Exercise Smart to Make the Most of Your Workout

Ready to rev up your exercise program and get the most from your workout? First, lets learn how exercise helps you reach and maintain your optimal weight and fitness level, plus tips for supercharging your metabolism—making your body even better at burning fat and calories. If you're not yet working out, you'll learn a terrific basic routine that will get you started and that can be done by anyone, in only 20 minutes a day.

Exercise Benefits

Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But let's take a moment to review the benefits. Regular physical activity:

  • Builds and maintains healthy muscles, bones and joints
  • Improves psychological well-being
  • Enhances work, recreation and sport performance
  • Reduces the risk of developing heart disease
  • Reduces high blood pressure or the risk of developing high blood pressure
  • Reduces high cholesterol or the risk of developing high cholesterol
  • Reduces the risk of developing colon cancer and breast cancer
  • Reduces the risk of developing diabetes
  • Reduces or maintains body weight or body fat (when coupled with a healthy eating program like the Atkins)
  • Reduces depression and anxiety

How Much Should You Exercise?

Most health organizations (such as the American College of Sports Medicine) have focused on endurance and have specified "sustained periods of vigorous physical activity involving large muscle groups and lasting at least 20 minutes on three or more days a week." However, as research continues to accumulate, we now know that even small amounts of activity throughout the day will add up and produce benefits. We also now know that endurance training (typical aerobic activities like walking and jogging) isn't enough--weight training needs to be added into the mix.

Research over the last few decades has illuminated how physical activity actually affects physiologic function. Your body responds to physical activity in ways that have really important positive effects on musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory and endocrine systems. It's long been known that exercise has a positive effect on brain function and mood—probably as effective against mild or moderate depression as some medications. Regular exercise appears to reduce both depression and anxiety, improve mood and enhance the ability to perform daily tasks well into old age.

How Weight-Training Helps You Reach a Healthy Goal Weight—and Maintain It

You can certainly burn calories with aerobic exercises like walking, running, bicycling and cardio workouts. Aerobic exercise is great for your heart, as well. But aerobics alone isn't enough. It certainly isn't enough for weight loss, and it's also not enough to produce optimal health and longevity. Here's why:

Your body burns calories and fat in tiny structures in the cell called the mitochondria, which are like Power Central for the cell. And mitochondria are found mainly in the muscle cells. These little power centers are the best ally you have in your fight against fat. They're the "fireplaces" where the fuel you eat (and the calories you store) get consumed. If you want to raise your metabolism, you need to increase the number of mitochondria. The best way to do this is by putting on some muscle!

But turbo-charging your metabolism is not the only benefit of weight training. Weight-bearing activity is probably the single best lifestyle choice you can make if you want to prevent osteoporosis. Weight training also gives shape and form to your body and, from a functional point of view, can help you maintain autonomy well into your tenth decade. Most people who are in nursing homes are not there because they are terribly sick--they're there because they can no longer perform the daily tasks associated with life, from opening jars to getting out of a chair. By keeping your muscles strong and functional with weight training, you can significantly lessen the odds of being dependent on others.

Weight Training and Body Composition

If you don't challenge your muscles they atrophy at a rate of approximately half pound a year. That adds up to five pounds a decade of muscle loss, and some people lose more than that. Your weight may stay the same (it usually doesn't), but your body composition will change to a less desirable composition of more fat, less muscle at the same weight. Because of its ability to burn calories, every pound of muscle that you lose is a loss of a valuable asset in the war to keep your metabolism strong.

Don't be put off by the term "weight training." Weight training is essentially resistance training, which simply means you are using some kind of significant resistance to stress and challenge your muscles. That resistance can come in the form of weights, machines, rubber bands or even your own body weight (push-ups or squats, for example). You can use dumbbells, small hand weights or even improvised resistance tools like jugs of water.

The take-home point: Do your weights. Weight training gives you the tools to burn calories while you're sedentary. You need to train your body to be efficient at calorie burning for the 23 hours a day when you're not in the gym. You don't have to pump serious iron to enjoy the benefits of weight training. You can use hand weights, resistance bands or weight machines. Weight training can start at any age and at any level!

High-Intensity Intervals = High-Intensity Calorie Burning

Don't misunderstand--you'll get plenty of benefits just by adding walking to your daily routine, or by doing the recommended 20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise three times a week. But you can push it to the next level by adding what exercise professionals call "high-intensity intervals." Here's how it works:

Suppose your "normal" exercise intensity is, for the sake of argument, a 4. Maybe that's the number you set on your treadmill, or that's the rating you'd give your intensity on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing absolutely no effort and 10 representing an all-out effort that you can't sustain for more than a few seconds. With high-intensity intervals, you simply escalate your effort for 30 to 60 seconds, moving your level of exertion from the aforementioned 4 to say a 6 or even a 7. Do that for 30 to 60 seconds and then fall back to what's called "active rest," returning to a more comfortable level 4 (or even 3) while you catch your breath. Then after about two or three minutes, you repeat. It's like doing short "wind sprints" in the middle of a long, slow jog.

You can add these high-intensity intervals at your own pace. Maybe you begin with just 15 seconds, and take a three-minute "recovery" period. As you become more fit, and your lung capacity improves, you can make the intervals longer (say 30 to 60 seconds) and the rest period shorter (say 1 to 2 minutes). You can add up to 10 such intervals in one training session. They increase your endurance, expand your lung capacity (what's called in exercise parlance, VO2 max, for maximum uptake of oxygen) and burn many more calories in a short period of time than by doing less intense exercise. High-intensity intervals are a favorite way that personal trainers push their clients to the next level. Now you know how to do it at home!

Our Basic 20-Minute Beginning Workout

This workout has five components:

  • Squats
  • Wall Push-Ups
  • Crunches
  • Spine Stretch
  • Breathing/Relaxation

Squats: Stand approximately eight to 12 inches away from a chair or a park bench, facing away from the seat of it. Now bend your legs, push your rear out and bend forward till you are seated on the chair. Do 10 repetitions.

Beginners: Rest for a second, then put your hands on your thighs, push off using your legs, and stand up again. Non-beginners: Just let your rear touch the seat of the chair and come right back up, keeping tension on the muscles throughout the movement.

Wall Push-Ups: If you're outdoors, you can use a tree. If you're indoors, use a wall. Stand about arm's length away from the tree or wall; extend both arms out and place both hands on the wall, shoulder width apart, arms extended at a right angle to the torso like you're saying "Stop!" Now lean in towards the wall or tree, bending the elbows as you come forward, and straightening the elbows as you push away back to starting position. Do 10 repetitions.

Non-beginners can do "regular" push-ups on the ground, either full military style or with knees on the ground.

Crunches: Lie on the floor with your legs bent, feet flat on the floor and hands clasped behind your head with the elbows touching the ground. Your head should be in position with the body so that you could hold an apple between your chest and your chin. Imagine Velcroing your lower back to a piece of Velcro on the floor where your lower back is. You may feel like you're doing a small pelvic thrust slightly forward to accomplish this. Keep your lower back nice and stable in this position.

Curl your upper body forward and up holding the highest position for a full second before lowering your upper body back to the ground. Don't pull on your neck when you come up. When you lower your upper torso back to the ground, don't return all the way to the "relaxed" position where your weight is supported by the ground, but rather to a point where your upper body is just above the ground and the abs are still contracted.

Remember to keep your elbows all the way back while doing the motion.

Repeat for as many reps as you can manage in good form. The goal is to try for 10-20 repetitions.

Spine Stretch: Lie down in a comfortable place. Bring the left knee in towards the chest and hold it there with both hands. After a few moments, bring your left arm out on the floor at 90 degrees from your body, and put your right hand on the outside of your left knee. Gently bring the left knee towards the ground on the right side of the body while you turn your head to look over to the left side.

This gentle spine-stretch should feel wonderful. Bring the left knee as far towards the ground as is comfortable. Then repeat the whole thing on the other side.

Breathing/Relaxation: Sit up in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply through your nose; expanding your abdomen and then letting the breath fill the chest. Exhale slowly, also through your nose, letting the air out of the chest and then out of the abdomen. Spend a few minutes doing this, concentrating on the flow of air, filling the lungs and emptying them completely. As you exhale you may want to make a soft, vibrating sound like "Mmmmm," which is very soothing and helps you to concentrate on the breath. Sit quietly for a minute and focus on something that makes you happy.

What About Abs?

When it comes to exercise, one topic that interests just about everyone is abs--the abdominal muscles. "How do I get that six-pack?" is a question virtually every personal trainer has heard more than once. Well, there's good news and bad news. Not everyone can achieve a six-pack. That's partly because a real six-pack—flat, beautifully defined abs—requires extremely low body fat and a certain genetic gift for thin, tight skin. But the good news is that absolutely everyone can have stronger, more defined abs. You won't get them just by doing sit-ups, though. Even if your abs are rock-solid, you won't see them if there's a layer of body fat around your middle. So the real answer to how to get great abs is twofold: exercise the abdominal regions and lower your body fat by following the principles of Atkins!

Consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.