Listen to Your Body for Exercise Success

It is a new year and also a new decade, a time when many people will resolve to start exercising. Whether your goal is to drop a few pounds or to finish a local 5K run/walk, the best approach for your aerobic fitness plan is to start easy and make gradual increases in your exercise duration, intensity and frequency. Sounds like the usual eye-rolling advice doesn't it? Unfortunately it is important for many people to hear this message. It is not uncommon for people with great intentions to do too much too soon and end their exercise quest injured and discouraged. Some want to "get in shape fast", following the "no pain no gain" approach. We all know that getting out there and exercising is good for us, but there is usually too much "guesswork" involved in how to do it safely.

To help guide you in your aerobic exercise planning, use the FITT acronym:

The Frequency of your exercise should be 3 to 5 days a week. Consistency is the most important aspect of staying healthy and fit, so plan your exercise and activity at the start of each week, write it down and commit to it, you will be more likely to stay with it. Note that I am not advising 7 days a week, take a couple of well-earned days off.

Exercise Intensity is the area of the most uncertainty, many think that "if a little exertion is good, then a lot must be better". Simply put, if you exercise hard or very hard every time you lace up the shoes, something is going to eventually give, and I've yet to see anyone beat the treadmill. So rather than to push too hard and invite injury, consider the "Talk Test", a simple yet effective method to monitor your intensity level. If you can carry on a fairly comfortable conversation while walking, jogging or cycling for instance, then you are passing the "Talk Test". However, if you are very short of breath and having trouble speaking a complete sentence without gasping for breath, then you are working too hard and should slow down.

The amount of Time you exercise should range between a minimum of 20 minutes as a starting goal and extend up to 60 minutes as your fitness level improves. Keep in mind that ANY activity or exercise is good, even if it is for 10 minutes at a time, it beats being sedentary and sitting around. If you can manage a 15 minute walk at lunch on a workday and another 15 minutes walking the dog in the evening, then great! When starting your exercise routine, you should build your duration of exercise first, and increase speed/intensity levels later. This will be more enjoyable and reduce your chances of injury.

Lastly, the Type of exercise should be aerobic in nature, meaning rhythmic, continuous and using large muscles. Perfect examples are walking, cycling, rowing, swimming or using equipment such as elliptical trainers or recumbent cycles. You should choose activities that agree with your body, meaning, if walking hurts your knees, maybe cycling or swimming are better choices. Choose activities that you enjoy, and try to find workout partners. A walking or cycling club, family or friends to workout with at the gym or local Wellness Center will help the time fly by and hold you to your routine. These partners are called "time compressors" as they help the time fly by.

These are guidelines to consider, don't worry if you have a busy week and manage only two workouts, sometimes I like to say "life gets in the way" of our fitness plans. Just try to commit to meeting your goals the next week. Above all, exercise should be simple, enjoyable and invigorating. Remember to use common sense; if something hurts then don't do it, find an alternative exercise. This is called listening to your body and is very wise, ignoring discomfort and plowing ahead is not.

I'll conclude by suggesting a great cool weather activity here in northeast Florida. Seek out some local hiking trails, pack your lunch and go. Temperatures are comfortable and there are no bugs, but the migrating birds are abundant, so bring your binoculars. The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, formally known as Guana State Park, is on A1A north of Vilano Beach and is a perfect place for such an outing. It has over 9 miles of well-marked trails and a scenic overlook of the Tolomato River. Talk about a nice long duration, moderate intensity activity! Get out there and enjoy.

Scott Hayford, MS, is the Manager of the Flagler Hospital Wellness Center in St. Augustine. The Wellness Center offers Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Wellness Programs.