Having discussed the basic aspects of nutrition, metabolism and weight loss, we come to the other prerequisite of a healthy lifestyle - Exercise. It is commonly believed that exercising regularly, such as walking, performing yoga, or running on the treadmill is crucial for fitness and weight loss. The truth is a bit different. These are important for good health and general fitness, but contribute little to long-term weight loss, even fat loss.
The body’s natural response to exercise is to increase the metabolic rate and burn a few extra calories; a necessary outcome being that it concurrently increases appetite. There is a psychological boost too (from the released endorphins) that one has exercised and so one deserves an extra snack. But the uncomfortable truth is that we cannot exercise our way out of obesity (or being overweight), if it is not accompanied by a sensible diet.
Exercise and nutrition go hand-in-hand in maintaining good health. One takes care of muscles, bones and joints, while the other provides energy and helps in getting rid of excess fat. One can be slim or lose significant weight even without exercise (purely by following a particular diet), but that is not holistic fitness. Holistic fitness means much more - not just to be skinny (or skinny fat), but also to have the physical strength to complete a day’s work, hoist a suitcase into the overhead luggage compartment or help in moving furniture when needed; and still have energy left over for a workout or a walk.
Exercise is thus an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. It has other advantages as well – elevation of mood, a feeling of well-being, improved stamina, an athletic body configuration, flexibility and strength. However, without a healthy diet, it rarely results in significant fat loss. The number of calories in a samosa, kachori or gulab jamun etc. range from 200-500 per piece, while walking briskly for 45 minutes succeeds in burning 150 calories at most. Most treadmills show too high a number of calories spent, possibly being inaccurate; weigh that against walking on a cross-trainer, where for most adults it would be a hard task to burn even 100 calories. So an hour spent in the gym or a park is easily neutralized by a single dietary indiscretion, which is exactly what one looks for after a hard session.
Yoga, another common practice, especially in middle aged and older individuals, is good for respiration, flexibility and some strength, but not really for weight loss.
Strength training (resistance exercise) is useful in building muscle, but alone cannot result in weight loss. Running/jogging is perhaps an exception, but the number of people able to run regularly for over an year is minuscule; both due to monotony and leg or foot injuries. Furthermore, slow jogging is associated with muscle loss as well as fat loss, so the weight loss seen is not entirely fat. A Runners’ World study that followed 13,000 habitual runners found that those who ran longer were in general leaner, but all of them gained some fat if they did not increase their distance from year to year. This was true even of those who ran 40 or more miles per week (a mind-boggling distance). The authors calculated that if males were to add about 2.7 km and females about 3.9 km to their weekly distance every year, then they might manage to prevent this fat gain. This would suggest that one would have to run a marathon several times a week into their 50s and 60s if they wish to remain lean by running.
Swimming is perhaps the best exercise for fat loss (even more so in cool water), if supplemented by a healthy diet plan. Reason being that the body has to work double: to swim, and also to maintain the normal body temperature in cool water.
Having said this, please remember that we are discussing the average working adult. Professional athletes and sportsmen can burn well over 1,000 calories in a single exercise session. An example is the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. He is said to consume over 6500 calories per day, and we know how fit he is. He has the advantage of age, height, a punishing exercise schedule and good genetics. Most of us are not so lucky - we have to go the hard way.
But What is the Best Way?
There are the ardent gym-rats, the devoted yoga enthusiasts and the iron junkies; they all sing paeans to their ideal exercise. Again, the truth lies somewhere in between. An adult (especially > 30 years of age) needs all three for total fitness - aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility/stretching exercises.
Aerobic exercise improves the cardiopulmonary reserve (the endurance to walk for long distances or run fast if necessary); one can’t enjoy a vacation without it. These include walking, running/jogging, cycling, dancing etc.
Strength training or resistance exercise is necessary to build/maintain muscular strength as one ages. After 30 years of age, one starts losing lean mass (bone and muscle) at a rate of about 1% per year. Imagine this process continuing into one’s 60s, 70s and 80s: no wonder, elderly individuals feel tired and drained most of the time, often don't have the strength to perform several daily tasks, have a tendency to fall and suffer fractures easily when they do.. Musculoskeletal problems are thus among the top two causes for morbidity in the elderly, along with heart disease. And resistance training is the best way to turn back the clock, preserve or even build lean mass, maintaining or possibly increasing the BMR, and improving the ability to handle oneself better even as one ages.
But these are incomplete without stretching and relaxation of muscles, which are achieved by a proper stretching routine, or Yoga. These exercises improve muscle tone, build strength, improve respiration and also relieve stress. Another option is to play a game - badminton and table tennis, which have a lesser risk of injury than say football, hockey or cricket. These also provide tremendous physical and mental benefits.
Knowing all this is good, but it is tough incorporating these varied exercise regimes into a busy schedule. So ideally all three should be incorporated once or twice in our weekly or fortnightly schedule for maximum benefits.
Over the next few weeks, we shall be discussing more about these three broad categories of exercise, including the possible variations and protocols that can provide the best results in a short time period.
Fitness to you all - Get Ship Shape!!
This is the first of a recurring column that will be published every Sunday under the title: A Guide to Exercise. Stay tuned.
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