A successful exercise routine should combine elements of cardio exercise to increase cardiovascular capacity and/or weight loss; resistance training to boost strength, endurance, and muscle definition; and stretching to maximize mobility and flexibility.
It’s important to know some underlying principles of safe and effective training before you start.
How often should you exercise?
The amount and level of exercise that you need to do will depend on your age, general health, current level of fitness, your workout preferences, and what you want to achieve. Don’t worry if you haven’t exercised in a while—start gently and you’ll soon get back into the swing of it.
If your goal is to get fitter as well as slimmer and more toned, it’s usually best to do:
• Cardio at least 3–5 occasions a week
• Sculpting (strength and flexibility) 3 times a week—on alternate days
• Quick-fix (strength and flexibility) in any spare time slots.
Be consistent with your exercise: doing five 20-minute sessions a week is better than doing nothing all week and then a one- or two-hour blast.
When should you exercise?
There are no hard and fast rules about when to train: do it any time that works for you—both to suit the natural rhythm of your energy and your schedule commitments. For majority of people, however, first thing in the morning can be a good time to fit in an exercise session—not only because they haven’t yet used up much energy, but also because they haven’t gotten started with all the tasks of the day, which can end up causing that ‘I’m too busy for a workout’ feeling. A morning exercise also provides a sense of achievement for the rest of the day.
The down side is that you may be quite dehydrated in the morning, so drink plenty of water or some fresh juice before you start anything. Whatever time you find best to train, never do it on a full stomach. Leave at least two hours between eating a meal and starting a workout. It’s fine, however, to have a small, healthy snack, such as a banana, 20–30 minutes before exercise.
How much training?
The intensity of each exercise you do is fully up to you, based on your individual wants: your current fitness level, what your targets are, and how seriously you want to commit to getting in better shape.
When it comes to resistance exercises, intensity depends on how many repetitions you do in a row before resting as well as on the number of units of reps you do. For example, you might squat 10 times (10 reps), take a break, then do 10 more reps. This is two sets.
When it comes to yoga, stretching, and Pilates, usually it’s about how long you hold a position, which can be measured by counts or number of breaths, one breath being an inhalation and an exhalation.
If you are ‘unfit’ or ‘below average’ in the fitness ratings, you’ll most likely want to start with low-intensity workouts and work up to more vigorous ones once you feel stronger and have more time.
Warm-up and cool-down
It’s crucial to do a warm-up before any exercise so that your body is prepared for the more demanding movements to come. As well as limbering up your joints and muscles, and raising the speed at which nerve impulses travel to your muscles (thus enhancing control and coordination), a warm-up also steadily increases your heart rate and body temperature. What is more, warm-up reduces the risk of injuries occurring and increases the overall effectiveness of the workout.
It’s also important to do a cool-down after any exercise to bring your body back to its pre-exercise state. This not only normalizes your heart rate and body temperature, and helps to remove lactic acid (a by-product of vigorous workout) from your body, but also provides a chance to improve your flexibility since your muscles are warm and pliable at this stage—for this reason cool-down stretches are usually more intense than warm-up ones.
Apply the overload principle
It’s important to challenge your body in order for it to adapt, develop, and become fitter and stronger. If you don’t, you won’t see results. So perform exercises ‘as far as is comfortable’ or hold a certain position ‘for as long as is comfortable,’ but always without any discomfort or pain.
This ‘point of challenge’—where you feel like you can’t physically do any more—is the stage at which the most effective strength work can be done, so urge yourself to do ‘just a little bit more’ at this point if you can—do just a few more reps or hold the pose for a few more seconds in order to really get the most from your body.
This ‘overload’ principle works on the idea that for any physiological system, whether the muscles, skeleton, heart, or lungs, to improve its function, it has to be exposed to a load larger than it normally has to cope with.