Every day the media heralds yet another scientific study that proves humans were made to move. New exercise research has found that people who break a sweat are more productive, have more energy, better sex lives, greater mental focus and better skin. The benefits of regular exercise range from reductions in heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure to the prevention of obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia and certain types of cancer. With a list of beneficial side effects longer than any miracle pill ever imagined, it’s difficult to believe Americans still have a hard time lacing up their running shoes.
Since exercise is the closest thing humans may ever get to a fountain of youth, Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyle spoke to five health experts who say how people work out is not nearly as important as making sure they find fitness routines that suit their potential, their personalities and their fitness goals.
When it comes to the fitness fads that have swept America over the past 50 years, cardio is king. Starting with jogging in the ’70s and expanding to aerobics in the ’80s and cycling and triathlons over the last two decades, most people assume that heart-healthy workouts are the best calorie-burners for the waistline. “People are out there beating themselves to death with endurance-based aerobic activity that tears the body down,” says Jeffrey Lander, Ph.D., of Life University’s Sport Health Science Department. “They forget to include anaerobic exercises that build the body back up.”
Lander takes aim at the myth that low-intensity aerobic activity, done for long periods of time, is as beneficial as short, high-intensity interval workouts that increase the body’s metabolic rate. “If you only do aerobic stuff you’ll actually lose muscle mass, which will slow your metabolism,” says Lander. “In reality, you don’t really lose weight during exercise, you lose it during the other 23 hours a day by raising your metabolism.”
To harmonize the physiological processes of bodybuilding and body burning, many experts recommend alternating between heart-healthy, mood-altering aerobic exercise and anaerobic weight training that builds calorie-burning muscles and provides a much-needed break from high-impact cardio.
“Because of the way the musculo-skeletal system works, without both kinds of exercise the body drops to a very basic mechanical level that won’t stimulate oxygenation of the tissues, which is critical to baseline health,” says John Downes, D.C., director of International Programs and the Sport Science Institute at Life University. Between weight-lifting sessions, Downes recommends people do a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of core cardiovascular activity at least three days a week at 75 to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate.
“When you are from the East,” jokes Yit Lim, Ph.D., of LIFE’s Sport Health Science Department, “you are born knowing how to practice yoga. In terms of exercise, it actually makes your heart rate go down and the benefits are very different from other types of exercise.” While many health experts acknowledge that yoga doesn’t trim waistlines the way running does, this traditional Eastern meditation system has myriad benefits.
As more than 11 million Americans are finding out, the 5,000-year-old practice has been shown to improve flexibility and balance, relieve stress, improve focus and lower blood pressure and resting heart rate. Yoga also decreases the production of stress hormones, like catecholamines, and lowers levels of dopamine and epinephrine to create a feeling of calm. Researchers are currently studying yoga’s ability to relieve symptoms of asthma, back pain, arthritis, insomnia and aging.
The inherent spiritual elements of yoga may help stimulate brain oxygenation and cell growth, as well as increase levels of self-awareness, self-acceptance and mindfulness. However, many argue that intense endurance activities like running, which require serious mental discipline, produce the same kind of meditative spiritual benefits. “Any kind of intense exercise facilitates the chemical release of endorphins,” says Downes, “and that can stimulate an emotional response that has a spiritual component.”
Entreating modern man to revert to his hunter-gatherer past, the primal fitness movement acknowledges that while our culture has changed rapidly, our physical needs have not. According to Mark Sisson, a pioneer and advocate of primal fitness, humans should perform low-level aerobic activity two to five hours a week, lift heavy things for 30 to 40 minutes two to three times a week and run sprints several times a week.
Based on the idea that the body performs best in its natural state, primal fitness encourages followers to exercise using their own bodyweight—getting outside, picking up big rocks and moving heavy logs. “Certainly moving your own bodyweight is an incredibly cost-effective way to work out,” says Pat Banks, director of the LIFE Wellness Center, who adds that the primal fitness club is popular with students on the Life University campus.
While bodyweight-based exercises like push-ups and pull-ups were popular for decades, the arrival of weightlifting machines during the gym crazes of the ’80s and ’90s made many converts. “Anytime you have the opportunity to recreate functional movements, like pulling up your own body weight, is a great thing,” says Keith Rau, D.C., of LIFE’s Sport Health Science Department. “A lot of weight machines do too much of the weight balancing, so you don’t experience the kind of resistance you get with free weights.”
While primal fitness advocates movement-based fitness over muscle-based fitness, critics say the plan doesn’t prescribe enough cardio to prevent weight gain, and doesn’t account for adaptions, like larger tendons, higher foot arches, longer legs and more sweat glands, that gave humans the ability to perform high-intensity endurance activities like running. “Primal fitness comes from that parkour training model, [which is a type of exercise practice that moves practitioners throughout urban environments by jumping, rolling, climbing or other means] where you use the body and its surroundings for fitness,” says Downes. “I would definitely say it meets a lot of people’s needs, but I wouldn’t necessarily try to define it in terms of Vitalism.”
Another popular workout routine designed to mimic “functional movements” is crossfit, which eschews working isolated muscles on gym machines in favor of daily workouts like rolling heavy tires and hauling sandbags. Based on the idea of “muscle confusion,” crossfit alternates between aerobic and anaerobic activity with constant novelty, preventing overuse injuries and allowing followers to become physically fit in a number of different areas.
The high intensity philosophy of crossfit is similar to the kinds of cross training activities professional athletes have done for years. “Current research shows that the body responds to specific neurological and chemical fitness markers,” says Downes. “Working on specific areas increases the neuroplasticity and level of efficiency of repeated specialized activities.”
For instance, marathoners may swim in the off-season and many football players do ballet-like footwork to increase their on-field agility. “A marathon runner trains differently than a football player whose game is based on quick bursts of energy,” says Rau, “but there is something to be said about exercising different physiological systems. Crossfit involves doing a lot of different things that can keep you interested, whereas with running you can only go forward—you [don’t] run side to side.”
It has been said that every elite athlete possesses the ability to win, and the one who claims victory on any particular day is the one who performs best mentally during the competition. For Downes, who studies elite and amateur athletes at Life University’s Sport Science Institute, athletic performance has a great deal to do with the brain. “Many of the athletes we study have an underlying neurological deficit that causes the body to reduce its performance level, and a reduction in performance can also lead to spontaneous injury,” he says. After evaluating athletes, Downes often recommends regular adjustments, core stabilization and strengthening or better diet and nutrition to address the deficits.
For weekend warriors looking to trim their waistlines, the mental side of exercise has much more to do with daily motivation than achieving peak performance. “When you start running and you feel like you can’t make that 3-mile run you’ve done so many times before,” says Banks, “your mind gets in the way, and you can defeat yourself really quickly, and you won’t finish.”
Since it takes 21 days to create a new habit, many Americans give up the first time they miss a workout. By viewing exercise as a life-long lifestyle change, people are more likely to start again after experiencing a temporary lapse in discipline. “People should like what they’re doing enough to overlook the discomfort until they start getting healthy and feeling better,” says Lim. “Once you get to the intrinsic benefits, it’s smooth sailing and nobody needs to tell you to exercise.”
When it comes to getting off the couch, perhaps the greatest mental motivator is the mind itself. According to a recent study of people suffering from depression, 60 percent overcame their depression without the use of medication by working out for 30 minutes three times a week. “The body creates its own protective mechanisms, and exercise raises the level of naturally occurring endorphins,” says Lander. “There’s something good for the body about getting out and doing something. It’s better than sitting around and worrying about yourself.”
As exercise fanatics travel to the driest deserts and the highest mountains for trail races and ultra-marathons, questions have arisen about rest—one of the most important and overlooked components of exercise. Alternating between cardio and weightlifting is one way to ensure proper rest, but giving your body free days is vital to increasing performance and preventing injury. “Rest is absolutely essential,” says Banks. “Muscles need time to rest. Exercise without rest is more detrimental than anything else, and you run the risk of burning yourself out.”
Many competitive athletes train hard during the early season and taper off as competitions increase, relying on their early training to sustain them and their rest periods to enhance their performance level. “You need to let the body rest to create the right balance in life,” says Downes. “People who exercise to get their mental frustrations out tend to experience a chronic level of injury.”
According to Lander, athletes who over-train or novices who take on too much too soon experience a lot of orthopedic problems from colliding with the ground, which can range from micro-tears in the tissue to overtraining syndromes like tendonitis, joint issues and the potential for osteoarthritis. “You aren’t giving your cells enough time to recover from the trauma,” says Lander.
As Americans chow down on processed foods and spend more time in the car than ever before, more than 34 percent of adults qualify as obese and a shocking number of children are developing Type II diabetes before their 10th birthday. However, the bright side of health is that the more lifestyle changes a person makes, the better chance he or she has of feeling good and living as nature intended—free of the chronic health conditions that plague modern society.
“Exercise becomes more important as you age,” says Lim. “You’ll age regardless, but we can slow down the aging process and add more quality to our lives.” While national exercise guidelines recommend at least 20 minutes of heart-raising activity three days a week, a better goal for achieving maximal lifetime health is 45 minutes to an hour, five to six days a week.
“When someone starts an exercise routine, they should get a baseline fitness assessment, work out their goals and what they’re trying to achieve and realize that the older you get the slower you have to start,” says Downes. “Any exercise is better than nothing, and the more specific your goals, the wiser your choices have to be to match those goals.”
Instead of focusing on slimmer waistlines or smaller dress sizes, remembering the life-long physical and mental benefits of exercise may be all it takes to help some Americans bridge the gap between sedentary habits and the motivation to get moving. “You’ve got to get walking, work out the core, get consistent, get committed and just go after it,” says Rau. “The bottom line is get moving, and never miss the first workout.”