gain momentum and before you know it, those little increments will pay off.
The thing is, when you enjoy what you are doing then you are more likely to continue to do it. And as your fitness level increases your direction could easily evolve into something more fulfilling. If you push yourself past your current fitness level into a near death experience you will be put off and that will be the end of your new regime. Which leads me to my next point.
2nd Element - To Rambo or Not to Rambo. That is the Question.
This basically depends on how fit you are to start with. If, like me, you generally start getting fit from a pretty low level, then you have to ease your body into it. You must not launch into it like a bat out of hell, as they say. Intelligent fitness is a gradual process. It extends the body's abilities slowly, so there is no great strain on the system. It takes a while and a bit of the smarts to become a finely tuned racing machine. You have to be kind to your body before it will be kind to you.
My regime is simple. I start with a walk until I have warmed up. I then break into a jog until I am puffed. I then slow to a walk until I get my breath back. I break into a jog until I get puffed again. And so on. I may only do this once or twice a week but each time I go out, I can run a little bit more and walk a little less. You cannot turn your self into a Rambo overnight, nor in a week or even a month. It takes time. It takes starting for a start - and then it is practice, practice, practice.
If you are a bit fitter to start with, then you can Rambo it up a bit, but the same rules apply. It doesn’t matter whether you are a couch potato or an elite athlete. If you bump up your routine too quickly, something will break and you will injure yourself. I see that in Boot camps all the time. The key is to progress at the rate of the weakest link. Whether that be your lungs and heart or your legs and knees. Whichever it is, just nudge these linkages along without over - straining them and you will get a lot more joy out of getting fitter and hardening up.
There can be complications. Its not always that simple. I do understand that. One of my patients had such sore feet, she could hardly walk, let alone trot on. These things need to be dealt with first and you may need to get professional help to sort the initial problems. For example, thigh muscle problems can affect the knees, calf muscle tension can affect the feet and ankles. Too much tension in the calf muscles diminishes the foot's spring-like abilities to function. This puts more strain on the intricate mechanics of the feet.
After I had stretched and released the muscles of her calf and foot, and given the feet a good going over, my patient was up and off on her cruise ship trip. Instead of being confined to cabin she was up and about making the most of her time. It was easy to fix. Your problems probably are too. If you have any anxiety about what’s going on in your body - see your osteopath.
Fitness is a Three Component Art
I say "art" because it requires you to be mindful and intuitive about what your body needs at any given time. And this may be different from morning to afternoon or from one day, week or month to the next. These three components are cardiovascular, flexibility and muscle tone. If we want to create optimal fitness and health in general, we cannot avoid any of the three components.
They are all equally important, but I am a little biased and put flexibility slightly ahead of the others. This is because without good musculoskeletal function you end up in pain. Whereas the other two can be a bit looser without too much of a problem - until of course, you end up with a heart attack or you fall over, or strain yourself from insufficient muscle tone.
Most of you have learned sometime in life that your heart is a bundle of muscle fibers pulsating away in your chest, pumping blood around your body, carrying goodies to the cells in your body and taking the goop away. A pretty important part to play in the overall scheme of things and catastrophic if things don’t go well for it.
Being a muscle, your heart is susceptible to strain and in general, levels of fitness. If through lack of activity your heart is not strong, then like any other muscle in the body, it will be prone to strain. The heart is designed to pump resources to all other parts of the body. If there is a sudden requirement for an increase in resources to the muscles of the legs and arms, say due to the presence of a hungry Sabre-tooth tiger, then the heart had better perform or its snack time for our furry friend.
If your heart isn’t fit enough to deliver the goods fast enough for the rest of the bodies needs, it will either strain - or the rest of the body will slow to a stop. Much like a vehicle that runs out of fuel.
Your brain decides where the blood should go. If you are digesting food then it will slow the blood to all other parts of the body except the digestive system. Detoxification of the blood via the liver is done at night time, which is why if the liver is irritated (like too much vino that night) it can be hard to sleep some times. If you need to increase your physical exertion then it will take the blood away from the gut and other less urgent organs and send it to the muscles of the legs and arms.
High Stress Situations
This is the classic fight or flight scenario. In high stress situations the body takes blood from the organs and sends it to the limbs so you are ready for action. This also includes the stressors of everyday life. If the stress is sustained then that can lead to a depletion of resources to the gut organs, which in turn leads to decreased nourishment, replenishment and detoxification. There is also a decreased supply to the immune system, which will then make you more susceptible to bacteria, viruses and other bugs. These combined, result in a more rapid degeneration of the body. You are probably thinking - Is there any hope?
I spend most of my days in the clinic bending, stretching and straightening people. I keep good muscle tone but I am still in one room for a lot of the time so my cardio fitness is next to nil. If I had to run to the letterbox I would probably have a heart attack, so I do exercises to compensate for that missing component.
Like any other muscle in the body, the heart can be strengthened, but it needs to be done in a gradual way so that there is no real strain. You need to push the boundaries out a bit, to make changes, but not in a way that will cause trauma to the body. To increase the strength of a muscle, you need to challenge it so that it rises to the occasion and can be taken to a new level.
For example, when my wife and I can go for a walk, we will get to a stage where she is puffing and panting but I am not even breaking a sweat. So, for her, she is pushing the boundaries and improving her fitness but for me, it really is doing nothing. So I jog off for a while and come back and catch my breath while walking with her again until she is out of breath again, then I jog way again. Going for a walk without getting a bit of puff going or breaking into a sweat is not getting fit. You need to get that heart going and challenge it a bit more to improve your fitness.
A patient of mine sells medical equipment. One of his machines analyses your breath for many different things. One of them, which blew me away, measured parameters to determine what was the best heart rate for the burning of fat and therefore weight loss. The amazing thing was that it wasn’t the rapid heart rate from major exertion that caused the greatest fat burn, it was in general the rate that you get from moderate exercise i.e. a bit of puff and a bit of a sweat. So there. No need to Rambo.
Other Organs need to help
Another consideration is that the other organs in your body also need to raise their game as you go. The lungs need to sharpen up to supply more oxygen and become more efficient. The blood vessels need to tone up to cope with increased action,. With this improved circulation there is better oxygenation and nutrification of the whole body, better detoxification and the list goes on. It’s a bit like an orchestra. All the instruments have to be in tune with each other to produce nice sounding music. And you are the conductor.
So the secret to improving your cardio fitness is to find what you like to do and do it in such a way that gives gradual improvements that doesn’t strain your system but lifts the level of your game. Sort out those niggling factors that are preventing you from becoming a finely tuned racing machine by going to an osteopath. Then find your own rhythm and start.
There is no doubt that a little increase in muscle tone will make a huge difference to holding us together. Patients at my clinic who don’t respond well to treatment and then go and strengthen what is necessary, will typically then be very responsive to having things put back in place and them staying in place. Because the muscles will hold it all together much better with strengthening.
If a muscle has to use one hundred percent to do a task then it will strain very easily. But if it only has to use eighty percent because it is stronger then it has a twenty percent buffer zone and will not strain. Or complain. Weak muscles have to tighten up to cope with the strain and amazingly, will actually calcify over a lifetime if the stress factors aren’t remedied.
On either side of good muscle tone is muscle weakness and muscle tightness. Muscles that are too tight are generally weak due to poor function and muscles with poor tone are also often weak.
One example of muscle weakness that concerns me greatly is elderly women and to a lesser extent, men not being able to get up from the floor because they have lost muscle strength in their legs. I see it in my clinic and also with elderly relatives and friends. I also see it among friends and others in their fifties or even earlier. The slow decline of leg strength over time is because they bend over to pick things up instead of crouching down to do it. For now I will blame it on men and children leaving stuff everywhere and the women having to do all the tidying. Its just a general observation, hit me with a stick if you disagree.
This can lead to terrible outcomes. Someone you love falls and they can’t get up to call for help gives me the shivers. All we need to do is bend our legs to pick up stuff. You have all been told to bend your knees and use you legs to pick up heavy things to save your back - don’t use your back as a crane. Well, this is bending your knees to save your life.
On the other side of the coin is muscle tightness due to repetitive strain, previous trauma, postural negligence can also cause significant grief. A common manifestation of this is in the muscles of the fore arms. You know the ones, tennis or golfers elbow or epicondylitis. This is where the muscle gets so tight it is almost pulling itself away from the bone. When a muscle is tight you will feel the pain either in the belly of the muscle or where it attaches to the bone. Physical therapists generally treat the area of pain rather than the cause.
Repetitive strain taken to the extreme will render an arm useless, unable to hold a cup or peel a potato. The excessive tightness of the muscles actually weaken them significantly. I have a bit of RSI in my forearms from being an osteopath. When they get sore I stretch and massage the muscles, give them a good work over and do push ups on my fingertips. Problem solved - until next time.
Here’s another thing. Muscles generally traverse joints to provide movement. If the muscles are weak then the joint is unsupported. In the past when I ran, I would get knee pain. At the time I was doing martial arts training, until I broke my leg in training. One of the exercises was to do a lunge walk up and down the gym until we could barely walk. Guess what? No more knee pain. Strengthening the leg muscles stabilizes the knees.
On the flip side, too much muscle tension in the muscles of the thighs, mostly on the inside or outside, will cause knee pain. The tight muscle is dragging on its attachment point around the knee. Check it out. If you have pain on the inside of your knee, press and prod the muscles on the inside of your leg.
Increase Muscle Strength
An increase in muscle strength has many advantages. It improves the stability of your joints. This is even more important for people who have sloppy joints due to more elastic ligaments. We inherit ligament elasticity and if yours are a bit stretchy, then that makes the joints unstable and therefore more prone to injury. The only way around this is to increase the muscle strength to help hold the joints together.
It also increases the density of your bones which crucial for older people. Muscles are a reservoir for nutrients. The more muscle, the bigger the stores of nutrients that can be called on in times of need. There are many more amazing things muscles do, but that’s a book in itself.
There are many health benefits from an increase in muscle strength. Less muscle pain and strain, less injury, particularly in the elderly. On the other hand, the decrease in muscle tension - like in repetitive strain - is vitally important for proper muscle function and the ability to carry out normal everyday tasks.
If you have muscle or joint pain, it's important that you figure out what the cause is as soon as possible. It’s the classic - a stitch in time saves nine. You don’t have to become a Rambo, but a ten percent increase in muscle strength will hold you together a lot more, make you safer, more confident and you will experience a lot less pain.
Adequate flexibility generally means that everything is probably pretty good with the muscles and joints. All the components are moving freely and are happy in their own little world. When the range of motion decreases due to you being shrink wrapped by your muscles, you are then on a slippery slope to some body drama. It’s like a time bomb waiting to go off. It will get you sometime. Those little aches and pains are warning signs that muscles are tightening up and coming under strain. The body is good at self-correcting. The pain and inflammation may be resolved but often the problem hasn’t gone away.
Stiffness is the result of tightness in the muscles and/or ligaments that wrap around the joints. We inherit a benchmark flexibility. For example some kids can’t even touch their toes and others can tie themselves in knots and they are still like that as adults. It’s when muscle tightness causes a problem that something needs to be done. As you know, muscles traverse joints if the muscles are excessively tight, then there is an increase in compression within the joint. If this compression gets too much, it will lock the joint up and pain and inflammation will follow.
This inflammation will cause irritation to nerves which can lead to a cascade of events like tightness in the piriformis muscle which spans the sacroiliac joints. It is also in close proximity to the sciatic nerve and for some, the nerve goes right through the middle of the muscle. So it can lock the SI joint giving pain across the pelvis to the hip. It can also cause sciatic symptoms down the back of the leg and even pins and needles in the foot. If the vertebrae are locked up through inflexibility then the nerves that exit between them can be irritated and consequently the muscle or organ they are supplying can be compromised. Not to mention the local pain and inflammation.
Conversely, if the muscles that traverse the hip joint are tight they don’t lock the joint. They just keep increasing the compression within the joint. Regardless of how tight your muscles are, you can generally still move your legs around at the hip joint. What tends to happen is that the increased compression wears the joint out over its lifetime. I have seen this in my clinic many times. Elderly people with hip replacements often have a history of muscle tightness in that region.
So, for joint health you need to have good muscle elasticity. Now this doesn’t mean that you need to be a ballerina or a gymnast. Often these kinds of bodies have their own set of troubles because they are too flexible, resulting in unstable joints that are prone to injury.
The Bigger Picture
So you can see that there is flexibility on the larger scale. The neck, back, shoulder, leg and torso level and also on a small scale like around the vertebrae. The results range from muscle pain to nerve irritation - to joint degeneration. This can lead to headaches from the neck, asthma and breathing difficulties in the chest, lower back pain and the disturbance of body systems and function on many levels.
It’s much more difficult to carry out the other components of fitness when stiffness and inflexibility get in the way. Some of us are naturally flexible and some of us are less but wherever your inherited benchmark is, you can always improve.
Flexibility is also the easiest component of fitness to start with. You can do it at home. You don’t need specialist equipment. All you need are the skills to be able to treat any given part of your body safely. If you can train someone up to help with the exercises you will make greater progress and a speedier recovery if you have an injury. You do need to put aside a little bit of time - but it is so worth it.
Relieve yourself of those aches and pains and feelings of being a bit over wrought, low in energy or prone to injury. Put some time into yourself. You have got a lot of miles to go. You don’t want to be the old wreck on the side of the road. You don’t want to be the one that can’t keep up with the kids.
Getting fitter gives you more vitality. More energy. It strengthens your immunity. You lose weight. You can have more fun. Your memory is better, You are free from pain. More stable, You have improved circulation and the list goes on.