Make a Fitness Plan for 2012
When I checked in this week with North Carolina-based fitness trainer Bobby Morrow, whom I profiled a while back, he wasn't able to talk with me until 10:30 p.m. That's an indication of how many of forty- and fifty-somethings -- the middle-aged exercisers that Morrow specializes in coaching -- are crowding into health clubs, embarking on our perennial New Year's resolution to get in shape. "It's always crazy this time of year," he says, a bit breathlessly.
That we find ourselves making the same fitness resolution year after year, though, should be a hint that there's often something remiss in our approach. Indeed, Morrow says studies have shown that only about 8 percent of the newly resolute who are hoisting dumbbells or trying to figure out how to program the elliptical trainer this week will still be exercising regularly a few months down the road. It could be that their expectations are unduly influenced by TV infomercials, which show preternaturally buff models and promise you can get a six-pack in the time it takes to make three monthly credit card payments.
Most people set their goals unrealistically high," says Morrow, an American Council on Exercise-certified trainer who is now a national spokesperson for the fitness organization. "They're just setting themselves up for failure."
But there is a way to keep that resolution and reinvent yourself physically in 2012, Morrow and other experts reassure us. You need a plan with reasonable, realistic, achievable goals, and a step-by-step schedule for getting there that you'll be able to stick to. Think of it this way: If you had resolved to start a yogurt stand or a mail-order company in 2012, you wouldn't even consider investing your time and money until you developed a detailed business plan. Think of this as a business plan for your body.
Here are some key points for creating your fitness plan for 2012.
1. Start with an honest self-assessment.
Unless you know where your starting point is, it's difficult to know what is attainable in a year's time. One way to do this is to have a trainer evaluate you, but if you're a solo exerciser, you can try Eurofit for Adults, which includes some simple standardized tests such as calculating your body mass index (BMI) and lean muscle weight, a 2-kilometer walk to measure your cardio fitness, one-legged standing to evaluate balance, and a sit-and-reach test to measure trunk flexibility. (Of course, if you haven't been active in a while, you also should get a checkup from your doctor.)
2. Set realistic goals, and create a clear picture of them in your mind.
You don't necessarily need a drastic metamorphosis to look and feel better, or be healthier. As Tara Parker-Pope noted recently in The New York Times, research shows that even losing five percent of your body weight --10 pounds in a 200-pound person -- can significantly lower your risk for diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. So losing simply 10 pounds and keeping it off is a worthy goal for some of us.
If you're already an exerciser with a passion for a particular activity, you can also set a performance goal. I'm a longtime on-and-off runner and Johnny-come-lately martial arts enthusiast, for example, so I'm aiming shave 10 to 20 seconds off my pace for three miles and become proficient at the kung fu forms that I need to earn a brown sash, the next highest ranking.
3. Figure out a step-by-step schedule for gradually achieving your goal.
Once you can envision yourself as you want to be on December 31, Morrow suggests that you engage in a bit of reverse-engineering. If you see yourself as 30 pounds lighter, or being able to do a 50-mile bike ride, work backward and figure out how much progress you need to make each month, week or even each day. When you break a task down into smaller increments, it seems more achievable. Morrow notes, for example, that if you expend an average of 200 to 500 calories per day exercising -- something you can achieve with three to five weekly sessions of 30 minutes on the bike or treadmill -- and combine that with eating 250 to 400 fewer calories each day, you probably can lose about one-and-a-quarter pounds a week. If you can stick to that, by the end of April, you'll be 20 pounds lighter.
4. Get fitter in phases.
Before you build a house, you've got to lay a foundation and put up a sturdy inner frame, and the same principle holds true for your body. Morrow suggests breaking your training regimen into six-week phases, and shifting the emphasis and broadening your approach as you work through them. In the initial phase, for example, he suggests that you concentrate on establishing a regular exercise habit, and work mostly on basic cardiovascular fitness with a few simple strength exercises. Running on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike requires minimal skill, so you're less likely to feel as overwhelmed as you might if you were trying to learn, say, Zumba or a Russian kettlebell regimen. In successive phases, as your endurance improves, you can shift to doing more involved strength training and gradually add flexibility and balance work.
5. Factor rest into the equation.
Research involving elite senior endurance athletes suggest that our muscles and cardiovascular systems take longer to recover from strenuous exercise as we get older, which may explain why you probably can't run, lift weights and do cardio kickboxing in the evening and then make it through a 90-minute Bikram "hot yoga" class early the next morning. But don't get frustrated and give up. Instead, plan your rest time between exercise sessions as carefully as you do your workouts. Morrow suggests doing strength training just twice a week early on, so that you have enough recovery time, and then gradually upping the frequency to three times. He also encourages clients to take a week off from exercising every six weeks, and finds that they generally come back stronger and more energetic.
I've found another trick that helps me to lessen soreness, the bane of aging athletes: I sometimes replace running with circuit training -- five or 10-minute increments of stationary cycling or the elliptical trainer, alternated with rope-jumping or calisthenics -- so that I'm not beating up the same muscles with repetitive motions.
6. Be adaptable to the unpredictable.
Inevitably, life gets in the way of your exercise plans, whether the interruption comes from a nasty case of the flu, a family emergency, or a boss who's piling a mountain of work in your inbox. Those are the moments when you're most likely to give up on your fitness resolution, unless you learn to go with the flow. "I have a client who's a pilot," Morrow says. "Say that he takes off from Greensboro to fly to Las Vegas. He's got a course mapped out. But if he encounters a thunderstorm over Nashville, he may have to change direction and fly around it. When he gets back to clear skies, he goes back to the straightforward route. You've got to be prepared for distractions. Don't use them as an excuse."
If you can't get to the gym, for example, take a brisk walk around the block, do a few minutes of Tai Chi, or squeeze in WebMD's quick home workout. That way, you can more quickly catch up when you get back to your regular routine.
If you're looking for some good templates for setting up a long-term fitness plan, you might want to check out the American Council on Exercise's Kick Start program and Men's Fitness magazine's Yearlong Workout. Both of them offer detailed explanations and pictures of specific exercises, as well as routines. Here also is an interesting Science Daily article on a study that shows the benefits of exercise for middle-aged people. A 55-year-old man who can run a mile in eight minutes, researchers say, has just a 10 percent lifetime risk of having a heart attack, compared to the 30 percent risk faced by a subject the same age who needs 15 minutes to cover the same distance.
SecondAct asks: Do you have a fitness plan for 2012? Share your comments.
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