This month I will be exploring movement as one of the four pillars of health. In the previous two posts I have covered relaxation and nutrition, as detailed in Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book ‘The 4 Pillar Plan.’ The final post in this series will be on sleep.
I think we all know that movement is good for us, but it can be confusing as to what form that should take and how much to do. Exercise doesn’t need to be extreme to be beneficial, it very much depends on the individual and their current life situation. For one person a run may make them feel good and for another person a yoga session or tai chi may be more beneficial for them.
Be aware that you can have too much of a good thing and that too much exercise can be harmful to health and wellbeing, to the point that some healthcare and fitness professionals advise against extreme endurance activities like marathons. Listen to your body and be guided by it. As a general rule, exercise should make you feel good, if not immediately after, then later that day and over the longer term. If you feel exhausted, not just tired, after a workout, then you have probably overdone it.
In my view, the greater the variety of movements that you engage in, the better, in order to develop and maintain a healthy level of fitness and function in the body. So doing different types of exercise or sport over a week can be healthier than doing the same thing every day. A mix of cardiovascular, resistance and stretching work is ideal, whether in the same workout session or on different days. Cardiovascular exercise is any form of exercise that increases the heart rate and breathing rate to a moderate or intense level for at least 10 minutes. Resistance training involves challenging the muscles by lifting or pulling more weight or resistance than they are used to in order to make, maintain or develop strength and endurance. Stretching the soft tissues helps with the range of motion and flexibility of joints.
Give Your Heart a Workout
You don’t need to take out a gym membership to keep fit. The best way to ensure that you exercise regularly is to make it part of your daily routine. One way of doing that is to walk more, perhaps walking to the shops instead of driving, or leaving your car a mile or so from your office or getting off the bus or train one stop earlier so that you have to walk the rest of the way. Or perhaps schedule a daily walk into each day, ideally in the morning if you can. Walking is a low impact, low intensity form of exercise that is accessible to most people. For more inspiration, I can recommend listening to the podcast interview with Professor Shane O’Mara ‘Why walking is the super power you didn’t know you had.’
If you want to give your heart more of a workout, high intensity interval training (HIT) is an efficient way of doing it. Just 10 minutes of HIT can be as beneficial as an hour of sustained activity. Basically, HIT involves a short period of high-intensity activity (around 40 seconds) followed by a longer period of low-intensity activity (around 80 seconds). That could be walking, running, cycling, swimming or any type of activity you choose. For the high intensity bit, go as fast as you can for 40 seconds, and for the low intensity bit slow down to a moderate pace for 80 seconds, then keep repeating that high/low cycle for 10-15 minutes. Ideally you want to be doing at least two HIT sessions a week. I have noticed that I feel at my best after a HIT session, which is what motivates me to do it even if I find it hard to do at the time.
As Rangan Chatterjee explains in his book, ‘Sarcopaenia is age-related loss of muscle. It's a major public health problem. Once we pass the age of thirty, we begin naturally losing muscle mass. As we get older, the rate of this loss begins to accelerate. This can be significantly detrimental to health. Loss of muscle mass independently predicts mortality. The best way of reversing sarcopaenia is regular strength training.’
Ideally, we should all be doing some form of strength training at least twice a week. That doesn’t need to involve pumping iron at the gym. Although yoga is often thought of as stretching, some yoga positions are strengthening. And slow and gentle as tai chi and qigong are, the shifting of weight from one leg to the other is strengthening, as is balancing all of the body weight through one leg. If you do not already incorporate strength training in your weekly routine, you may find this five-minute kitchen workout practicable. Back pain can be linked to weak gluteal muscles, so exercises like these to strengthen the glutes can help to prevent or treat back pain.
Yoga, tai chi and qigong are excellent traditional forms of exercise that involve stretching and would be a good introduction to that type of movement if you don’t already incorporate some form of stretching activity into your weekly routine. I plan to talk more about stretching in a future blog post, so I won’t go into any more detail about it here.
To end, I just wanted to flag up that movement is not just about the body, it is about engaging the mind as well. When you are exercising try to focus in on how your body is moving and how it feels. Tai chi and qigong are known as internal martial arts, because they involve paying mindful attention whilst moving in order to connect fully with the body. In comparison, external martial arts like judo involve fast powerful moves.
You can practise any physical activity mindfully. I really enjoy concentrating on my technique when I am running, swimming or cycling, focusing on one point at a time for a few seconds or minutes. And sometimes it is good just to let the movement flow naturally without thinking about it at all and to just notice how that feels.
During lockdown I am running my qigong classes online, so do get in touch on 07528 708650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in trying this form of movement.