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Specific qualities comprise long-term exercise

Published March 16. 2013 09:02AM

This column has repeatedly chronicled the physical benefits of exercise. Throughout the years, studies have been cited that show exercise helps you lose weight and maintain the loss, sleep better, ease arthritis pain, strengthen bones, lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce the incidence of heart disease and many cancers.

Columns have also been created to cite the mental benefits of exercise.

And new studies proving both just keep accruing.

For instance, the journal Health Psychology published research last October that found subjects' satisfaction with life was influenced by their daily physical activity. In fact, the researchers went so far as to say that the disappointment of a bad day can be swept away simply by spending a few more minutes than normal pumping the weights, running the roads, or working the elliptical.

But there really haven't been that many columns on how to exercise.

Sure, there have been columns devoted to specific ways to perform specific exercises. The problem with those, however, is their just that, their specificity.

If you do nothing more than walk five times a week, for instance, it's hard to apply the insights provided in a column about circuit training.

Though long-distance running and recreational bicycle touring are both aerobic in nature, cycling is easier on the body; therefore, productive training for it can be done on back-to-back days. Most runners fare better, however, alternating hard runs with easy ones or off days, so reading about a training schedule for a touring cyclist really doesn't help a long-distance runner.

Luckily, there are many qualities shared in most forms of exercise. Those will be handled today.

The benefit of consistency and frequency: To get the most out of exercise, you must do it consistently and frequently. Running is a great way to burn calories, improve cardiovascular fitness, and your mood, for instance, but doing it once a week or four times during a given month won't produce those outcomes.

Consistently run twice a week, however, and you should notice slight improvement in the aforementioned areas. Run three times a week and the improvement is significant.

Running four times a week creates even more improvement though the proportional increase isn't as great. That's because the law of diminishing returns kicks in, the law that governs virtually all exercise.

What scientific studies have shown is that the benefits accrued from doing exercise lessens significantly when the rate goes from four to five and from five to six and dramatically when the rate goes from six to seven. In fact, unless you are preparing for a competition where any minute improvement in performance (rather than health) counts, there's little reason to do any single form of exercise more than four times a times a week.

A far more effective plan for a recreational runner, for example, would be to run Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, lift weights Wednesday and Saturday, and take a day off Sunday.

The need for a goal: Some view exercise the way others view brushing teeth: as such a fundamental part of the day that they couldn't imagine skipping a day.

Those souls are about the only ones who don't need a clear-cut goal to keep them exercising. Everybody else, it seems, needs an objective to keep working out on a regular basis.

But the key to creating an appropriate goal is knowing yourself.

On weekends, I often ride with a group of six cyclists, who all cycle a minimum of 6,000 miles during a year. Every year. But not everybody in the group logs the miles for the same reason.

Three do so because they are still racing. Another does so because he teaches a spin class and needs to maintain a high level of fitness.

One guy's knees gave out from running, and he rides because cycling is more forgiving, which allows him to engage in long, hard workouts that permit him to eat whatever he wants that day. The sixth guy likes doing 100-mile tours with a local club in the summer and finds riding with this group great preparation.

Now think about yourself and what's motivating to you. Is it a goal against yourself, such as running 1,000 miles a year or bench pressing 200 pounds? Or is it a goal against others, like finishing in the top 20 percent of 10k race or finally beating your buddy at tennis?

Target any type of desirable goal and it will be easier to exercise on those days when you feel your motivation waning.

A sense of wonderment: I believe the final suggestion keeps me lifting weights.

Consider how I lift and you might think it would be hard to maintain motivation.

Because too much muscle mass hurts a cyclist who wants to excel in hilly terrain, I lift solely to increase core strength and overall muscle endurance.

That means lifting relatively light weights for many repetitions.

While others might find a 25- or 50-rep set mind-numbing, I find fascination in what is called the mind-to-muscle link.

I don't listen to music when I lift; I tune into the messages the muscles are sending.

Did you know, for instance, that most lifters engage their deltoids and their trapezius muscles when they perform a dumbbell biceps curl? Did you know that you can make the movement so that neither of these muscles are hardly engaged and that the biceps receive all the stimulation?

You do when you concentrate and make the mind-to-muscle link.

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