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Typical South African lifestyle patterns may impede our health and weight management, with stress as the central focus. Ian Craig discusses the benefits of exercise, the health ramifications of excessive exercise, and balancing fight-or-flight responses with relax and repair restoration.
In the Palaeolithic times, we would walk large distances every day to collect edible plants and hunt small animals, while at the same time exerting enough energy to stay out of danger. In more recent times, agriculture was extremely labour-intensive and a large part of the population worked on farms and fields. Contrast that with the mechanism existence that we enjoy today: home –> car –> office –> machine that helps us work (computer) –> car –> gym –> machines that help us move (treadmill, etc.) –> car –> home –> eat what diet book tells us –> crash in front of machine that stops us from thinking (TV).
THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISEInflammationSince inflammation has been linked to all known degnerative diseases, by sitting still we are unwittingly switching on a process which, in the long term, makes us ill. This concept is a little scary, so let it propel us into action.A regular, moderate exercise programme increases the oppurtunity for healthy weight-management, and reduces the likelihood of diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and auto-immune problems. Hormone-wise, exercise: stimulates muscle growth and fat metabolism; increases metabolic rate and circulation; improves energy provision and adaptation to stress; and moves sugar from the bloodstream into metabolically active tissues.1
Mental well-beingExercise has also been clearly shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety and to increase the ability to deal with life’s stresses. Clinical trials have revealed regular exercise to be equally as effective as Prozac as an antidepressive, but – unlike the drug – with only postive side effects.
In the elderly, exercise can increase independence into old age, reduce the chances of osteoporosis, and increase levels of psychological empowerment.In children, allowing them the opportunity for ‘free play’ as they grow can help with the development of motor skills, insulin sensitisation, body composition, bone mineralisation, confidence and social interaction.
Exercise suggestionsAll types of exercise have their place in your health, although some individuals will tend to gravitate to certain types of exercise more than others.
From the perspective of weight-management, the American College of Sports Medicine2 recommends working up to a level of between three and five hours of cardiovascular exercise (CV) – such as swimming, walking, running, cycling, dancing, soccer – per week.
Exercises such as yoga and tai chi are also contributory – they are anticatabolic and stabilising to our stress hormones and insulin, which in turn can positively influence body composition. These traditional practices also decrease muscle tension, improve digestive function and support mood.The exact makeup of your exercise pattern will depend on your personal preferences, your genetics and your time commitments: Each bout can be as short as a few minutes, or as long as a number of hours.
For the not-so-fitIf you are starting from a low fitness base, start with a low-intensity exercise such as walking. If you are actively trying to lose weight, you should aim to accumulate an hour of low-intensity exercise most days3 – tools like step-counters and activity diaries may be helpful for boosting adherence. Resistance-based exercise can be done by anyone – choose from formal weight-training, circuit training, Pilates, yoga and tone classes.
For the already fitIf you are somebody who is already quite fit, consider: two hours of low- to moderate-intensity CV training; one hour of high-intensity CV training; one hour of resistance training (e.g. two 30-minute sessions); and one or two yoga sessions per week. Moderate-intensity exercise is done at ‘steady state conventional pace’, whereas high-intensity sessions are best done via internal training. Examples might be: ten one-minute exercises with one minute of recovery time; three five-minute hard spurts with two minutes’ recovery; or two ten-minute bouts with two minutes of recovery.
Short intense sessionsExercise that can be done in a short timeframe is becoming increasingly popular. As little as 10 minutes of training at above lactate-threshold intensity (i.e. sprinting, Tabata* intervals, intense resistance-based and/or kettlebell-based circuits) will cause an increase in growth hormone levels.4 Additionally, short, intense sessions have been reported to switch on the afterburner, and strongly influence fat metabolism after exercise.5
Overdoing the exerciseThere is an over-reliance on quantity and not enough focus on quality when it comes to exercising. Unfortunately, many of you are overdoing the exercise and life-loads, meaning that you can end up with symptoms of overtraining, adrenal fatigue or even chronic fatigue.
The ‘Total Load Concept’ Dr Alex Concorde is the creator of GAIN TheoryTM. Dr Concorde6 refers to the ‘three Ps of stress’: physical, physiological and psychological. Many of you will not recognise yourself as being ‘stressed’ because that is normally considered alongside anxiety, but when we reframe and say that you have a high total life-load, it might resonate a little more.
For example, if you have just completed an Ironman (physical), it’s not uncommon to be grumpy with your other half (psychological) and to experience a runny nose (physiological). Controversely, if you are under psychological load, it’s not uncommon to underperform physically.
Regular, ‘moderate’ exercise is stabilising to our hormonal and nervous systems, and it is extremely nourishing to all aspects of our physiology. Overdoing it, on the other hand, either by high volume, high intensity, or both, increases our stress responses.
YIN-YANGLike almost everything in life, exercise is a matter of balance. The harder you train, the harder you must recover. The job of training is to break down certain physiological systems, and the job of recovery is to allow time for these systems to be reinforced to a stronger level than before.
SleepGood sleep is a fundamental aspect of health. Because of the high life-load that many of you experience, instead of giving up one or two things in your life, you will eat into your sleep time.Culturally, when compared to other countries around the world, the day starts very early in South Africa, and many exercisers choose to front-load the day with a session before work. Genetically, this will work for some people as long as they get to bed nice and early, but for others early rising is simply defying their physiological comfort zone. It is immensely important to listen to your body and to repsond to what it needs and wants. If you would naturally wake at 07h00 without an alarm clock, don’t force yourself into a gym at 05h30 – rather lie in till 06h30 or 07h00, and fit your exercise in at lunchtime or after work.
CONCLUSIONWith a healthy lifestyle and a fulfilling exercise routine at stake, the key word is balance. If you want to be a top athlete, you will need to step out from the crowd and achieve things, but to do so still requires balance, otherwise you will become overtrained and under-recovered. I like the yin-yang concept, where recovery or recuperation becomes an active entity that you have to work at and not something that may be deemed as passive and lazy. *Tabata intervals are eight 20-second bouts of energetic execise, with 10-second recoveries (four minutes’ duration).
Consequences of long-term raised levels of stress hormones are many:
IAN CRAIG is an exercise scientist, nutritional therapist and neuro-linguistic programming practitioner. He initially qualified as an exercise physiologist (MSc) and strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), applying this knowledge to his own middle-distance running career and the care of his personal training clients. Ian’s current focus on nutritional therapy (BSc) includes weight management, digestive health, blood sugar regulation, stress, fatigue and sporting performance. He runs nutrition and exercise clinics in Cape Town and regular workshops on stress, corporate wellness and sports nutrition, is a columnist for SA Squash, Go Multi and Bolander, and writes and presents internationally on the new concept of functional sports nutrition.
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