You wouldn’t build a house without a set of blueprints or save for retirement without a financial plan. Yet at the start of every year, many of us embark on a fitness program fueled by good intentions but totally lacking in strategy. Sure, we want to look good and feel even better. But without a well-thought-out line of attack we make mistakes, become discouraged, and by mid-March, about three-quarters of us drop out. So, what do the 25 percent who stick with it have that the rest of us don’t? It’s the mental equivalent of a treasure map with a big, bold “X” and detailed directions on how to get there: a good goal and the right plan.
The “X” Factor
Unless you crave hunger pangs and find exercise equipment irresistible, the drive to whittle your waistline is motivated by ambition. For most of us, the aim is simply a more appealing reflection in the mirror. Some want to remain healthy. A scant few of us actually target tangible objectives, like running faster, or lifting more weight. But of the elusive 25 percent of people who keep their fitness resolutions alive for years on end, success belongs to the latter category: Those striving for specific goals that lend themselves to objective measurement. Face it, your looks change from day-to-day and often reflect more how you feel about yourself than how you appear to others or what you’ve accomplished in the gym. The only way to turn elusive ambitions like “getting fit” into more tangible accomplishments, like running 10 miles, is to set performance objectives and then track the milestones of your journey so you can measure how far you’ve come. Can you run a little faster without getting winded, or farther before you tire out? If so, you can be sure you are on the right road.
Unless you are obese and need to lose weight to exercise safely, you’re better off embarking on a journey toward better performance – in aerobics, weight training, flexibility or your favorite sport – than to try to achieve a certain look. In this scheme, losing 10 pounds becomes a byproduct of your work toward improved performance instead of the ultimate goal.
Aside from the obvious benefit of taking the onus off your looks, improved performance represents a better measure of superior fitness than weight loss. Performance measurements reward you for what you do, rather than what you don’t (such as the foods you’ve stopped eating). So the first step in taking charge of your fitness is setting realistic performance goals and finding a workout you can stick with long enough to achieve them.
The most common fitness goals include losing weight, gaining cardiovascular endurance, building strong muscles and bones, and improving flexibility. To translate these into performance objectives, you need to measure your existing capacity through a General Fitness Assessment (available at any health club). Once you have those results, you need to set realistic targets, such as improving selected measures by a certain percent every few months. Of course, the amount of improvement that each person can reasonably hope to achieve depends on his or her level of conditioning. The good news for beginners is that the more out of shape you are, the more quickly you’ll see progress.
Finding the perfect workout strategy remains a highly individual matter. Slimming down may seem impractical to you if it means cutting out your favorite foods. Cardiovascular endurance might feel vitally important, but not if it involves hours of scuttling on a treadmill. You may want to be strong but not look particularly muscular. Or perhaps you’re looking for yoga-like flexibility but don’t give a darn about enlightenment. No matter what your goal is, you’ll have to find a unique path that leads you toward that objective without unnecessary stops and side trips.
To design a program, you’ll have to consider not only your fitness goals and your existing level of conditioning, but personal issues such as whether you like to work out alone or in a group, time constraints, and even financial resources. To figure out what might work, here are a few questions to consider:
Do you like repetitive, predictable activity that lets your mind wander?
- If yes, consider swimming, cycling, walking and running.
- If you prefer challenges that require concentration and skill, try a martial arts class, circuit training, or yoga.
Do you like accomplishing long-term objectives?
- If yes, pick an activity that holds multilevel contests or tournaments, like 10k running, karate or racquetball.
- If you live in the moment and prefer recreational games that don’t require tough moral fiber, try water aerobics, body sculpting, or join a cross-country walking club.
Do you like exercising with other people?
- If yes, join a group fitness class or running club where you can be fueled by group energy ? and even make new friends.
- If you prefer to exercise alone, then walk, run, or cycle on a trail, and wear headphones at the gym so no one will talk to you.
Do you like the battle cry of competition?
- If yes, pick a sport that requires keeping score, like basketball, volleyball, racquetball or tennis. Or challenge someone to keep up with you in a cycling or step class.
- If you prefer music, attend a class that’s choreographed to music, or pick an activity like in-line skating or running that you can do with a portable CD player.
Whatever mode of exercise you select, it’s at this early stage that many people make their first mistake: They start pumping away as if exercise was nothing more than mindless movement. Soon they are exhausted, sore, and cursing the very notion of fitness.
“We live in a culture that tends toward extremes,” explains Carol Agneessens, a rolfer and registered movement therapist in Santa Cruz, Calif. “We either exercise too much or we skip exercise altogether.” The all-or-nothing mentality also leads many people to choose the wrong routines for their body types. Agneessens suggests that if you have a soft physique, with joints unaccustomed to withstanding the high impact of aerobics or running, you should not set out to run five miles, but instead start with a low-impact exercise, like swimming.
She warns, too, against the heroic attitude that many people bring to their workouts, as if exercising in spite of severe pain and exhaustion offered health benefits. It doesn’t. This kind of valor belongs in love and war, she says – not at the health club.
In her book The Fabric of Wholeness: Biological Intelligence and Relational Gravity, Agneessens explores the relationship of body systems working together to produce graceful, effortless movement. Agneessens recommends cross-training to prevent injuries associated with repetitive stress. “Try different things and listen to your body. You’ll know when you’re overdoing it, and when you find something that feels right for you,” she says.
If you’re 20 pounds or more overweight, if you smoke or just quit, or if you haven’t exercised in recent memory, your first step will be a small but critical one: You’ll need to get used to moving your body by getting into pre-exercise shape. This can take several months and should be a pleasant, rewarding experience – even if the bathroom scale doesn’t immediately acknowledge your effort.
Track Your Training
There’s an axiom in exercise: If you aren’t getting stronger, more muscular or developing better endurance, you’re probably doing something wrong. But physiological changes occur slowly and often elude casual self-observation. And working hard for no apparent result can become very discouraging indeed. So track your progress from the beginning. Because whether you just started exercising today, or have recently completed your 10th marathon, it’s impossible to break personal-best records that don’t exist.
A certified trainer at your health club can provide a battery of tests that determine your body-fat ratios, strength, flexibility and endurance. Every six to 12 weeks, reassess your fitness with another testing session. Keep these records along with a daily exercise log and you’ll begin to discover a relationship between what you do and which routines provide the best results. Sure, you should watch your weight. But if you track your training progress, you’ll tune into measurements that no bathroom scale or BMI chart can deliver (see “Re-Assess Your Assessments,” at the end of this article).
If you start gaining muscle (a good thing) it can translate into added pounds. But a body-fat measurement just might console you that you are still losing chub. On the other hand, you may discover that gains in one area (such as endurance) are not supporting your goals in another (such as strength). Subtle changes in your program may be required to keep you aimed in the right direction. Improvements may seem small from week to week, but as long as they are measurable, they’ll give you an idea about where you’re headed. Without periodic testing, you might not be aware that your workout routine needs an adjustment until you’re a long way down the wrong road.
Getting Good Help
Although exercise isn’t rocket science, it’s a science nonetheless, and if you’re not happy with your progress, you may want to enlist professional help. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned gym rat, you can benefit from hiring a certified personal trainer. A trainer can teach you how to use exercise equipment correctly and help you develop a program that meets your goals. A good trainer knows how to work around injuries and how to tailor an exercise program to individual needs. He or she also knows how to motivate you and communicate enthusiasm for your progress. You’ll know when you’re working with a good trainer because no matter what level you are working on, you’ll feel like an Olympic athlete.
Since anyone can put on a pair of spandex shorts and print up business cards, there are a lot of unqualified trainers out there. Make sure yours is certified from a national organization such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the National Association of Sports Medicine or the American College of Sports Medicine.
Otherwise, hiring a trainer is a little like choosing a spouse: Your first concern should be compatibility. Does your trainer motivate you and seem to understand your goals? A trainer should have a broad level of experience, including free weights, machines, cardiovascular training, flexibility, and sport-specific knowledge. But remember, just like any specialist, trainers usually know one thing best.
So if you want to get stronger without muscling up, your best guide would be a trainer with a dance or gymnastics background instead of a football player who is also a free weights expert. On the other hand, if you want to look like the Incredible Hulk, avoid the yoga teacher and choose a trainer with a bodybuilding background.
Jase Graber, a kinesiologist and personal trainer certified by the National Association of Sports Medicine, often spends months working with clients to undo the damage wrought by unqualified trainers. “For most people, the first step isn’t muscle building, or aerobic endurance, it is actually learning good posture,” says Graber. Our sedentary way of life leads to postural misalignments that wrench the spine and strain the joints, Graber explains. Strengthen yourself without correcting these muscle imbalances first, and you effectively fuse your skeletomuscular system out of whack. Imagine your body as drawn by Picasso in his cubist phase. Get the picture?
The body tends to favor its strongest muscles and uses these at the expense of weaker ones, so the first thing Graber does with new clients is to study their postural alignment to begin reversing this tendency. Essentially, he retrains them to hold their body in alignment and use all of their muscles properly. “A lot of times this doesn’t look like typical exercise; it looks more like Pilates,” he says. After fixing the imbalances, Graber moves his clients into a more traditional workout – but always with an absolute focus on perfect form.
Of course, any well-rounded, nationally certified trainer can help design a program tailored to your specific goals. But a trainer who shares your goals, who is on the same page with you philosophically, will provide the best training. And what’s more, he or she can also become a role model. So take the time to find someone who shares your exercise agenda, who takes an interest in you personally, and who motivates you toward goals that fit your age and temperament.
Launching yourself energetically into an exercise plan is one thing. Liking where you end up is another. No matter how great your plan, if you are embarking on a new fitness regimen – particularly one that is intended to affect a dramatic change in your body – you should be prepared for some surprises along the way. Some of them, no doubt, you will love; others may take some adjustment.
It may be, for example, that you make faster progress, or slower progress, than you anticipated. It may be that you start feeling different in your body than you have in the past, or that your priorities and interests begin shifting. It may even be that just as things start going really well, you start finding ways to undermine your own success and return to the “safe” reality you knew before.
So review and revise your plan as necessary. Celebrate your successes, but don’t be shocked by setbacks. Above all, look at your fitness approach as both a strategic action plan and as an experimental adventure. While you will start with an empowering destination in mind, there are also likely to be many interesting stops and segues throughout the journey. So keep your goals always in sight, make your course corrections as necessary. And don’t forget to enjoy the discoveries you encounter as you go.
Where to Start
Yes, It would be nice if we could become svelte and strong overnight. But it just doesn’t work that way. In fact, first off, most of us need to develop enough strength and endurance to make “real” exercise – the kind of workout that yields results you can see in the mirror – possible.
If you are more than 30 pounds overweight, start out by training consistently at about 50 percent or less of your maximum capacity. As you get closer to your ideal size (not more than 10 to 15 pounds overweight) you can start to shift your program from fat loss to muscle building.
Don’t worry, you’ll get back to burning off fat in the next training cycle, but first you want to gain enough strength and stamina to support your efforts. You’ll find it’s hard to restrict calories, especially proteins and fat, when you engage in a serious strength-training regimen. Your body demands fuel, and this is an excellent time to learn how to eat well, rather than eat less.
After eight to 12 weeks on a strength-training program, it’s time to shift back into a fat-reduction mode. This does not mean you have to abandon the barbells entirely, but you’ll want to emphasize endurance and aerobics. You can harness the power you gained during the strength phase to intensify your aerobic exercise and speed up your metabolism.
At this stage you may want to start interval training (varying your speed and intensity) to increase the efficiency of your aerobic workouts. When you’re back in the weight room, instead of isolating your lifts with rest periods, try circuit training: Move from one exercise to the next without a rest interval, or run a lap between sets. Increase your repetitions, but use lighter weights. Your heart will pump, you’ll sweat, and your body will start to crave carbohydrates, so don’t try the Atkins diet at this time. But do watch your intake of sweets, carbs and sugary liquids. A single self-indulgent meal can ruin hours of exercise. Choose water over sugary drinks, complex carbs over starches and sweets, wine over beer, and then watch the pounds take their leave.
Mission accomplished? Not quite. It’s important not to get attached to any one fitness program because gains wane as your body adjusts to the physical demands. Plus, your brain tires of the routine. So, once you’ve lost another 10 to 15 pounds (figure this’ll take six to eight weeks), resume strength training. As soon as you shift back to muscle-building mode, a few of those pounds shed during the aerobics and endurance phase will find their way back into your subcutaneous tissues. But you’ll be back to fighting fat in about six to eight weeks, with even bigger guns. Soon, even your most ambitious fitness goals will come into clear view.
Hey, Look at You!
Scientific assessments and formulae have their merits, but they don’t entirely preclude the low-tech approach of checking yourself out in the mirror. If your muscle tone looks significantly better than it did last month, your workout is doing the trick. If you’re not getting results, don’t keep wasting your time with the wrong trainer or routine.
Another important subjective measure is how you feel. If your program is working, you should notice that you have more strength and energy. If you’re wiped out for days on end, you’re probably overtraining. You’ll reap more from a regimen that feels right to you than any hypothetical super-training method developed by some jock for a college football team. Remember, the only successful fitness plan is the one you’ll stick with and enjoy!
Bodybuilding vs. Body Sculpting
There are two ways to create shape: By adding or subtracting. While the mason bonds bricks to construct a wall, the sculptor chips away at the stone to reveal its latent form. Similarly, bodybuilding and body sculpting represent two different approaches to looking more muscular. One involves stimulating the growth of lean body tissue, while the other involves shedding fat. This distinction reveals another common pitfall taken by exercisers – trying to build muscle while rapidly reducing fat.
While it is possible to tilt the balance toward bigger and leaner, trying to do both simultaneously can be an exercise in futility. Pumping iron certainly won’t trim your waistline as effectively as dieting and aerobics. On the other hand, restricting calories and doing hours of step classes will defeat your muscle-building work in the weight room. When you start a training program it’s important to choose one goal at a time and emphasize it until you have obtained a specific result.
Don’t Play to Your Strengths
Funny thing: Flexible people tend to like yoga. Strong, compact people often enjoy resistence training. Those with strong lungs get the biggest kick out of cardio. But all these types would do well to swap their routines now and then, even if it means sometimes working outside of their comfort zone.
While it’s fine to design your training around your personality and your natural physique, don’t fall into the trap of developing a mindless, too-easy or homogenous routine. No matter how much you enjoy a specific type of exercise, your day-to-day training should still vary – from session to session and throughout the year – to develop a balance between strength, endurance and flexibility.
Think of it this way: All exercises have an expiration date of four to eight weeks. If you vary your workouts at least four times a year, you’ll begin to discover specific combinations that work well for you. You’ll also avoid getting hurt by overtaxing your joints with repetitive motions, and you’ll learn more about the science of exercise, which helps you become a more knowledgeable fitness consumer.
Ultimately, to take charge of your body you have to become better educated, develop a personal plan and then learn to make subtle adjustments as you progress toward your goals. Remember, the best program or personal trainer on earth can’t substitute for intelligent self-awareness. In the words of a famous yogi, *Your body knows best.* So listen to it, and little by little it will take you where you want to go.
Not sure if you should be tracking your BMI, BIA or the thickness of your arm flab? Here’s the skinny on the most popular body-composition measurements.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Popularized 30 years ago and still used by nutritionists and health professionals to gauge a person’s weight-related health risks, the Body Mass Index is a popular assessment tool mainly because it’s so easy to use: All you need is your height and weight and access to a BMI Chart. (You can take a look at one online at www.consumer.gov/weightloss/bmi.htm.)
For ballpark evaluations, it’s okay. But according to Dr. Terry Shepherd, a professor of exercise physiology at Marshall University in West Virginia and the owner and creator of The HIT (High Intensity Training) Center, there are several reasons why the BMI chart is not an ideal or accurate gauge of a person’s body composition – particularly for an individual who is building muscle.
In fact, the BMI is not really much use for individuals in general, he says. “If you want to know what the general fatness level is of the citizens of New York, then BMI is a useful tool because it is calculated to give a good estimate of distinct populations.”
In essence, the equations that determine BMI have been created to average out people on all ends of the fitness spectrum. But as any annoyed athlete or bodybuilder who’s had a BMI chart indicate that he or she is obese can attest, averages don’t do you any good if you aren’t average. If you weigh a lot because you’re a buff specimen of solid muscle, a BMI chart will not get you even close to an accurate result.
Another reason why BMI is often inaccurate is because there are no specific indicators for men vs. women, despite their very different body compositions. Race, ethnicity, nationality and age also affect body composition, but none of this is taken into account. Plus, the weight ranges within the BMI chart are themselves comparatively huge. Bottom line: Look yourself up if you must, but please take the results with a grain of salt – and all of the caveats issued above.
Another popular but often misleading assessment tool is bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA). Similar in appearance to a bathroom scale, BIA analyzers shoot electricity through the body to measure fat. The problem is that in order to get an accurate reading you must have fasted, be optimally hydrated, and not have exercised for several hours. “It’s good for someone lying in a hospital bed,” says Dr. Shepherd. “But hardly anyone who uses it in a health club setting will meet the criteria for accuracy. People jump on a BIA analyzer after working out, get wacky results and become very upset.”
Measuring a person’s skinfolds is the most widely used body-composition testing method for assessing body-fat percentage. A caliper is used to pinch several areas on the body to measure subcutaneous fat tissue. The advantages are that it’s noninvasive, inexpensive and easy to perform. But to get accurate results, a well-trained pro must perform the procedure and the calculations. Furthermore, all follow-up measurements must be taken by the same person in order to account for human error. Dr. Shepherd cautions that the equations used are based on the general population and are therefore vulnerable to the same flaws of BMI. He suggests that a more accurate way to access your progress is to skip the part of the procedure that converts the readings to percentages and instead just track the raw measurements as benchmarks of your progress.
Also known as hydrostatic weighing, this method employs Archimedes’s principle, which states that when a body is submerged in water, there is a buoyant counterforce equal to the weight of the water that is displaced. Because bone and muscle are denser than water, a person with less body fat will weigh more in the water than someone with excess body fat. Currently considered the gold standard in body composition assessment, underwater weighing is highly accurate if it is performed correctly. But for it to work properly, the person being measured needs to be able to exhale all the air out of his or her lungs while underwater. In other words, if you have issues with being submerged, this is not the method for you. Dr. Shepherd believes that underwater weighing will soon be replaced by a technology called the Bod Pod®. Basically an egg-shaped capsule you can sit in, Bod Pod uses air pressure to arrive at the exact same figure as underwater weighing. For more information, check out the Bod Pod Web site at www.bodpod.com.
The Bathroom Scale
Anyone who is into fitness knows that the bathroom scale is not the most accurate way to measure your body composition. So it’s surprising that Dr. Shepherd has anything good to say about it. “The scale is a very important tool,” he says. Assuming you also have a mirror to tell you when you are gaining muscle weight and when you are just packing on the flab, “it’s a very simple way to know if you are putting on unwanted weight.” No need to weigh yourself daily, says Dr. Shepherd, but do keep track of your weight over the long run. If you see the scale creeping up over the course of a month or so (and if your tape measure confirms the trend), you know it’s time to re-evaluate your diet, exercise or both.
If you feel strong and energetic, if you can move with grace and take pride in your body’s integrity, then you are probably within range of a healthy (if not perfectly ideal) weight. Many health experts insist that your real “ideal weight” is the one your body naturally achieves when you are living right, feeling happy, eating a moderate, healthy diet and exercising daily. Create those conditions, and you may decide to toss all the other means of assessment out the window for good.