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Fitness for Health

by Nigel Kerr(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 25 - February 1998

Risking both acute and chronic injury by involving oneself in physical activity may seem a strange way of staying in good shape. Nevertheless thousands, even millions take that risk every day. Damaged knees, strained backs and shin-splints are among the more common injuries from the more opular "Fitness Regimes", begging the question:

If there really are any great health benefits from being fit, are they worth the risks involved in getting there?

Human bodies, like that of many of our neighbours in the animal kingdom are designed to be athletic, evidenced by the fact that they develop themselves in direct relation to the demands we make of them. It is perhaps our misfortune that the very thing that sets us aside from those neighbours also allow us to adapt our environment to suit our increasingly non-athletic lifestyles.

Examining the performances of athletes shows that with the correct training, our physical prowess increases not only beyond our own previous standards, but that of our recorded ancestors. What may be overlooked though is that most of these performances are specific to only one ability, either to run fast for short distances, to jump, to run for long distances or to throw a variety of awkward looking objects. Mr and Mrs Hard-working, Family-rearing Non-athlete could be forgiven for wondering what relevance this has to their desire to be fit and healthy. Whilst most do not chase the dream of medals and glory in sport or athletics, the principles that govern fitness training activities are the same, so we need to decide which, if any, of these specific abilities is to be used as the model for general fitness.

Defining fitness is not such a simple thing then. Although some efforts have been made, two of the better attempts are:

"The ability of man to maintain the various processes involved in the metabolic exchange during exercise as close to the resting state as possible, with a capacity to reach a higher steady rate of working, and restore promptly after exercise all equilibria which are disturbed" (Astrand 1970).

Or for those of us who speak only English.

"Physical fitness is the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigour and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure time pursuits and to meet unforeseen emergencies" (Canadian Fitness Survey 1978).

Legend has it that the very first deliberate (as opposed to lifestyle induced) exercise regime dates back to ancient Greece (where else?) where a farmer decided to test his theory on strength development by carrying the same calf on his shoulders for a period of every day, its increasing weight thereby necessitating increased strength in the farmer.

More recent times have seen a huge growth in the fitness industry, fuelled by increased leisure time, the pressure to "look good", greater disposable income, and the millions invested in the search for longevity. We have created a whole new science. Since the seventies, when fitness training was brought into the light of day, away from back street, sweat-impregnated emporiums, and made available as well as fashionable for everyone via the development of aerobics and user friendly weight-training machines, it has become a multi-million pound industry.

Research into the physiological effects of exercise threw up some fascinating data. Vindicating those who held the view that exercise and health were linked in some way, the new data also showed that coaches and trainers needed to improve their knowledge of exercise physiology and teaching techniques. Gone forever were the days of non-stop high impact aerobics, straight legged sit-ups and feet raised to six inches from the floor.

Professional bodies abound for the fitness coach, with as many certified courses as there are bodies. All are in accord on important points when it comes to health related exercise. Of the many components which go together to make up total fitness, there are three which are universally considered to be health related. These three components are often termed "The Three Ss".

• Cardiovascular: The ability of the body to utilise oxygen effectively, thereby allowing continual movement of an aerobic nature.
• Muscular: The ability of the muscles to perform a given task continually.

The maximum capacity to move oneself or objects against gravitational pull.

The ability to move joints through a full range of their potential motion, facilitated by flexibility of the muscles.

Cardiovascular stamina has perhaps the most dramatic health related effects. Research has proven that the risk of heart disease is greatly reduced by activities aimed at improving the cardiovascular system. Such activity is collectively termed "aerobic exercise".

Structurally the heart is predominantly muscle, of a specific type but with the same basic ability to increase in strength as other muscles. Placing the cardiac muscle under pressure by performing regular aerobic activities will cause it to respond by making itself stronger, the net result of which is an increased stroke volume, the stroke volume being the amount of blood expelled with one beat. Increased stroke volume results in a lower resting heart rate, which in turn decreases the wear and tear on the heart, a bit like adding a litre to a car engine size. Other effects include an increased haemoglobin count and an increase in the number of capillaries, which improves oxygen and nutrition transport, creating a greater capacity to produce energy (giving us more energy).

Nature provided the heart with a partner in crime, so it should be no surprise to discover that the very activity type that develops the heart will develop the lungs, improving lung power as well as the ability to get sufficient oxygen into the body and exhale the maximum on one breathe. Aerobic exercise helps to reduce body-fat percentages, a significant factor in reducing the risk of heart disease.

In recent years research has given us the "Waist : Hip" ratio as a determining factor in heart disease risk assessment – the higher the ratio, the higher the risk, coining an appropriate phrase, "The longer the waist-line the shorter the life-line". Body-fat is stored energy which requires the presence of sufficient oxygen for metabolising (burning) during activity. The very term "aerobic exercise" means activity of a nature which allows enough oxygen to be present in the energy creating processes.

Muscular stamina and strength work alongside suppleness in a much less publicised manner. Second only to the skeletal structure in determining posture, good muscular condition plays a larger part in general health than many realise. Muscle "tone" comes from the Greek "Tonus", meaning the muscle's state of readiness when relaxed. Watch an athlete at rest, the muscle still looks tight and strong because whichever position we are in, the muscles never relax totally. There are always just enough muscle fibres contracting to maintain the current posture. Generally speaking, muscles work in opposing groups, either side of a joint in status quo, keeping the balance as best they can. Stringing a bow is the best way to see what happens when that status quo is disturbed.

The lumbar region of the spine is dependent to a large degree on the abdominal muscles and the sacrospinalis (running up the spine) to keep the lordotic arch of the lumbar area in good condition. Poor abdominal tone could very easily result in an increased arch due to a stronger sacrospinalis pulling against the decreased opposing strength. The same condition could be caused by a lack of flexibility in the sacrospinalis. Either way the risk of damage to the intervertebral cartilage discs is high because of the increased pressure on one edge after the vertebrae have assumed their new position.

Bearing in mind the number of joints and muscles that we house, the inactive body can potentially debilitate itself just through lack of postural strength. Activities that involve muscular development or maintenance are especially important as we age. The body's desire to please us dictates that the bones will try harder to retain their density for as long as we remain active, causing a proven decrease in the ravages of osteoporosis. Predominantly anaerobic in nature, exercises which are specifically aimed at the musculature are of little use in reducing body-fat.

Health benefits that can be derived from physical fitness are not restricted to the body. We are probably unique among all other creatures for more reasons than we usually consider. Self-image is of huge import to the psyche of people. How we perceive ourselves can potentially take us to the stars or to the depths of despair.

Studies in the eighties found that companies who provided exercise facilities not only had reduced illness-related lost labour days and a decrease in the number of deaths caused by heart disease, they demonstrated improvements in areas that can only be interpreted as psychological. Lower staff turnover was attributed to the belief that management were showing a real interest in their employees, making those employees feel valuable and appreciated. External stimulus of a positive nature to self-esteem is a powerful boost to our self-vision. The idea that we are liked and of use can build the belief that we are likable and useful.

Increased workplace productivity was attributed in part to the friendly atmosphere that often follows in an environment where all feel positive about themselves, as well as the actual physical increase in energy which develops along with fitness levels. Labour output improvements were also put down to greater capacity for concentration and self-discipline, meaning that workers utilising the exercise facilities were more likely to complete tasks within specified schedules, at a higher standard. This information does not suggest that those who may be considered physically unfit are less capable in the workplace. It does suggest that at whatever rung on the ladder they currently stand, they have the potential to climb higher if they so desire. Considering that the brain relies on the nutrients supplied by the other systems of the body, it is logical to assume that the more efficient the nutrient supply, the nearer we come to achieving the potential use of our brains.

Many consumers within the health and fitness industry are not motivated by health. The non-sport influenced are often there because of the desire to look good, mirror-influenced we might say. As motivation, the mirror is possibly the most powerful of all. One day we look in the mirror, ask where that great shape we used to have has gone and resolve to regain it. Fortunately for us, whatever the motivation, the body responds in the same way – muscular training for body shape will help our posture and bone-density and we get the health benefits of aerobic activity whilst attempting to trim the waistline for its aesthetic beauty.

Should you decide to engage in a regime of increased activity levels, it is essential that they be relevant to your needs, so there are some important factors to consider. Finance and time are often the stumbling blocks, mostly due to the mistaken belief that exercise is somehow restricted to a club or centre. Not true! Walking is easily available and effective as an aerobic and fat reducing activity, and the home is a good place to work on those postural muscles, without the need for expensive equipment, or a one and a half hour round trip to the gym. Activity regimes should be personal to the exerciser. For that reason a professional assessment is an absolute must as a starting point. A good fitness professional will be willing to design a progressive programme based on a combination of a client's desires, likes and dislikes, and the actual test results. A fitness assessment does not involve showing clients how to use the equipment. An assessment is a series of measurements to assess blood-pressure, body-fat percentage, heart and lung function, strength and flexibility. These measurements must be preceded by a health questionnaire to ensure client safety. Only through a properly executed assessment followed by a well constructed regime can clients expect to attain maximum health benefits from their exercise regime.

Spending our lives working, more often than not for a stranger, we owe ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our freedom upon retirement. Freedom which ought to be an adventure into the world of our life's fantasies, unfortunately is often a frightening trip into the never ending circle of medical care and disability, much of which could have been avoided. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not inevitable that we will all lose our health as we age. If we remain physically active throughout our lives we can greatly improve our chances of a good quality of life, right into old age. Whilst our potential does decrease as we age, if we work towards that potential, our actual condition will be dramatically improved.

Examined from a purely logical viewpoint it all makes perfect sense. Reliant as we are on our bodies to maintain this living state, it is crazy to indulge in a lifestyle that detracts from the efficiency of any of our systems, increasing the risk of early mortality or dysfunction. We owe it to ourselves to do our utmost to ensure positive growth in all areas of our lives, including health.

In youth then, by attaining a decent standard of physical fitness, we are not only attempting to maintain our current good condition, but storing up brownie points for the future and increasing our potential to live a full and active life. It is unreasonable to expect life to respect us if we have none for life, or ourselves. At a time when complementary medicine is increasingly accepted, quite rightly so, and the maxim of prevention being better than cure is considered the height of common sense, a reasonable level of physical fitness as a prescription for good health ought to be readily available on the NHS for everybody.

Fact or fiction?

Muscle turns to fat when you stop training. False!

It is physiologically impossible for muscle to turn into fat. This fairy story is attributable to an illusion when bodybuilders and athletes turn flabby. What actually happens is that when decreasing training they often forget to decrease food intake, thereby increasing the fat layers below the skin. At the same time as this is happening, the muscles begin to shrink, looking like a change from muscle to fat. As long as diet is considered when decreasing activity levels it should not be a problem.

You may faint if you stop suddenly when involved in aerobic exercise. True!

Because the heart is working overtime to get the blood to the muscles in large volumes, it needs help from the muscles themselves. Whilst arteries have muscle fibres within them, allowing them to push blood through, veins do not. Veins have a series of one way valves to stop blood dropping back down to the legs once it has been pushed upwards. When contracting, muscles help to squeeze the blood upwards, creating a vacuum when relaxing and pulling blood up into the empty section of vein. Stopping suddenly prevents this process and can result in the blood struggling to return to the heart, this will deprive the brain of oxygen and cause you to faint. Fainting changes the gravitational pull on the system, allowing blood to get to the brain easily.

Dos and Don'ts

Do seek professional guidance. Ask to see qualifications and insurance. Anybody who has spent time training and studying will be proud of their achievements and happy to share it with you. If not, walk away. They do not have your best interests at heart.

Don't throw yourself in at the deep end. A gradually progressive regime will have all the benefits you are looking for. Going for the jugular is more likely to cause injuries that will make normal movements uncomfortable, in effect decreasing your activity levels.


1. Good cardiovascular activities include swimming, cycling, walking, running, rowing, stairs (quickly up, carefully down), aerobic and cardio-circuit classes.
2. For cardiovascular strengthening, activities should bring the heart rate up to 60-80% of predicted HRM (Heart Rate Maximum, HRM = 220 -Age) and hold it there for ten to thirty minutes.
3. Stretching is the best way to maintain good suppleness. Always follow the exercise curve. Warm up, stretch, exercise, cool down, stretch.
4. For reduced body-fat percentage, a heart rate of 50–65% HRM should be maintained for 25 minutes plus (being sensible about condition).
5. If performing muscular activity and fat reduction exercise, do the muscular first. This depletes the non-fat energy stores thereby increasing the potential to metabolise body-fat during the aerobic work. Many fitness clubs put you on cardiovascular equipment for twenty minutes at the beginning of your workout. This is for their convenience not yours. A five minute warm up before going into the gym and save the twenty minutes until the end.
6. Because exercise has its own risks, videos are not the best way to learn. A professional can advise on posture and movement quality.
7. Ask a friend or spouse to join you in your chosen activities. This helps to motivate both of you. Choose something you both like.
8. Park the car a mile from work and walk in, cycle to work or get off the bus one or two stops early.
9. Take regular trips to the country or the coast. It is much more pleasurable to walk or cycle in these places and does not seem like such hard work.
10. Adequate rest and diet are a must, without which the body begins to deteriorate.
11. Decide what you wish to achieve. That is your goal. Decide on realistic short term aims and go for them. (ie Goal is to improve VO2 max. [measurement of oxygen uptake] by 10%. Aim is to improve it by 2% inside two months).
12. A fitness assessment every three to six month will show whether or not a programme is working, providing the information necessary to adapt and change.


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About Nigel Kerr

A fitness Consultant and Personal Trainer, Nigel Kerr has also worked in the Czech Republic teaching aerobic dance and step and playing for and coaching an American Football team. He was invited by the Prague headquarters of their competitive dance association to lead the yearly competition in which they choose their hopefuls for competitive training.

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