Q: What is the least amount of time I can work out and see health benefits? I have friends devoted to quick-fitness apps, like the 7 Minute Workout, but can you really stay fit in such little time?
A: You can, but you should already be pretty darn fit before you can gain the benefits from the intense, short regimen. The app is probably inspired by a recent study in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal that found that a seven-minute series of 12 circuit-training exercises, with 10 to 15 seconds of rest between moves, raised VO2 max (a measurement of aerobic endurance) to where it had heart-health benefits, decreased insulin resistance and gave large muscles a great workout. (Improving VO2 is not the same as living longer and with less disability, however. In the long run, we advocate long-proven minimum activity for maximum return. It’s not too hard and has substantial data saying it works, not just for VO2, but for quality of life.)
Caveats: Researchers admit you must go all-out for the quick-workout benefits, and most people will probably need at least 20 minutes of a less-intense circuit program to attain all of the benefits. Also, if you’re obese, elderly or injured, this program isn’t safe; if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, you’d have to skip several exercises. Do check with your doctor before jumping in.
If you’re getting back in the exercise saddle, we recommend you get fit first by walking, which prepares you to begin strength training, which then prepares you for cardio. (If you jump in with cardio before strength training, you may increase your risk for injury.) Start by shooting for 10,000 steps a day, every day, no excuses. This amount can increase heart health and overall fitness and lower cholesterol. Track your steps for a week with a pedometer and then add 250 more steps each week until you reach 10,000 steps a day (about 5 miles).
After a month of that, get cross-training shoes and incorporate resistance training; ShareCare.com has a few lessons. Ideally, work at least eight major muscle groups; gradually increase workouts to a total of 30 minutes of resistance training a week. We advise checking your technique with a trainer at least monthly; most injuries result from improper form.
Next, add cardio—get your heart rate up, up, up! You need to do only 20 minutes three times a week. Get a heart-rate monitor and aim to raise your heart rate to 50 to 85 percent of its age-adjusted maximum (about 220 minus your age) for an extended period. Once that’s under your belt, add intense intervals during the last 10 minutes (assuming your doc says you can) for the maximum heart benefit. Even doing one extremely hard minute at the end of every 10 can be beneficial. Go for low-impact activities such as swimming, cycling or using an elliptical trainer.
If you’re at peak fitness, you can try a killer circuit-training session like the 7 Minute Workout to maximize exercise time. Bottom line: You want a program that involves activities you love so you’ll do it day after day.
Q: I’m hearing a lot about CrossFit. What is it? Why is it so popular?
A: CrossFit is as an intense daily fitness program that uses pulleys, weighted tools (medicine balls, barbells, kettlebells) and your own body weight to train your muscles in ways that mimic motions in daily life (called functional fitness)—so if you swing a baby or lift boxes in real life, you’ll do movements that mimic those motions and build those muscles. CrossFit’s distinction is the competition factor: CrossFitters compete with others (and with themselves) to do the most reps during the WOD—that’s CrossFit-speak for workout of the day.
Concerns are a lack of full training for the equipment and moves advancing too rapidly, although people are hooked on CrossFit’s intensity. Our take: If you have a buddy who’s hooked, go with him or her to see how you like it—any program you love can work wonders—but start slowly and don’t advance more than 10 percent in any week for any exercise no matter what. Only go after your muscles have been prepared (see answer to first question) and always allocate enough time to do a warm-up (see answer to last question).
Q: I like to work out in the evening—de-stressing after a long day. My wife insists working out in the morning is better because it gives you energy for the day. Who’s right?
A: You both are. Evidence shows an early workout results in better stamina during your workout (and a better night’s sleep); later workouts are linked to more effective strength training and fewer injuries. Exercise done at any time of the day can boost your energy and relieve stress. So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
We feel that if you can sync your workouts—whatever time of day—you’ll both benefit. Working out with your partner shows you care about her and your physical health, lets her know you like to spend time together and builds trust as you both work to expand your physical abilities. When you and your honey work out together, we believe you’re more likely to stick with it and make other lasting lifestyle upgrades—eating better, enjoying a little alcohol together and becoming less stressed.
If those aren’t reasons enough to form an exercise duo, listen up: Exercise increases your libido and feelings of arousal. Couples who exercise together report better and more frequent sex. How’s that for motivation?
Q: Should I or shouldn’t I stretch before working out?
A: Warm-up, yes; stretch, no. We don’t know whether stretching—holding a challenging pose for one to 30 seconds—before exercising increases or reduces workout injuries, but we do know stretching a muscle that isn’t warm can tear it. Studies also show you’ll get more out of your workout by skipping pre-exercise stretches: In one study, runners who didn’t stretch ran nearly a half-mile farther in 30 minutes than those who did. Another study found that people who did static stretches before weightlifting were weaker and felt less stable than those who skipped stretching. The loosening that occurs during stretching seems to rob muscles of strength.
Do warm-ups, though, using light weights or a slow, pared-down version of the exercises you’re about to do—so those muscles and joints are pliable. For example, if you plan to run, do a brisk walk for the first five minutes.
Stretch after your workout—that’s when your body wants it. Well-warmed muscles lengthen more easily and joints can move through their full range of motion. In fact, stretching post-workout may improve overall flexibility. Relax your muscles before each stretch and move in slow-mo, breathing deeply and rhythmically. Hold each stretch position 10 to 30 seconds. And don’t bounce, which can stretch your muscles beyond the point which they’re ready to go.
Finally, forget “no pain, no gain.” If a stretch hurts, back off until it doesn’t; then hold it, staying relaxed. You’re trying to improve flexibility, not turn into Gumby. Note that beginner’s yoga is a great way to improve flexibility over the long haul. We both love yoga and practice it regularly. Namaste!