For some of us, summer is a time to get outside and get in shape, which is highly commendable. Unfortunately, the end of summer may elicit a change in behavior with a return to more sedentary living.
For some of us, summer is a time to get outside and get in shape, which is highly commendable. Unfortunately, the end of summer may elicit a change in behavior with a return to more sedentary living. The daylight hours are shorter; there is less lawn and garden work, and less time for walking, cycling, canoeing, hiking and other vigorous recreational activities. If you are in this category, I challenge you to take steps to maintain (or improve) your present level of fitness throughout the fall months.
For others, summer is a time to relax and enjoy a slower pace of living. You spend lots of time with your family, take vacations, do day trips, have picnics, and cool off at the beach. Graduation events, weddings and reunions make it difficult to maintain your desired weight, and the hot weather reduces your desire to exercise regularly. If this is a reasonably accurate description of your summer season, my challenge is to make September your starting point for improved physical fitness.
Most of us look to Labor Day as the the start of a new year at school, college or work. With this common mind set, it is logical to consider this the time of year to begin a new exercise program. Unlike spring, when there may be more incentive to improve your appearance for summer clothes and bathing suits, the fall fitness challenge is simply about feeling better and functioning better through purposeful physical activity. The four key objectives of your fall exercise program are increased muscular strength, increased cardiovascular endurance, enhanced joint flexibility and improved body composition. Of course, as you make progress in each of these fitness components, you will undoubtedly observe desirable changes in your physique, especially firm muscles and less fat.
Our research with thousands of program participants has clearly shown that excellent fitness results can be attained without high-volume or time-consuming training sessions, as long as the exercise intensity is moderately high. For example, in our recent body composition study, the class members trained for just one hour two or three days a week with a combination of strength, aerobic and flexibility exercise. After six months, they had gained almost 6 pounds of muscle and got rid of 9 pounds of fat for a 15-pound improvement in their body composition and physical appearance.
In our follow-up bone density study, the participants again performed one-hour sessions of strength, aerobic and flexibility exercise two or three days a week. After nine months of training, they achieved significant improvements in lean (muscle) weight, fat weight, and resting blood pressure, as well as modest increases in bone mineral density.
In our summer low-back study, the same one-hour training program produced significant increases in low-back strength and significant decreases in low-back fatigue/discomfort, as well as significant reductions in body-fat percentage.
Every survey reveals that the greatest obstacle to regular exercise is lack of time. It should therefore be encouraging to know that two weekly one-hour exercise sessions are sufficient for attaining relatively high levels of overall physical fitness (strength, endurance and flexibility) and associated health benefits (body composition, blood pressure and low-back condition).
The critical factor for experiencing excellent exercise results is training at the appropriate intensity. This does not mean exercising at your peak effort level, but training in the right range to stimulate optimal physiological adaptations. For example, muscle strength may be best developed by performing eight to 12 repetitions with 70 to 80 percent of maximum resistance, with emphasis on moderate movement speed and full movement range.
Cardiovascular endurance may be best developed by performing 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate, with emphasis on interval training protocols. Joint flexibility may be best developed by static stretches held for 10 to 30 seconds at a tautness level 70 to 80 percent of maximum, with emphasis on easing into and out of each stretched position.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Quincy (Mass.) College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has written 24 books on physical fitness.