All you have to do is watch the news to know how important it is to stay in shape. In the short term, ramping up your fitness can give you more energy, improve the quality of your sleep, boost lung capacity, and relieve stress — not to mention help you work on that six-pack. The lasting benefits are even more impressive. An ever-growing body of evidence suggests that exercise strengthens bones, reduces joint pain and blood pressure, and even helps ward off some types of cancer. Plus, new research shows that regular workouts may help your mind stay nimble as you age. Want to see these and other benefits in the years ahead? Update your exercise routine now with help from the experts.
Mixing short bursts of effort into whatever you're already doing — walking, running, swimming, using an elliptical trainer, or cycling — is a great way to enhance your workouts without making them longer. Consider research published last year in the Journal of Applied Physiology. During the study, eight women in their 20s rode stationary bikes, alternating between very difficult four-minute energy bursts and two minutes of recovery. After doing ten sets of intervals every other day for two weeks, subjects' fat-burning capacity improved by 36 percent and cardiovascular fitness rose by 13 percent.
“What surprised us most was that we saw such a quick improvement in aerobic capacity,” says Jason Talanian, PhD, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, where the study was performed. Based on the results, Talanian recommends completing one or two interval sessions per week, working up to longer intervals. For instance, after a five-minute warm-up, speed up for two minutes, then work at a normal pace for the same amount of time; vary between hard and easy for about ten minutes. Gradually increase interval length by a minute a week until intervals are four minutes long. You should notice improvement in cardiovascular stamina after just a couple of weeks.
Focus on the core
By the time you hit the gym, you may be so intent to pound through that cardio routine that you forget to work one of your body's most essential muscle groups — your core. No longer synonymous with simple tummy tightening, core training strengthens all the muscles between your rib cage and pelvis to help you achieve greater stability, balance, and control in your spine, legs, and shoulders. “All movement starts from the very center of your body — what I call the pillar,” says Mark Verstegen, founder and president of Athletes' Performance training centers with locations in Arizona, California, and Florida, and co-author of Core Performance Essentials (Rodale, 2006).
As you age, not only will a weak core translate to less power when it comes to sports, but it also may inhibit range of motion and hip stability. What's more, your core supports your back, so keeping it strong will help protect against herniated disks in the decades ahead. “This is really prehab,” says Verstegen, “because it builds the kind of strength that helps you do all of your favorite activities — dancing, surfing, golfing, or anything — with less risk of injury and more power.” Many gyms offer Pilates, which strengthens the core through slow, repetitive movements. Or try a core-conditioning class that uses props such as stability balls to increase balance and range of motion. After you gain more confidence, check out instructional DVDs, such as Abs Conditioning: Yoga, BalanceBall, Pilates (Gaiam, 2003).
Next Page: Walk every day, Make time for yoga
Walk every day
For nearly a decade public-health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged Americans to take 10,000 steps — the equivalent of about 5 miles — every day. But we're falling woefully short. The typical American woman takes just 5,210 steps — roughly 2.5 miles — a day (men take around 7,000), according to Catrine Tudor-Locke, PhD, an associate professor and director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Upping your daily mileage can boost more than just weight loss — at least that's what a group of Danish researchers recently concluded. Their study, published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that when a group of healthy men reduced their number of daily steps from 6,203 to 1,344, within two weeks the subjects' insulin levels rose by nearly 60 percent, putting them at risk for diabetes. Likewise, abdominal fat increased by 7 percent even though subjects didn't gain any weight.
If you need extra motivation, consider investing in a basic pedometer — available for around $25 in athletic stores — to help keep tabs on exactly how many steps you are or aren't taking. Then work in activity by choosing a lunch spot that's a few blocks away instead of eating at the restaurant across the street; building social visits around a walk in the park; visiting the museum more often; and thinking twice before you drive a few blocks to a friend's house. Or plan a vacation using the America's Walking list of the most walkable cities (pbs.org/americaswalking/travel/travelmost.html).
Make time for yoga
Here's a convincing reason to finally check out yoga: It can help you walk faster. Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia examined the gait and postural stability of 24 women enrolled in a yoga class designed specifically for women 65 and older. At the end of the nine-week program, participants had faster strides, increased flexibility in the lower extremities, and better balance, which can reduce the risk of falling.
Create an online objective
“Periodically setting new goals is essential to any successful health and fitness program,” says Allison Chopra, MS, of Indiana University in Bloomington. But in this busy world, everyone needs an occasional nudge to stay on track. These free online resources can help.STICKK. Place a wager on yourself, promising to meet a certain goal. If you don't make it, Stickk makes you ante up to a friend of your choosing or donate the money to charity.
SPARKPEOPLE. Name your fitness or weight-loss goal, and Sparkpeople will offer tips for how to meet it. The “fitness minutes” section helps you keep track of how much time you've exercised during a given month.
THE DAILY PLATE. Track your weekly food intake and exercise, and The Daily Plate will help you manage your calories, achieve your fitness or weight-loss goals, and network with other members.
“Doing yoga promotes physiological and psychological well-being, which lay down a wellness foundation as we age,” says Roberta Newton, PhD, PT, professor of physical therapy at Temple and one of the study's researchers. She recommends Iyengar, in which practitioners often use props — such as rolled-up towels, foam blocks, and straps — to move comfortably into poses, which they hold for a minute or longer. Particularly good for beginners, Iyengar teaches physical and kinesthetic awareness.
To prep for your first class, try practicing a calming breathing technique called abdominal or “belly” breathing. Lie on your back and place your hands on your abdomen. Inhale and expand your belly, making it full and round. Focus on expanding your abdomen in all directions. As you exhale, completely empty your lungs and your belly so your abdomen becomes concave. Then slow down the pace and find a comfortable rhythm, breathing in for five counts and out for five counts. After a few breaths, try to make the exhalation last one or two seconds longer than the inhalation. Repeat up to seven times. New to yoga? Log onto yogafinder.com to find a class that suits your style, or try an at-home video such as Yoga for Beginners (Element, 2007).
Writer Dana Sullivan lives in Reno, Nevada, and is currently boosting the number of steps she takes every day by training to walk the Seattle Marathon in November.