Practical Weight Loss and Exercise Tips - Part Two

© 2008 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Note: This article was originally published in the April 2008 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

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Photograph © 2008 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Hello again, everyone! Here's the follow-up to my 3-page article in the March 2008 issue of Community News. If you missed it, that article is here. My goal in writing these articles is to provide you with sound information and a lot of encouragement as you move toward your own weight loss and fitness goals.

In last month's article, the emphasis was on healthy eating. Here, the emphasis in on sensible, do-able exercise. Next month, I'll provide you with numerous tips on how to integrate more movement, vs. formal exercise, into your daily life.

In the March issue, I stated my own goal of losing at least 15 lbs. this year. I'm happy to report that I'm already well on my way. A real motivator was the negative health news I recently received: my bones are weakening and I'm pre-diabetic. (Osteoporosis and diabetes are in my family.) I'm now on the drug Actonel for bone health, and have added more calcium, more Vitamin D, Vitamin K 2, and a supplement called "Bone-Up" by Jarrow.

To get the blood sugar under control, my doctor emphasized weight loss and more exercise. I've been teaching weight training since 1976, but am now doing more aerobic exercise (walking and treadmilling) to help with weight loss. Altogether, I try to exercise about 6-7 hours per week.

I'm also trying to emphasize foods that are low or intermediate on the glycemic index. Such foods help regulate both blood sugar and body weight. The emphasis is on vegetables and most fruits, good oils such as olive oil, unsweetened dairy products, lean protein sources and nuts, and unrefined (whole-grain) breads, cereals, and pasta. Refined foods such as white bread and white rice, pastries, and candy are sharply restricted or eliminated. White potatoes are also out.

A low-glycemic diet also helps control food cravings. To my amazement, I've been able to cut out all sweets and pastries without feeling deprived. So far, I'm immensely encouraged, and plan to do more reading about this apparently very effective eating system. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Glycemic-Index Weight Loss, by Lucy Beale and Joan Clark, was recommended by one of my students, who learned about it in a low-glycemic workshop.

Now on to this month's main topic, exercise.

1) Types of exercise

"Exercise" can be something as simple as walking around the block or up a flight of stairs to something as complex and demanding as ballet dancing or skiing on an expert level. But for practical purposes, we can divide types of exercise into the following few main categories.

a) Resistance exercise, or strength training, is suitable for everyone from older teens to seniors. (It's not for children, as it can damage growing bones.) It strengthens muscles, bones and joints by using either free weights (dumbbells, barbells and ankle weights, the kind of weights we use in the classes I teach) or resistance exercise machines, such as those in health clubs and TV ads. Done right, strength training also improves posture. It increases muscular endurance, coordination, balance, and flexibility. You also gain energy as you gain strength. And basic weight training exercises are not hard to learn how to do.

Nowadays, about as many women as men exercise with weights. That's because they appreciate how weight training shapes their bodies and helps them manage their weight. The more lean body mass (muscle) you have in proportion to fat, the more calories you will burn at rest. Women also appreciate the new confidence that weight training gives them.

Older women, especially post-menopausal women, need to know that weight training and weight bearing exercises (see below) can help prevent or manage osteoporosis, the thinning of the bones that is responsible for almost all the hip fractures in older people. Be aware that smoking, drinking excessive alcohol, drinking dark colas, and being thin can all lower bone mass. White people are also at greater risk of osteoporosis. There are simple, painless tests to determine how strong or weak your bones are, so ask your doctor about them.

In my classes, my students learn many different exercises for all body parts. Your own workout should contain at least one or two exercises for each of the major body parts: arms, shoulders, chest, back, buttocks, thighs, and calves. See the numerous previous articles on this website for specific exercises and instructions on how to do them, as well as recommended starting weights for men and women. Or come try out a few of my classes. See here for details.

For safety and best results, make sure you can do at least 10-12 repetitions of every exercise with good technique: fairly slowly, never jerking or swinging the weights, with a full range of motion. Ten to 15 consecutive repetitions (one set) of any given exercise should give you a good muscular effort, but not a sense of strain, particularly in your joints.

You can add resistance to an aerobic exercise such as walking by adding weight to your body. To protect your joints, do not use ankle or wrist weights while walking. Instead, add weight to the middle or upper part of your body by using a weighted belt or vest (available in larger sporting goods stores), or by wearing a weighted backpack (also bad for kids). However, many people, including me, prefer to keep their aerobic workouts and their weight training workouts separate.

b) Weight bearing exercise includes any activity that makes you bear your own weight and that works against gravity. Examples are aerobics classes, baseball, basketball, bowling, dancing, hiking, jogging, martial arts, mowing the lawn, skiing, stair-climbing, tennis, treadmilling, walking, and weight training exercises, particularly those done standing. Push-ups count, too, done either on the floor (we do an easy, non-stressful version in my classes) or leaning against a wall. My favorite weight-bearing exercise is weight training, and I enjoy walking either outdoors on on my treadmill.

It's important to note that swimming and cycling improve heart health, but they are less effective for building bone mass because they don't make you bear your full weight.

Parents should be aware that doing weight bearing exercise when you're a child and a teenager is very important for your bone health later in life. When I was a kid, I loved running, roller skating, and climbing trees or jungle gyms. Today's children and their young parents are fortunate to have safe and ingenious versions of jungle gyms, such as the attractive ones we have here in southwest Denver in Bear Valley Park, rather than the often dangerous, old-fashioned metal or wooden structures. So enjoy them with your kids as often as possible! The fresh air and sunshine are good for all of you, too. Even a small amount of sunshine each day can also build stronger bones. Just avoid deep tans and sunburns. Due to our high altitude and the fierce summer sun, Colorado has a very high rate of skin cancer. Teach your kids to wear hats with brims, and to stay out of the mid-day summer sun.

If you have a baby or toddler, rest assured that lugging the baby plus all that baby paraphernalia definitely qualifies as weight bearing exercise! Hauling grocery sacks counts, too. The trick is to keep from "rewarding" your tired self with a big bowl of ice cream, a candy bar, or a handful of cookies once you get home. Have an apple or some reduced-fat yogurt plus fruit, along with a nice cup of green tea, and you'll feel better fast.

c) Aerobic exercise is any exercise which gets your heart rate up and keeps it there for several minutes at a time. Examples are bicycling, brisk walking (outdoors or on a treadmill), cross-country skiing, jogging, or swimming. Aim for a sustained heart rate which is roughly 50-85% of your maximum heart rate, which is roughly 220 minus your age. Thus, the maximum heart rate of the average 50-year-old is 170 beats per minute, and 70% of that, a good target rate, is 119 beats per minute. Since I'm almost 62, my maximum heart rate is roughly 158 beats per minute, and 70% of that is 111 beats per minute, a rate I find relatively easy to reach and maintain for a while.

The term "aerobic," which means "with oxygen," was coined by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper when he published his book Aerobics in 1968. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs, improves circulation, burns calories, and boosts fat metabolism and mood. It reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and helps to reduce stress. Along with strength training and stretching, aerobic exercise is an important component of overall fitness.

Let your health history, your doctor, and your own instincts be your guide before you begin any serious program of aerobic exercise. But most people can't go wrong by starting with walking at a moderate pace and for just a few minutes at first. Gradually pick up the pace and go longer distances, trying to walk at least 20-30 minutes at a time. You should feel some effort, of course, but still be able to carry on a conversation while you walk briskly - or jog, if you're up to that. However, for most people, brisk walking is just as effective and much safer than jogging. Also, there are lots of good, well-cushioned, supportive walking shoes on the market today, as well as running shoes.

d) Calisthenics is a term that comes from Greek words meaning beauty and strength. It refers to a broad range of exercises, most of them performed without apparatus, which are designed to increase strength, power, balance, grace, flexibility, and coordination. Examples are sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, the reclining bicycle motion, jumping jacks, toe-touches, knee-bends, and a variety of standing and seated stretches. In some other parts of the world, such as Australia, very elaborate calisthenics routines are performed in groups exercising to music, and calisthenics competitions are held.

I have a few calisthenics in my program. Over the years, I've eliminated certain old-fashioned calisthenics which modern exercise physiology has proven to be potentially harmful: straight-leg sit-ups, straight-leg toe-touches, deep knee bends, and the seated hurdler's stretch, which has one leg bent behind the body. However, there is still a place in the modern workout routine for basic calisthenics. My students appreciate learning these simple, safe, effective exercises which they can do at home at any time.

e) Flexibility exercises include any type of stretching. We do a wide variety of stretches in my classes. These were taken from numerous sources: my physical education classes at Indiana University in the 1960s, my years of modern dance training in the 1970s, various books on yoga and stretching for athletes, and the physical therapist who helped me after a back injury over 20 years ago.

Flexibility exercises help you avoid injury from everyday and sports activities, improve your posture and circulation, and relieve tension. Unless you are a serious athlete or dancer, there is no need to aim for extreme flexibility, and you can safely make stretching a fairly minor part of your overall routine. However, a modest increase in your overall flexibility can make you feel better and make your daily life easier, especially as you age.

You can and should stretch a bit any time you feel like it during the day. It feels remarkably refreshing to get up from your desk from time to time and stretch your arms high overhead, bob over gently toward the floor (keep your knees slightly bent), do seated torso twists (never standing ones), or a few calf stretches.

A more serious stretching workout should be saved for after your resistance exercise or aerobic workout. Your muscles are warmest then and can stretch most easily. Stretching after a workout can also help prevent later muscle soreness. Also, you might want to save your most serious stretching for the evening, vs. doing it in the morning. Your muscles are warmer and looser then than they are in the morning, thus less prone to injury from overly enthusiastic stretching.

If you want to use stretches as part of your warm-up routine, make them very gentle ones. It's better to use simple warm-up exercises designed to get your blood pumping a bit, such as marching in place, swinging your arms around and around and back and forth, bending from side to side, reaching high and then bobbing over toward the floor with your knees slightly bent, or walking some stairs. Then do a few minutes of your intended workout exercise(s), such as jogging or lifting weights, at a low, mild level. For example, do a few dumbbell curls or squats or bench presses with no more than half the weight that you will use later.

2) Choosing your routine and sticking with it

Some people like to do about equal amounts of aerobic and resistance exercise, while others emphasize one or the other. Weight training is my own favorite, but I do get in a few sessions of walking and treadmilling every week. Fortunately, some walking is built into my working life. Years ago, when I had more time for such things, I used to play racquetball, hike, bicycle, and swim. The bottom line is that it's important to choose forms of exercise that you truly enjoy and can work into your weekly routine, or else you won't stick with them.

A beginning exerciser may be doing well to get in two 15- or 20-minute exercise sessions per week, but as your endurance and enthusiasm increase, aim for 2-3 sessions of aerobic exercise per week and 2-3 sessions of strength training per week, increasing the workout sessions to 30-60 minutes if possible. Do the different types of exercise on alternate days if you like. For example, take a brisk walk on Mondays and Thursdays, and work out with weights on Tuesdays and Fridays. Take it easy on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Don't worry if you can't find 30-60 minutes at a time in which to exercise. You are still reaping benefits if you break your weight training up into many short sets of different exercises done over the course of one day. For example, between other tasks, do a set of dumbbell curls for your upper arms. A little later in the day, do a set of lateral raises for the shoulders or shallow squats for your thighs. Later still, do a few push-ups or some calf raises. And so on. It's all good!

Rest assured that aerobic exercise, too, can be approached in a non-stressful and "just fit it in when you can" fashion. Newer research has shown that even a modest increase in heart rate (50-60% of maximum) can reap cardiovascular benefits, and that multiple short bursts of aerobic exercise spread out over a day may be even better than prolonged sessions of aerobic exercise for boosting the metabolic rate and promoting weight loss. What a nice surprise!

3) Treadmills and stairs

My husband and I have a treadmill here at home in addition to all our weight lifting equipment. Our basic but very good Sears "Pro-Form" treadmill, which cost us under $500, stays open next to the washing machine in the basement. I make apoint of hopping on it as often as possible, striding along for 23 minutes at at time, then getting back to my desk work or housework. The mini workouts feel great, very invigorating. Our tri-level house has three short flights of stairs, which also provide a brief but good workout. Sometimes I even go up and down them more often than I need to.

4) Morning vs. evening exercising

When it comes to exercise, no one time of day is better than any other - except that you will probably sleep better if you don't exercise within the two or three hours before you go to bed.

When you exercise will depend on many factors, most likely your work schedule and daily routine, as well as the needs of your family. It may take some imagination on your part, as well as the kind cooperation of the other family members, but chances are that you will be able to eke out at least an hour or two per week in which to exercise if you truly want to.

I once read that evening joggers tend to suffer fewer injuries, presumably because their muscles are warmer then, but that morning joggers tend to be more regular in their exercise habits. Be that as it may, rest assured that whatever time of day you choose to work out, or even if you need to break your exercise up into little chunks spread out over many hours, any movement is better than no movement at all. And of course it's far better than vegging out in front of the TV eating junk food!

5) Next month's article

Next month, as I promised above, I'll have a list of practical ways in which you can add more physical activity, vs. formal exercise, to your daily routine. For now, I'll close with some humor from my husband, David Dvorkin, who writes "David's Definitions" for Community News. He has a wry little joke about fitness equipment. He says that every piece of it should come with an additional tag saying "Willpower Not Included."

Obviously, only you can supply the necessary willpower to eat better and exercise more. So dig deep down inside yourself, pull it out, and get going. I'm with you every step of the way on your road to better health!