Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals
If you have not exercised in a while, getting moving again can seem intimidating, especially if you equate working out with performing a punishing routine in a gym full of super-fit people. “I’m not one of them,” you may think; “I’m too weak, too old, too heavy, or simply not obsessed with my body image the way ‘they’ are. Why bust myself to lose just a bit of weight, which I might gain back anyway?”
In reality, though, there are many different reasons to exercise other than weight loss, and countless ways to do it without setting foot in a gym. Many relatively simple activities can improve your balance, flexibility, energy level, and general feeling of well-being, helping you to accomplish tasks in your daily life more easily. These activities can be done at home or in a neighborhood park, and many can be done either alone or with an activity partner or group.
Once you have received your doctor’s go-ahead to start exercising or to increase the intensity of what you’ve already been doing, try a few of the exercises described here to help you meet specific fitness goals, such as increasing your strength or reducing pain. You may be surprised by how much better you feel.
Improving your balance
It’s hard to feel comfortable doing any type of exercise when you feel wobbly doing it. This means that improving your balance can help you get fit in other ways, as well. To boost your balance, Karen Kemmis, a physical therapist and certified diabetes educator who works at the Diabetes Center of the State University of New York’s University Hospital, recommends trying to balance on one foot while standing near the kitchen counter, so that you can hold on if you feel unstable. Build up to holding this pose for 10–20 seconds on each foot. It can help to focus your eyes on an object in the distance while you try to balance.
Kemmis also recommends walking as if you were on a tightrope, putting one foot directly in front of the other. At first, take steps with your feet a comfortable distance apart. As your balance improves, place your feet closer and closer together until eventually, each step is only the length of your foot. Try doing this across a room. If you need to, extend your arms out like a tightrope-walker to help keep your balance.
One excellent way to improve your balance is to practice tai chi, the ancient Chinese system of exercises that has been called “meditation in motion” because of its gentle movements. Most communities have tai chi classes, or you can follow a tai chi video at home.
“Tai chi has been shown to improve balance, and it’s quite safe for almost everyone,” Kemmis says. “Even if someone has joint pain because of knee arthritis, or hip or back pain, they can do tai chi quite well.”
Kemmis recommends leg-strengthening exercises to address balance issues, too. Good options include climbing stairs or repeatedly standing up from a chair without using your hands to push yourself up.
“Try to work up to three sets of about 10 repetitions,” says Kemmis.
For best results, perform these exercises two to three days per week.
Having more energy
It’s tough to get in shape – or to do much of anything – if you feel like you have no zip left. The key to feeling more energetic is maintaining muscle tone. Assess what activities fatigue your body, and use those activities for exercise. If you tire from climbing stairs or walking out to the mailbox, do each more often to build up your leg muscles.
“As people get tired, they do less, so we have to make an effort to push ourselves a bit,” says Kemmis. “It makes things easier, so it’s worth it in the end.
“People often think it has to be a 30-minute walk all at once. But even 5 or 10 minutes at a time that total 30 minutes at the end of the day will help. Don’t get discouraged. Just try to build up.”
Stiffness can hamper both regular daily activities and attempts at exercising. The best way to decrease stiffness is to stretch properly. While many people have been taught that stretching should precede exercise, that’s not so.
“The most important thing is to do stretches when the muscles are warm,” says Jackie Shahar, manager of the exercise physiology department at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “That will most likely happen after someone has done some aerobic activity or resistance training.”
Don’t try to stretch immediately after getting out of bed or after sitting still for a while, because your muscles will be cold. A few minutes of walking with your arms pumping will do the trick to warm them up. Then stop to stretch before continuing your walk or whatever activity you have planned. You can also perform stretches at the end of your workout if you prefer.
While stretching, don’t bounce, bob, or jerk. Slowly and gently move into a position that puts gentle pressure on the muscle and hold the position for 20 seconds. Then relax and repeat; you may be able to stretch a little farther the second time, but don’t force it. Stretch each muscle group or whatever body parts feel like they need to be stretched.
If your calves habitually cramp, try a stretch that Shahar recommends: Lean your palms against a wall at shoulder height with one leg under you and one leg extended behind you. Bend the “front” leg. Keep your “back” heel flat on the floor. Bend your elbows so that your nose gets closer to the wall. Hold the position for 20 seconds and then switch legs and repeat.
For the lower back, Shahar advises lying on your back on a bed or on the floor with your knees bent. Slowly and gently lower both knees to one side, twisting at your waist. Hold the position for 20 seconds, then lower your knees to the other side.
If your quadriceps (thigh muscles) are tight, try another move from Shahar: Place one hand on the wall, and bend the knee of opposite leg so that you can grasp your ankle behind you with the other hand. Gently pull your heel toward your buttock. You can also perform this stretch using a chair back (or seat, if you are shorter) as a support for the foot that’s behind you.