No pain, no gain? Getting the most out of exercise
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Staying in shape has all sorts of benefits, from maintaining heart health to warding off dementia and cancer
Inactivity – fuelled by cars and a sedentary work life – has been dubbed the biggest public health problem of the 21st century, a global pandemic with dramatic impact on peoples wellbeing. The latest reports suggest that around the world it was responsible for 5.3 million deaths in 2008 – around one in 10 – more deaths than smoking.
Not only does exercise make you fitter, it can also ward off numerous and often unexpected diseases, from heart attacks, to diabetes, some forms of cancer and dementia. There are tentative signs it might even make you cleverer, by boosting cognitive performance and brain function.
"It's irrefutable that physical activity and exercise are beneficial for health," says sports scientist Chris Easton, at the University of West Scotland.
Latest government guidelines recommend adults under 65 should do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week, in bouts of at least 10 minutes. Worryingly, only a fraction of the population manages even that. In the UK just 14% of adults exercise regularly.
The latest government guidelines prescribe weekly resistant training for all. Is is all strength and no cardio?
Not so. "Lifting weights doesn't conjure up images of something that would change your heart structure," says Easton, "but in actual fact it does. And there is quite good evidence now that resistance training, if it's done in the right way, can be beneficial to cardiovascular health." Easton says that these benefits of weightlifting pretty much follow the same principles as high intensity exercise such as spinning. "Essentially weight training is very high intensity exercise."
Any other benefits?
Strength training has also been shown to help ward off diabetes, arthritis and depression. Resistance training is important for the elderly because it helps to maintain muscle mass.
With the ageing population, one of the big concerns is people getting frail, says Timmons, who is studying weight training with elderly people.
"At 60, you don't tend to die of frailty. If you keep going to 80 then you tend to have weak muscles and bones," he says. "If you fall, lose your balance, fracture – that's very much what drives poor quality of life and mortality."
How much should you do?
The government guidelines on exercise recommend two sessions a week, for instance lifting weights at the gym or merely carrying shopping bags.
Doesn't it also boost your metabolism?
One of the most widely touted benefits is the idea that weight training, keeps your metabolism stocked up for hours after you leave the gym.
Lifting weights could also help boost your metabolic rate – the calories you burn without doing any exercise – just going about your daily business. According to the American Centers for Disease Control, weight training regularly can boost your metabolic rate by as much as 15%.
This is partly to do with replacing fat with muscle, because muscle is a more metabolically active tissue that fat, which means it will burn through more energy just at rest. The more you have the more energy it will consume, plus, you will have to use more energy to carry it around (although the same could also be said for fat of course).
So by having more muscle you automatically burn more calories?
Yes, but how much energy muscle mass burns is often overstated. A common myth is that each kilogram of muscle burns about 100 calories per day, so if you gained, say, 1kg of muscle through weight training you would burn an extra 100 calories a day without needing to lift a finger (plus all the calories you have spent getting the muscles in the first place).
Why not pop in and try our 30 minute circuit and try resistance exercise for yourself
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