Let’s be honest: How many of us really equate exercise with fun? Not many, apparently. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adult Americans don’t get the recommended amount of exercise each week. For them, “no pain, no gain” is just a grim and cheerless proverb.
That’s unfortunate, because an active lifestyle—one that includes engaging in regular physical activity—tends to increase lifespan and reduce the risk of chronic illness.
But living a balanced, active and healthful lifestyle doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, pain shouldn’t have anything to do with it, says Benjamin Mwanika, DO, a sports medicine/orthopedic physician at Sentara RMH Medical Center. Rather, he says, exercising should be pleasurable as well as beneficial.
“I don’t want patients to view exercise as something to despise,” he continues. “I want them to truly enjoy it, because it will invigorate them and make them want to keep doing it.”
Part of the problem in getting people to exercise, says Dr. Mwanika, is their perception of the idea of fitness. The key, he says, is to understand what fitness is and recognize that staying active doesn’t have to be an unpleasant daily chore.
What is Fitness?
Experts see fitness as marked by five components: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and body composition.
Dr. Mwanika stresses that these components are interrelated and, in terms of benefits, generally overlap.
Cardiovascular endurance is the ability to sustain a long period of exercise, such as walking or jogging, without tiring. This type of endurance primarily benefits the heart and lungs, but it also helps keep muscles and bones strong.
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to repeat a movement many times, or to sustain one position for an extended period of time.
Muscular strength is the maximum amount of strength a muscle has. The key to this component is resistance—doing fewer repetitions of increasingly heavier weights. Dr. Mwanika says he advises his older patients to focus on muscular endurance as opposed to muscular strength, due to a higher risk of injury associated with strength training.
Technically, flexibility is the extent to which your muscles can lengthen. Practically, it’s how fluidly you can move—say, going from a sitting position to standing and walking. Stretching not only improves flexibility, Dr. Mwanika says, but also puts less strain on joints and can have a positive effect on muscular strength.
Body composition is the amount of fat in the body compared to the amount of lean mass. While body composition can be altered through exercise, it is influenced much more dramatically through diet. Dr. Mwanika says he’s fond of an adage that comes from the weightlifting community: “Six-pack abs are made in the kitchen, not the weight room.”
“No matter what you’re doing at the gym, if you’re not supplementing that activity with an appropriate diet, you’re just going to spin your wheels,” he says. “To be healthy and have your desired body composition, you have to feed your body the right kind of fuel. If you’re not eating a healthy, balanced diet, that won’t help your overall body composition.”
Of course, age and gender play a prominent role in fitness and the goals people set for themselves. Men—particularly younger men—tend to shoot for the “beach body,” as Dr. Mwanika puts it, while women strive more for overall healthfulness. With age, both sexes become more interested in being toned, having strong bones and a healthy heart, and the enjoyment of daily life that exercise can bring. That’s normal, says Dr. Mwanika, and as people age they often adjust the types of exercise in which they participate.
“Older people tend to neglect strength training,” he says, “and that’s a mistake. Having strength is critical to a healthy lifestyle at any age.”
So you’ve decided to get in shape. You’ve got a list of the five components in front of you. What’s next?
Do you start at the top of the list and jog until you’re ready to drop, then move on until you’ve worked on all five components?
If you do it that way, you’ll almost certainly have all pain and no gain. Few people, if any, can sustain that kind of exercise regimen. Instead, focus on having fun.
“Find something you like to do,” says Dr. Mwanika. “Take a walk with a family member or friend and build up from there. I had a patient who was completely new to the fitness world, and I asked her to start off by simply taking a walk in her neighborhood. Within about six months she progressed to doing 5K events with a combination of running and walking, and now at 12 months she is doing her first Tough Mudder competition.”
When starting exercise, it’s best to ease into it. “If you do too much too soon, it’s going to be very frustrating because you’ll be sore and perhaps even sustain an injury,” says Dr. Mwanika. “This is exactly why a lot of people give up on trying to achieve and maintain fitness.”
Clark Baumbusch, MD, an orthopedic/sports medicine surgeon at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, agrees with Dr. Mwanika.
“It’s best to dedicate some time to fitness every day,” he says. “Thirty minutes a day doing something you enjoy—one day focusing on mobility, another day focusing on flexibility, and so on—can dramatically improve your overall fitness.”
Dr. Baumbusch warns that concentrating on just one component should be avoided.
“You want to be well rounded,” he adds. “Take a person who runs exclusively. There are some people who can do that and be just fine, but many others develop overuse and overtraining injuries because they’re not addressing other fitness components like flexibility. Being able to get into certain active positions and doing things ergonomically throughout your life—like picking up an object from the floor or getting in and out of a car—is what you should be aiming for.”
More Than Meets the Eye
Mental well-being isn’t on the official list of fitness components, but perhaps it should be. Dr. Baumbusch points out that good mental health is often tied to good physical health. Stress, for example, can negatively affect physical health. As well, poor exercise habits—or no exercise habits—make it more difficult to deal with the stressors in our lives.
We also shouldn’t overlook the importance of getting adequate sleep. “When we get enough sleep, we’re much more able to handle the stressors that are beyond our control,” he says. “Things like good sleep habits and meditation can help relieve stress and contribute to physical well-being. And, coming full circle, exercise can improve sleep and enhance our ability to deal with negative stress. It’s all interconnected.”
Drs. Mwanika and Baumbusch emphasize that achieving fitness is a process that starts modestly and grows with time.
“Think of becoming fit, both mentally and physically, as a journey,” says Dr. Baumbusch. “It doesn’t happen overnight. But once you start the journey, and your destination comes into view, it’s perhaps the most rewarding thing you can do. It will help add years to your life and life to your years.”