The alarm clock goes off every day at 7 am. As if on auto mode, a bleary-eyed Shireen Singh hauls herself up from bed and rushes to the kitchen, pulling away from the clutches of sleep. She prepares breakfast for her four-year-old Labrador Retriever before taking him out for a 45-minute walk, and then heads out for a two-hour-long commute to office.
At 36, Singh is an Assistant Vice-President for a foreign bank in Gurgaon. Between the hours spent commuting to work and being boxed inside huge, staid boardrooms with back-to-back client meetings, the 45-minute brisk walk with Kit Kat is the only window of luxury she enjoys with the dual benefit of weight loss. Weighing 87 kg, Singh planned to shed 15 kg from her waistline in the next six months, knowing it’s an ambitious target given her lifestyle. “It’s tough managing office and my dog. But it’s my responsibility to give him a good life. I also realised how important my health was to me,” says Singh.
This was six months back…
After losing 4 kg, Shireen complained that her weight-loss target would be unachievable at this slow pace. “Walks with my dog weren’t helping me lose as much weight,” admits Singh. To expedite the process, she signed up for Mixed Martial Arts sessions at a nearby gym, followed by a host of other complicated, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) over a period of five months. She even changed her heavy three-course meal diet to consuming four smaller but manageable meals a day. In the next three months, she lost five kilos, and her motivation shot up. But instead of going to work energised, Singh felt exhausted. She tried adjusting to this fast-paced workout regime, only to realise this wasn’t what she was looking for. “Something had changed,” says Singh. “I felt drained out on most days and wasn’t enjoying all of the new things I was doing. I missed taking Kit Kat out for daily walks.
Emotional well-being was the key to her happiness. Not HIIT or an aspirational super-slim physique. To achieve faster results, Singh went in for an intense training plan her body wasn’t prepared to handle. So she simply added running along with brisk walks with her dog coupled with a small four-course meal everyday. Not only was she happier, she also achieved her weight-loss target in little more than a year.
Despite the various studies that exist today, often what we know about fitness is actually embarrassingly simple. Yet, we have found myriad ways to obscure some basic truths.
“If you’re not someone who enjoys exercising, all activity weaved into your life is good. The human body was born to move and the more you move, the healthier you actually are. This is a fact,” says Shayamal Vallabhjee, Puma running expert and sports scientist.
Jumping from a no-exercise regimen to high intensity training is counter-productive in the long run. Experts suggest following these tips while starting on a fitness routine.
1) If you’re not someone who exercises daily, then any kind of activity will help
Realising you need to exercise doesn’t mean you step right into a CrossFit session. Instead, find any physical activity you don’t hate doing and stick to it. For instance, taking your dog out for a walk counts as a calorie-burning physical activity, so does cleaning the house, ironing clothes, giving family members a massage, or even cooking. “Staying active during the whole day is important even if one exercises in the gym every day. There is no point lifting heavy in the gym and not having the energy to carry groceries or playing with the kids,” says Exercise Science specialist and fitness expert Deckline Leitao.
Family walks are a great way to stay fit, advises Vallabhjee. He suggests finding something people love that takes them outdoors: “Remember that the less you move, the more illness you are inviting and you are better off trying to form these habits while you have the energy to do so.”
Most fitness experts agree that there’s no ‘one’ way of staying healthy. People just need to find a physical activity that they can tolerate. New South Wales University researchers say that regular physical activity can help prevent a range of chronic lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and some cancers. It further says that it also helps promote psychological well-being and promote social connectedness.
2) Gradually increase the intensity
Over-enthusiasm in exercising can be negative for the body because we tend to push it beyond its safety limit and that’s a sure-fire way to get injured and over-strained.
“Hard training days and weeks need to be interspersed with recovery days and weeks where you focus on stretching, massage, meditation, etc. You should remember that even professional athletes cannot train at 100 per cent all the time. Use the principle of ‘Progressive Overload’, which means that we need to overload our bodies and systems gradually to get the best results in fitness,” says Leitao.
An example of this would be to master each step at a time — walk, then jog, then run, followed by sprinting, before trying to jump high.
3) Start with cardiovascular exercises — they have the lowest risk of injury and keep you fit longer
Research, backed by fitness experts, has repeatedly emphasised that cardiovascular exercises such as walking, running and swimming help increase your longevity. Having a strong cardiovascular base should be the gold standard, says Vallabhjee. “For anyone starting off, this is probably the best place to begin. It also has the lowest risk of injury and the largest impact on chronic lifestyle diseases. The problem is that it requires lots of time, but there is no getting away from that,” he says.
Walking is the simplest. Long walks not only help burn calories, but also give an emotional boost. Exercise releases a chemical called endorphins that trigger a positive feeling in the body, which also diminishes perceptions of pain, says Leitao, adding that walking is a great first step to a full-blown exercise programme for both beginners and the elderly, and even those recovering from an injury. Running is also an effective way to build cardiovascular endurance and stronger legs, but should always be combined with adequate strength training to prevent impact injuries and to increase running speed.
The upside of weight-loss, according to a New South Wales research on healthy lifestyle, 2013-18, is that with every kilogram of excess weight lost, it brings health benefits that remain for a long time following your weight-loss. Even a 5-10 per cent weight-loss significantly reduces a person’s risk of chronic disease.
Another benefit of cardio exercises is that they improve focus.
Research suggests that doing aerobic exercises betters your ability to focus, akin to attention-deficit disorder medication.
For instance, experts at the Duke University suggest that incorporating moderate-intensity cardio three times a week in your schedule would be as effective as consuming antidepressants for reducing acute depression.
4) If you already exercise regularly, then mix up your workouts
For those who exercise regularly, mixing workouts gives recovery time to overused parts of the body, while activating the other under-utilised muscles, which will strengthen over time. Overdoing a single activity/exercise can lead to injury, since ligaments, muscles, joints and tendons take tremendous amount of pressure through repeated activity — a common occurrence at gyms these days. So, it’s important to give them occasional breaks.
Researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales suggest that interval training burns three times as much fat as running twice as long at a moderate pace.
“To see any benefits from training, you need to shock your system. Most people think that this shock to the system needs to come in the form of high-intensity training,” says Vallabhjee.
His advice: “The body needs change to get better and this change should be structured into programmes in the form of distance, time, mileage, weight, repetitions, hydration, carbohydrate loading, etc. Variable heart rate training that we see in interval training is just one of the parameters.”
“Interval training is a mix of high-intensity training and an equal time for slow activity. For example, you run at 80-90 per cent of your maximum speed for 30-60 seconds and then slow jog to recover for the same time,” explains Leitao. For those used to moderate exercise, interval training can be a good way to expedite results. Adding a few high-intensity sessions in between your cardio sessions by increasing your speed, resistance, etc., can lower blood glucose levels and increase oxygen uptake in the body too.
5) Avoid doing extreme workouts all the time
At a time when ‘go heavy or go home’ seems to be the buzzword in the fitness circles, routine injuries have become commonplace. The glamour associated with running ultra marathons, muddy obstacle races, and subscribing to the CrossFit culture seems to be have trickled in too fast and too deep into people’s collective conscience. But this can be fatal.
It’s important to remember that as long as intense workouts are done under supervision with proper training, such a regimen can actually jack up fitness levels exponentially.
Again, walking before running, step-by-step should be the process. “Take it easy and be open with your instructor and yourself about what you plan to achieve with intense exercises. If any pain from exercise is getting worse over time, doesn’t allow you to sleep and disturbs your daily work for longer than three days then see a doctor. Good warm-up, correct technique, progressive overload, optimum diet and nutrition, rest and recovery methods, keeping your ego and competitiveness under control in training are the ways to stay off injuries,” says Leitao.