Individual conditioning and overall physical fitness are personal, and should take into account how differences in personality and background can influence the way people view personal health considerations. This will include the various differences as to the kinds of activities unique individuals are willing to do in maintaining good health. There is not a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
The beginning point is to identify your specific fitness goals and then to create a personalized plan appropriate for your age, gender, interests, body type, current physical activity, and other health considerations. There really is not a right or wrong way to achieve personal fitness, as long as your plan needs to include the 7 fitness elements listed below.
Are you a competitive athlete wanting to improve your performance? Are you wanting to improve your general health? Are you generally a physically active person or do you spend most of your time either sitting at work or school and reclining at home? Are you recovering from an injury or do you have a chronic illness? These factors are important in identifying your individual fitness considerations.
The next step is to create a written, personalized workout plan and establish a weekly schedule. This will be your road map to follow in working towards your personally identified goals. Give consideration to activities you will enjoy, your daily time constraints, and your budget. Do you prefer activities with others or do you prefer to work out in private? Are you more of an outside or inside person?
Ultimately, your plan should include activities for core body conditioning, cardiovascular improvement, muscle strength and endurance development, agility and flexibility, rest and recovery, and hydration and general diet considerations.
If you have not been physically active in a long time or if you are overweight, you should start with a simplified plan which includes the three elements of (a) Walking, (b) Hydration and Diet, and (c) Rest and Recovery. Follow your simplified program for two weeks to two months, depending upon your current health. Once you are comfortable with this level of exercise, start adding other elements of the program until you have incorporated all the needed activities for good personal conditioning.
A common mistake beginners can make is to try to do too much too soon. This will lead to discouragement and possibly to injury. There is no way to "short-cut" the safe process of improving your personal fitness and health. Be patient. As long as you do not quit, you will gradually notice improvement.
Self motivation is key to following your plan long term. Maintaining a detailed log or diary of your daily workout helps many to stick with their plan day after day, week after week. It can be a formal journal. It can be a computer program or an online log, such as the President's Challenge. It can even be a cell phone app. But keeping a written record and tracking what you actually do in following your personal plan is a very effective way to achieve long-term success.
Before beginning a new conditioning program, you should consult you physician to be certain your plan is appropriate for you and your current health. Your physician may also have suggestions on how to make your plan be more appropriate for you personally.
If you ever experience dizziness, become short of breath, or notice any chest pain, stop and seek medical attention as soon as possible. These are indications of serious and potentially dangerous health problems that should not be ignored. This would apply whether you are doing your fitness routine or just going about your normal daily activities.
ELEMENT #1 - WALKING:
Perhaps the single most effective exercise in your entire personal conditioning plan is walking. It can provide many of the same personal conditioning benefits as a running program, and is not as demanding on your entire body. Walking can fit into any schedule and be done at any location, including in your neighborhood, in a park, in a local mall, or on a treadmill.
Unlike many sports where one leg may be used more than the other, walking develops all of the muscles in both legs equally. By being careful to hold your head up and body in good posture while you walk will strengthen your core body muscles, especially the back and hips. As your walking routine becomes easier and you are able to walk at a faster pace or on a higher incline, you will also be improving your aerobic fitness.
For people who have done little to no conditioning or exercise for the past year or for people who are at least 40 pounds overweight, you can download my Walking Conditioning Program to get yourself started.
ELEMENT #2 - CORE BODY CONDITIONING:
The core (or trunk) of the human body is your center of gravity and is therefore central for all body movement. Core conditioning includes many different muscles in the back, abdomen, and hips. If these are all strong, your back is better protected, and both your posture and balance will be better.
Core strengthening development is one of the most overlooked factors in maintaining either general physical fitness or athletic competitive conditioning. One possible explanation could be that the most commonly mentioned core strengthening exercises are not good matches with many individuals' unique personalities or body types. (If you don't like it, you won't do it.)
If you are not sure about what core strengthening exercises to do, a number are included in workout DVDs or can be found in a number of locations online by searching for "core conditioning". Choose at least two in the beginning. When they become easy, add a couple more. Allowing for variety will make it easier to maintain your core body workout plan long term.
While repetition is a fundamental aspect of strengthening your core muscles, using the correct technique is also important. Pay attention to your form. In the beginning, it might help to either do your exercises in front of a mirror or have someone watch you to be sure you are doing them correctly.
Most of the more popular core strengthening exercises require being on the floor. If you have difficulty getting down and up from the floor, then do them on your bed or pick ones you can do sitting in a chair.
Yoga and pilates also have movements which are quite effective in developing core body strength if you would prefer doing those.
ELEMENT #3 - CARDIOVASCULAR DEVELOPMENT:
Cardiovascular exercise should not be overlooked in your personal conditioning plan. It increases the amount of oxygen in your blood system and your overall blood supply to your body. Your overall energy and stamina will also increase, while reducing stress at the same time. It helps your heart muscles become stronger and is beneficial in weight loss.
Beginners should start slowly. Walking is fine until you get to where you can walk a reasonable pace while carrying on a conversation and not being out of breath. Then either pick up the walking pace or add another cardiovascular activity.
Swimming, bicycle riding or spinning also are good beginner cardiovascular activities. They reduce stress on the joints while improving muscle strength and overall physical endurance. For both swimming and biking, do not push yourself too much at first. Do what you are able to do comfortably, gradually increasing your time and speed. When you are comfortable with a 30-minute workout at a reasonable pace, you can then add another cardiovascular activity to your plan.
Other cardiovascular activities to consider are the traditional children's hopscotch, skipping, jump rope, and jumping jacks, as well as several more "adult" activities, such as rowing, elliptical trainer, jogging, dance, yard work, aerobic classes, or climbing stairs or hills.
Don't do squats or lunges because of the potential damage they can do to your knees.
Don't make the mistake of thinking more is better, however. Overdoing your cardiovascular workouts can actually lead to a variety of undesirable health problems. To be safe and after you have slowly worked into it, limit your cardio workouts to about 30-45 minutes a day, for about 4-5 days a week.
Be sure to drink an appropriate amount of water before, during and after your cardio exercise.
ELEMENT #4 - MUSCLE STRENGTH & ENDURANCE:
This element of personal conditioning applies to both men and women of all ages. As with the other elements, the amount of regular weight training should be gradually increased. Also, you don't have to belong to a gym or own expensive weight lifting equipment. For example, just walking up and down stairs and carrying some small hand weights when walking are beneficial in increasing your muscle strength.
Endurance comes over time as you increase your muscle strength, along with improved cardiovascular improvement. You will slowly start notice your improvement as you go about your daily life, and especially when doing housework or yard work.
ELEMENT #5 - FLEXIBILITY & AGILITY:
Stretching is an important part of exercise. Gentle stretching before any workout is beneficial and recommended to help warm up your muscles, which should help reduce chances of injury.
As part of good fitness, it is important to be able to move your joints through the full range of motion as they are supposed to be able to do. If you are unable to do so, check with your orthopedic surgeon to determine if the problem is associated with the joint or if the problem is just that muscles and tendons need to be gradually stretched out. If so, ask your doctor if a few sessions with a physical trainer or physical therapist might help you learn specific stretching techniques for your problem. That might not be necessary, however, as your doctor may be able to show you what you need to know.
Agility is an additional aspect of flexibility, and involves expanding flexibility to incorporate many of the other elements of physical fitness, including strength, endurance, balance, and general physical coordination. This will improve over time as you progress on your long-term fitness plan.
ELEMENT #6 - HYDRATION & DIET:
Being even a little dehydrated, can cause you to feel poorly, so how you feel may be improved by making sure you are drinking enough water each day.
Your body also needs a balanced combination of proteins, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates.
Your body prefers to draw its energy from complex carbohydrates. If it can't get energy from carbs, it will start to draw energy from protein -- from your muscle tissues. When you are working on a fitness and conditioning program (especially cardiovascular and muscle strength activities), you do not want your body's need for energy to work against you, so be sure you are including an appropriate amount of complex carbs in your daily diet.
Unrefined grains, wheat, oats, beans, pastas, and potatoes are examples of complex carbohydrates that will provide the energy your body needs.
The simple carbohydrates, such as refined sugar, corn syrup, and bleached flour, are not beneficial in providing sustained energy to your body. It is reasonable to reduce simple carbs from your diet, to the extent that you can.
Obviously, if you eat too much food each day, you will gain weight. Skipping meals is not a solution, however. Your body does best if it has regular, appropriately sized nutrition throughout the day. Many people have better luck having 4 rather small meals (such as balanced snack sized portions) rather than two or three big meals a day.
One shopping tip you may have heard before is to concentrate your grocery shopping to the outside aisles of the store. This is where you will find the fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables, meats, and dairy products. The interior aisles are full of processed foods that are not generally as healthy for you, so be very careful about how much time you spend in the interior of the grocery store.
ELEMENT #7- REST & RECOVERY:
In order for your body to benefit appropriately from your fitness plan, you need to include "rest and recovery" time in your weekly plan. Working out 7 days a week can actually has a negative effect.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, you should "schedule regular days off from exercise and rest when tired. This will help prevent overtraining and many overuse injuries. Fatigue, soreness, and pain are good reasons to not exercise," because they are signs your body needs to take heal.
Beginners should allow at least 3 days a week for rest and recovery. As your conditioning improves, you can reduce that to just 2 days a week off. And make sure you give yourself 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
AQUA-THERAPY / WATER EXERCISE:
For people who have problems with their knees or hips, who are osteoporotic, who are recovering from surgery or injury, or who are over substantially overweight, aqua-therapy is a very good way to exercise. It permits you to protect your joints while getting doing an effective, low impact workout. Water therapy provides good resistance and easier motion in developing muscle strength, endurance, agility, and flexibility.
You do not have to be able to swim to participate in these programs, because they are generally done in shallow water. Other programs involving water resistance to strengthen muscles can be done wearing a lifejacket.
If you don't have access to a pool where you live or only have access to a pool during the warmer months, there are several places in the Ft. Bend County area where you can join aqua-therapy and aqua-aerobic programs year round.
Some people prefer going to a gym to work out. Others prefer to buy one or more pieces of exercise equipment and work out in the privacy of home. Unfortunately, both of these two options can be expensive. The good news is that with a little creativity in your workout plan, you can have a very good program with very little expense. You also will have an exercise program that you can easily pack and continue doing when you travel.
Proper, well fitting shoes are important, and might be the most expensive item you have to purchase. Working out in old shoes can cause injuries, so pay close attention to the tread on the bottom of the shoes. Once they start to show any wear, they need to be replaced.
A jump rope is a great, inexpensive piece of equipment for cardiovascular conditioning that can be found at your local sporting goods store. The length of the rope depends upon the height of the user. An 8' rope is for people 5'6" or less, a 9.5' rope for 5'7"-6'2", and a 10' rope for those 6'3" and over. If the rope seems too long, it can be shortened to better fit the user.
Resistance bands come in different lengths and strengths, depending upon what is best suited for your strength training exercises and your current conditioning. They are not as intimidating as dumbbells and weight machines for beginners, making resistance bands a good place to start with your muscle strength plan.
Tom Parr, M.D.
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