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Faster, stronger, more endurance

By Lisa Ziegel

Setting performance goals (even if you're not an athlete)

If you have been exercising for some time, good for you! You are probably enjoying the results of your hard work because you are feeling more energized, enjoying better sleep, and maybe you've also toned up, gained strength and lost inches and weight! You probably did not set out to be a record-setting athlete, lift huge amounts of weight, or run a marathon, so enhancing your "performance" was not a priority at the time. But however reluctant you are to accept it, you really are an athlete just for doing what you do every day. Whether it's caring for, playing and keeping up with young children, doing housework or yard work, moving furniture, or running to catch a bus, these are activities that require more than a passing level of fitness: They require you to be in your best "performance" condition. Much of what you already do is adequate for these purposes, but what if you want to feel even better, lose more weight, improve your strength and endurance, and continue to be strong and fit to continue your daily "performances" as you age? The answer may be in training a little harder (but not necessarily longer), lifting a bit heavier, increasing your walking pace to a run or jog, and investing in some injury-preventing movement screening and corrective exercise.

A study conducted in Wisconsin suggests that moderate-effort exercises burn fewer calories by as much as 170 per hour than vigorous-effort exercises. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), you are exercising vigorously if your heart rate is 70 to 90 of your maximum heart rate and at a moderate intensity if it is at 55 to 69 percent. Obviously, burning 170 more calories can have a positive effect on weight loss, if that is the goal. The drawback is that the perceived level of exertion of the exerciser comes into play, and not everyone finds reaching outside his or her comfort zone all that pleasant. This may be influenced somewhat by genetics and also by fear of the unknown. Those who possess these qualities may lack confidence that they can take their workouts into another level -- they are afraid to fail. However, change is essential to maintaining a healthy, progressive fitness program. After all, if someone has worked hard to achieve a base level of fitness, maximizing this and embracing his or her potential can only be more rewarding! Here are some steps you can take to start reaching a higher level of fitness and how to overcome common fears and apprehensions:

  • Get "Movement-screened"
    One of the major fears and a valid one – is that by exercising at a higher intensity, the risk for injury increases. This has been seen in statistics, and particular caution must be used when recommending new levels of exercise to older adults. One way to ease this transition is to be assessed prior to engaging in activity and screened for imbalances that could lead to injury if left unchecked. Examples of typical areas of concern include leg-length discrepancies, which can either be structural and thus hard to treat or can occur as a result of tightness in muscles surrounding the hip/pelvic girdle, in which case can be corrected. Or the pectoral muscles could be tight, which could lead to rotator cuff injuries unless the proper stretching/strengthening protocol is administered, (which is known as "corrective exercise"). This could be a complicated process. There are standard screening methods that can be used so, of course, working with a professional trained to help with this would be a good idea. "Functional Movement Systems" is a network of professionals who perform these assessments and offer a directory of experts who are located throughout the world. There are also books and DVDs available to help you determine your own issues and give instructions on helping you overcome them. You could also try discussing this with your physician, podiatrist, or orthopedic specialist.
  • Start slowly and build up!
    Of course it is assumed that you have already been maintaining at least a moderate level of activity (50-70% of heart rate maximum) for 150 minutes throughout a week's time for at least 6-8 weeks. To add intensity, increase your heart rate but keep the duration the same or less. This is more desirable than adding more time and frequency to the workout. Incorporating shorter bouts of higher-intensity exercise mixed in with moderate can help ease discomfort. Start with 3-5 minutes of high intensity alternating with the same amount of time under moderate level in bouts of 3-5 per workout.
    For resistance training, the benefits of increasing weight loads are many, beginning with increased muscle mass, lower body fat, stronger bone density, increased energy and performance of daily activities. Definitions of repetitions and weight loads that are useful for building strength as determined by the ACSM are 8–12 repetitions per set 1-3 sets per exercise; however, lower repetitions with a heavier weight (6–8) can further improve strength. Due to risk of injury in older and/or frail participants, higher repetitions to volitional fatigue would be recommended (10-15 RM). RM, or repetition max, refers to the maximal number of times a load can be lifted before fatiguing using good form and technique. While any weight overload will result in strength development, heavier resistance lifted to maximal or near maximal limits will significantly build strength and muscle and will result in the exerciser enjoying the ability to lift heavy objects in daily life (children, boxes when moving, furniture, etc.) without having to exert as much effort. One benefit that I hear about often (and is especially important as airlines' checked-baggage fees have gone up, resulting in carry-ons being packed fuller, thus increasing their weight) is that it is easier to handle luggage in the upper storage compartment in airplanes. Now this comes in really handy!

Consider stepping out of your comfort zone a little at a time. Use professional help and proven guidelines to make sure you stay safe and keep progressing or changing your program when it becomes too easy or fails to stimulate you (physically or mentally). When you lose the fear of trying something new, the potential for physical change is endless. You might be surprised to find you are stronger than you think. When you improve your physical performance, you are better prepared for the "athletic event" that is life!