It has always seemed strange to me that people may lavish every attention on their cars, but more often than not neglect the most valuable possession they will ever have: their bodies. We cannot exchange our bodies, unlike our cars, for more recent models, but we can regularly service and fine-tune them, thus ensuring, illness aside, that they remain in good repair for the rest of our lives.

More importantly, the healthier we stay, the more we are likely to get out of life, allowing us to live life to the full. Maintaining good health also helps in avoiding illness and injuries. Fitness generates the confidence that will enable you to handle any situation.

Medical science has demonstrated that if we keep fit and try to maintain a healthy diet, we stand a better chance of living longer and surviving health hazards. In extreme situations, your level of fitness and overall health can make the difference between living and dying.

We are becoming more aware of the stress in our lives. Stress is something which concerns us all. The senior manager and the housewife will experience different types of stress, but the effect will be same. If you suffer from a poor appetite, interrupted sleep, feelings of unease or of not being in control of your life, or just a general lack of confidence, these fitness programmes will help you. Everyone can improve their lifestyle and get greater enjoyment by following a simple fitness programme.

Overall fitness can be broken down into three categories: suppleness, stamina and strength. Younger people will be likely to place emphasis on strength and stamina, while older people may want to spend more time doing suppleness exercises. Nevertheless, a degree of flexibility is important for all of us to have. For example, freedom of movement and joint rotation is especially important in self-defence. Speed and power depend upon a high degree of suppleness. If we begin every exercise programme with a gentle warm-up and a series of stretching exercises, blood starts to flow to the muscles and we help avoid the small muscle tears and strained ligaments caused by sudden explosive movements. Equally, after a vigorous exercise session we must cool down with a series of gentle exercises, thus allowing our bodies to return to normal.

BE CAREFUL: Too much exercise, too soon, can lead to injury. Begin slowly and build up speed and the number of times you repeat the exercise (’repetitions’) gradually. If you have not exercised for some time, start by taking short walks. Start thinking ‘fitness’. Get off the bus one stop before home. Use the stairs instead of taking the lift. Walk to the local shops instead of driving. Do a little exercise every day and you will soon experience the benefit. Do not be put off by the initial discomfort; it is always hard work when you begin. You will soon get into a routine and the aches will disappear as your fitness increases.

REMEMBER: If you start to experience chest-pains, pains shooting up the arms, prolonged breathlessness, sweating or headaches, see your doctor.

Special Training Considerations for Women

The Olympics, modern athletics and military service were all devised by men for men. Women have had a long uphill struggle against male prejudice. As late as the 1960s, the male-dominated medical profession and the various ruling bodies in athletics believed it was dangerous for women to take part in the marathon. It was left to women themselves to change these attitudes. In 1964 the Scottish runner, Dale Grieg, was the first woman to break the three hour 30 minutes barrier, but the authorities sent an ambulance to follow her all the way to the finish line! Three years later, Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon without indicating her sex. She was assumed to be male and turned up at the start-line wearing a hood. Seconds before the start she discarded the hood, revealing her gender. Realising their mistake, the race director and several officials ran after her but were unable to catch her! I can still remember with some embarrassment the time I foolishly joined a keep-fit class run by the local ladies hockey team. All went well for the first twenty minutes as I mockingly exaggerated the movements of the exercises. We then moved on to stretching, and I was still enjoying the music and the attention I was getting from the class, when I was gripped by the worst bout of cramp I have ever experienced. I limped away, complaining of an old rugby injury, amid a fanfare of giggles. Mentally, women are very strong and highly motivated; however, prejudice aside, they are faced with certain anatomical and physiological differences which prevent them from achieving the same power-output as men. These include:

A small heart volume, with cardiac output around 10 per cent lower than an equivalent male.

Approximately a 20 per cent reduction in blood volume for the same body weight. Less of the oxygen carrying blood protein and a 10 per cent reduction in vital capacity. A wider pelvis which increases the angle of the thigh bone and brings the knees closer together. Around 10 per cent more body fat than a man of the same body weight. A shorter Achilles tendon resulting in a diminished elastic recoil when running. A menstrual cycle which imposes its own pressures on a woman’s body and mind, and may diminish overall performance.

This list of differences is put into perspective when we consider that women have won gold medals in all sports and, incidentally, during all of the different phases of their menstrual cycle. In fact, regular exercise and fitness training offer some distinct advantages for women:

Exercise and fitness training have been shown to decrease menstrual pain. Pre-menstrual tension (PMT) can be reduced by regular exercise. Swimming, cycling and aerobic walking are particularly well-suited to pregnancy, and all exercise raises blood oxygen which is very beneficial for the foetus. Exercise can relieve pregnancy-associated problems such as excessive weight gain, constipation, morning sickness and varicose veins. Reduction in the length of labour by some 2% hours in the first phase and 20 minutes in the second phase has been observed in some athletes. o Exercise is ‘anti-depressive’ and elevates mood during pregnancy

However, regular exercise can disrupt the menstrual cycle and menstruation can cease altogether. This is a response to stress and a normal cycle should resume as soon as training is stopped or reduced. If you are worried, speak to your doctor.

Many women continue to exercise during pregnancy but this should be discussed with your doctor. As a general rule, new fitness programmes should never be initiated during pregnancy. Swimming, cycling and walking are better than running. A pregnant woman should never race or run for long periods, since a decreased blood flow to the womb can damage the unborn baby. Equally, she should not allow herself to become overheated, since an elevated body temperature can damage the foetus.

It is important for women to dress correctly when exercising. The breast has no muscles for support; instead, it depends on fibrous tissues which stretch during exercise. Therefore, a fully supportive sports bra is strongly recommended.

Building strength, stamina and overall fitness can lead you to take up challenging outdoor pursuits, such as rock climbing, which revitalise both body and spirit.

Selecting a Gym

It is important to select the right gym or fitness centre. It often pays to visit a number in the area before making your selection. The nearest centre may not be the best one! Here are a few points to help you make the right decision.

The gym should provide instructors with nationally recognised qualifications. A good instructor should demonstrate the exercises, offer support and be constructively critical of your performance, while showing you ways of improving. There should be a pleasant, friendly atmosphere. Lockers should be available to hold clothing and valuables. The club should have good changing and showering facilities and should be spotlessly clean. Floor space is very important for warm-ups and training. There should be at least one area which allows you sufficient freedom of movement. A jaccuzi, sauna or steam room is a nice place to relax after exercise – but do not overdo it! The gym should be well-equipped with exercise machines and free weights. Members of staff should be on hand to organise training and prevent individuals from hogging the machines. o A cafe located in the gym is an advantage. It is a place to have a chat after training and it means you can come straight from work knowing you can get a meal. It is also handy if the gym has a shop where you can buy good, dependable sportswear.

There are other alternatives to health clubs and fitness centres. The YMCA often has excellent facilities and at a fraction of the price of more commercial outlets. Schools and colleges usually offer spacious gyms and some offer training sessions in the evening. Of course, you can always train at home, but lack of space may be a problem. On fine days, you can always use the garden. Self-motivation may be another problem; there are no gym instructors to spur you on! You will have to buy your own sports equipment but this need not be too difficult or expensive. You can rig up some simple exercise machines such as punch bags and speed balls in the garage. Buy a skipping rope. A bench is advisable, ideally with leg extensions and a dip bar. Invest in good quality iron weights. You will need a set of weights that can be secured on a bar or dumb-bell. The set should increase in 1 kg (2lb) increments and consist of 1, 5, 10 15, 20 kg (2, 12, 25, 35 and 45 lb) plates. The weights need good collars that can be changed quickly. Never lift or use weights which are not secured – they can cause serious injuries.

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