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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Three Simplest Forms of Exercise That You Can Do

Pilates on the Mat (done at home): The best book I've ever read on the subject (and one of my favorite fitness books, period) is Brooke Siler's, "The Pilates Body". I've read a lot of books on exercise & fitness in my day, having worked out for twenty years, but this is one of my top-three picks. Brooke lays out a plan for success that doesn't involve hours of sweating, Draconian dieting or anything else painful. Pilates can strengthen your back, abdominal muscles, hips, thighs & more. Because it is floor-based, you do need to be able to get down on a mat. However, using Siler's method, your body is the only other equipment needed. Her book is beautifully laid out for beginners, intermediates & advanced exercisers alike. Each exercise done builds upon another- there are seven modified ones to start. That doesn't sound like much- until you try to do the exercises, that is! Pilates requires focus, precision & effort, but is non-impact & gentle. Personally, I found it just enough of a challenge to learn- it required from me full attention, but it then allowed me to rest when the work was a bit too much. It's very much self-paced. It's nice if you feel self-conscious in a gym or in front of a live instructor, too, to have an at-home alternative for quality a exercise routine. I find it particularly helpful for women who have put on bulk they don't want from years of heavy weight-training and/or are looking for a lean, ballerina-like physique (though this requires dietary discipline & serious practice). The exercises, although mostly done by females today, are equally good for men, and were in fact originally developed by Joseph Pilates to rebuild the bodies of WWI's injured vets. I like the book for learning from, as opposed to DVDs in this case, because you can move at your own pace- and to me, this is vitally important with something as precise as Pilates. The practice includes a series of several floor exercises for the hips & thighs, that when done at least three times a week, I can almost promise will drop an inch from those areas in about a month (my message to you, not Brooke's). She also includes the arm exercise series within Pilates, which are move designed to target the upper body muscles more specifically. Very light dumbbells are optional with the arm moves. With Pilates, though, attention is always kept on the movement & form of the entire body (especially the core) at all times- it is seen as a cohesive whole, whereas in traditional exercise, moves are isolated for specific muscle groups (such as the classic biceps curl). I highly recommend checking out this book even if you don't end up doing Pilates, because it will teach you how to use proper technique in ALL exercising by keeping your core strong throughout movement, which increases the safety of any routine.

Walking: Obviously, walking is for many people the ultimate minimalist's exercise routine. A good pair of walking shoes, comfortable clothing & maybe an MP3 player are all you typically need for a daytime jaunt. Again, it's a form of exercise that can be kept simple, or it can be made more complex, with interval-training, utilizing hills for strengthening, taking steps up-and-down, etc., for more intensity. Some people despise having headphones on, preferring the sounds of nature or the busy world around them. Others welcome the chance to listen to their favorite tunes, a book-on-CD, or a foreign-language teaching. Some love city walking, others love going to a park or around their suburban neighborhood. If I get the opportunity, walking out in the countryside or in the forest is most enjoyable to me- but unfortunately in this world I must say it, safety should always be your first priority here. Power-walking is the Mecca for certain exercisers, while other walkers just want to enjoy their surroundings, and fitness really isn't their top priority. There's no right or wrong. Ten to fifteen minutes of walking a day is a very decent routine, done three to five times a week, especially when you're not used to it. Some people eventually build up to walking an hour a day. Any more than that done at once every day, and I'd start to wonder if you'll be wearing out your knees before their time. Remember that it takes time for your bones, muscles & the skin on your feet to get acclimated to walking regularly if you're not used to walking for actual exercise outdoors and/or aren't very young. If I attempted to walk outdoors for an hour, I'd probably be cursing my very existence, personally. Some surfaces are obviously better for walking than others- concrete can be a nightmare if you have severe arthritis, for example. A track built in recent years at a high school should be better to prevent shin splints & such other injuries/problems, if you have that available.

During Maryland's hot, humid summer months, I greatly preferred to walk inside my cavernous office building when I worked outside the home. Twenty to thirty minutes at a time, five times a week, was more than enough for me. It is definitely a good "time-out" in the workplace to put on your headphones & get out somewhere for a walk- preferably where no one can find & pester you for awhile. I'll admit that walking is not my first choice in exercising, especially being at home at all day, because I like a more "detailed" workout. It's just the way my brain is- I like having an instructor lead me through a challenging workout, and I like exercise that forces me to turn off my brain from the other aspects of my life for awhile. Don't fight your natural workout inclinations or annoyances, is my general message to you. Don't feel bad if you don't get the same enjoyment out of a particular workout that others do- it's not a failure on your part. I could swim for three hours & still want more. Finishing an hour-long aerobic weight-training workout is par for the course to me mentally. Everyone's different. With walking, you will be left alone with your own thoughts, unless you walk with a partner- and a lot of people crave this, but others mind find it either boring (as I do) or distracting (again, me).

I know that at least in some places, mall-walking is still readily available, and provides a clean, safe option for walkers, with a gentler walking surface. Try not to walk outdoors in any temperature or weather extremes- it's not worth falling, catching a cold or getting heat stroke just to fit in a workout. I don't recommend buying a treadmill, though, unless you know in advance that you love walking & will do it regularly indoors. Try to use what's already available to you in your office space, neighborhood or another local spot for walking terrain first. Don't walk with ankle weights on or with dumbbells in your hands (yes, I still see people doing this). Please, take it from someone with arthritis, your joints don't usually last forever, and the rotator cuff (located in the shoulder region) doesn't particularly care for the repetitive motion of you holding a dumbbell while walking & swinging your arms. Even if you disagree with my perspective, is it really worth attempting to prove me wrong on this point? Just trust me on this one. :) It's better to save the dumbbells for some far-more-safe upper body weight-training exercises, if gaining muscle & burning more calories is your goal. Lat rows, deltoid flyes, chest presses, biceps curls & triceps kickbacks are great upper body exercises that are usually quite safe when used with the proper weight & with good form. Some people stretch after their walking workout, and some people don't. The jury is always out on this, as to whether it really prevents any injuries or helps you out in the long term to stretch. I recommend, as always, that you let your own body be your guide. For me, I always felt the need for a few gentle athletic stretches after walking, to stretch my lower back, hips, outer thighs & calves. But I'm muscular, have a bad back & have fibromyalgia, so my body tends to get cranky easily.

Yoga: There are many different interpretations on what constitutes an ideal yoga practice, and hence there are many different styles of yoga. For some, it is as simple as matching breathing to certain stretches, what could probably just be considered an athletic stretching routine with some mindfulness on your breathing & body. For others, it is a deeply spiritual practice, even tied to their religion. It is up to you how far you take the practice. I have heard some people say (especially within the Christian faith) that it is somehow wrong or evil to do yoga, I guess because it is tied to Hinduism. However, at least as a Westerner with some study behind me, I find nothing compromising in the poses themselves to Christianity. Maybe the original intent of those doing yoga thousands or hundreds of years ago was strictly religious in nature (I do know it was only taught to males for a long period of time), but I don't see why it should be automatically banned today. If we take that tactic, Christians should also ban Easter egg hunts & a few other modern traditions, as well, as they have Pagan beginnings. I don't mean to sound like a smart-aleck, but I don't have a lot of tolerance for people who condemn something they don't know anything about through even one book- they're just acting on a knee-jerk reaction. Please, if you decide to do yoga, just do your research, apply what you find enjoyable & worthy, then ignore the rest. If you don't want to do yoga, no big deal. It can reduce stress, lengthen muscles, strengthen the body, drastically increase flexibility & balance, and can improve coordination. You can be as flexible as a pretzel or as straight/stiff as a flagpole, and you can still do yoga. It must be modified for various medical conditions, which is true for all exercise, especially if you will be getting down on the floor (not standing or sitting in a chair). If you have a pre-existing medical condition, discuss starting the program with your medical doctor first (the main one who cares for you that is, like a family practitioner). You can take yoga in a live class- they're offered at many community colleges now as a non-credit course to take, besides at gyms & special centers. You can pick up the poses from a book (in this case, I recommend a good, old-fashioned book to the Internet, because you do need to read about the poses to do them properly, not just glance at them briefly) or you can do the exercises to a DVD. There are literally hundreds of yoga DVDs out there. At it's core, yoga usually just takes a mat (the older & crankier your joints, the thicker the mat should be, based on my bone-on-bone knees' experience...), some comfortable but supportive clothes (shelf-bra tank & cotton leggings, for example) & you should be in bare feet. Some practices utilize additional props, such as blocks, straps, blankets & bolsters. These aren't needed, but can be nice, especially the first two.

Here's to being a fit organized minimalist,


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