A Guide to Exercise: How We Get Health and Fitness Wrong?

Dr Kenneth Cooper ushered in the Aerobics Revolution, with his seminal work titled Aerobics some 50 years back. He published several other books that focused on running, over the next two decades, making this activity almost synonymous with Aerobic exercise. Brisk walking, jogging/running, cycling, dancing and many more have been the most popular Health and Fitness exercises worldwide, forming the cornerstone of slimming efforts imbibed by millions of aspirants!

 

The bid to achieve better Health and Fitness have led to the mushrooming of gyms, stadia, Fitness gadgets and ‘rapid’ Fitness programs in recent years; obesity has however only grown in the same period.

 

An Incomplete Understanding of Health and Fitness

 

Perhaps for starters, a relook at the definition of ‘Health’ and ‘Fitness’ is warranted.

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Health as “complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” making it perhaps a difficult goal to aspire to.

 

Fitness is defined as the state of being physically fit and healthy or being able to fulfil a specific role or task. CDC defines it as “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigour and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and respond to emergencies” – again a comprehensive definition.

 

The traditional view has been to visualise a linear relation between the two i.e. as one grows fitter with regular exercise, one becomes healthier simultaneously.

 

As with anything as complex as the human body, this is true only until a point.

 

A quick review of the later life of champion athletes will reveal that a majority suffer from musculoskeletal injuries a few years after their regular training ceases. Most are past their prime in their 30s, and for sure by their 40s. In the light of this, one of the best definitions I have found for Exercise is by McGuff and Little in their 2009 Masterpiece Body by Science. They define Exercise as:

 

“A specific activity that stimulates a positive physiological adaptation that serves to enhance Fitness and Health; and does not undermine the latter in the process of enhancing the former.”

 

This is difficult to digest!

 

But if we consider statistics that reveal that well over half (close to 60%) of all regular runners get injured once a year, with one running-related injury for every 100 hours of running, we are forced to pay attention to the above definitions.

 

This data does not even include the innumerable running enthusiasts who have chronic knee pain while climbing stairs or nagging low backache in their 40s and 50s. This also does not include the disconcerting news of heart attacks, or even deaths of enthusiasts during or just after running. An oft-quoted instance is the death of running enthusiast James Fixx at age 52 while on a run who wrote The Complete Book of Running in 1977, and was instrumental in popularizing running for Fitness in the USA. Recent reviews of long term studies however, are more reassuring. Apparently, the risk of dying suddenly while running is 5 times higher in a runner, but this is considerably lower than than the 56-74 times higher risk in an individual who is normally sedentary and has to run or strain himself suddenly. So exercise minimally increases the risk while exerting, but pretty effectively reduces the risk of dying the rest of the day. A Guide to Exercise: How We Get Health and Fitness Wrong?

 

Achieving ‘Balance’

 

Studies have shown that most humans beings, c. 60%, are physically inactive, and only a small minority (about 8%) exercise regularly. Considering the aphorism “Sitting is the New Smoking”, (nearly as many people die worldwide due to physical inactivity, as due to smoking, about 5 million each per year) almost everyone will benefit from an active lifestyle, leading to increased effort tolerance, improved immunity and reduction of body weight, blood pressure and blood sugar. We need to however find the optimal balance to achieve good Health and Fitness.

 

The other tough question to consider is that of genetics. Running or swimming would make us slimmer and fitter (if we continue to run long-term), but hardly anyone will become an Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Top performing athletes have excellent genes combined with years of committed practice and coaching. Many youngsters are prone to come under the sway of ads and movies, and start taking a variety of supplements in gyms in a bid to develop muscles and “abs”, often of questionable quality and value. Sometimes, they develop complications or injuries as a result, bringing exercise, especially weightlifting into disrepute. So, in the pursuit of Health and Fitness, it is good to remember one’s natural limitations while continuously working towards enhancing our innate capabilities.

 

All this is not meant to dampen your enthusiasm, rather is just a reminder that exercise is a lofty long-term goal, being easier to initiate than to maintain. This is not just because of weakness of moral fibre, but due to the repeated cycle of fatigue, injuries and improper diet.

 

However, as has been said earlier, most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.

 A Guide to Exercise: How We Get Health and Fitness Wrong?

 

Starting with Aerobic Exercise

 

What makes for effective Aerobic Exercise? Without going into the nuances of optimizing Aerobic by excluding the Anaerobic component (to be discussed in another article), let us consider our options.

 

Guidelines recommend up to 150 minutes of regular moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous or intense exercise per week in the pursuit of these goals.

 

Moderate activity for adults includes brisk walking, swimming, cycling, gardening, running household chores, dancing, walking a pet, playing games with children and carrying weights under 20 kg while walking. Vigorous activities are running/jogging, fast cycling or swimming, Aerobic dancing, competitive sports or games and moving heavier weights (> 20 kg).

 

Healthcare authorities believe that benefits will accrue even from low impact exercises like brisk walking, which have minimal potential for injury, while improving the overall effort tolerance, blood pressure and sugar.

 

This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: A Guide to Exercise. Next week, we shall focus on some of these exercises specifically for achieving the best enhancement of Fitness, while improving Health as well.

 

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