Just like starting over

  • Health
  • Sunday, 13 Jun 2004

TALK is easy; taking action can be quite difficult. Even if the body is willing, time may not permit many of us to exercise, or so we believe. This is the case in many urban centres around the world. Take Britain for example.  

According to BBC Health, a survey carried out by Men's Health (UK) magazine and the British Department of Trade and Industry suggests that long working hours are preventing many men from exercising regularly.  

Almost half of the 4,000 men questioned in the poll said they would probably work better if they could exercise more often. Some 71% said their failure to strike a balance between life and their job was affecting their performance at work. Just over half of the men questioned said regular exercise improved their productivity. Almost two out of three said it helped to improve their energy levels at work. Slightly more believed it boosted their self-esteem and gave them more confidence in meetings.  

Exercise, however, should not be viewed as something that should be carried out in a specific setting within a structured framework, for example a gym. It can be incorporated into our daily lives. We can take the stairs instead of the lift; park the car further away from the supermarket and walk; go for a morning jog before work; stretch and do simple exercises in the comfort of the office – if there's a will, there's a way. 

Maybe some of us are lazy. Even if that's the case, we should ask ourselves: “How little can we get away with?” 

There are many of us who need to be in good shape because of job requirements. For the rest of us, it's about keeping healthy, and exercise doesn't have to be torture. It doesn't have to be gut-wrenching, high intensity, boring workouts, complete with the latest in designer sportswear.  

It can be as simple as A, B, C. 

A – frequency 

How often should you do it? The Malaysian Health Ministry says at least three times a week, 30 minutes each time. The US Centres for Disease Control recommends that all adults should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on five or more days of the week.  

The International Consensus Conference on Physical Activity Guidelines for Adolescents (Sallis et al., 1994) recommends that all adolescents should be physically active daily, or nearly every day, as part of play, games, sports, recreation, physical education, and so on, and that they should engage in three or more sessions per week of activities that last 20 minutes or more at a time and that require moderate to vigorous levels of exertion.  

For elementary school-aged children, they should have at least 30 to 60 minutes of age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate physical activity from a variety of activities on all, or most, days of the week. Some of the child's activity each day should be in periods lasting 10 to 15 minutes or more and include moderate to vigorous activity. This activity will typically be intermittent in nature, alternating moderate to vigorous activity with brief periods of rest and recovery.  

B – intensity 

Exercise intensity can be measured in a number of ways. Generally, the higher the oxygen uptake, the higher the exercise intensity. In a lab, it can be measured through gas analysis, looking at oxygen uptake and usage. In the gym it can be measured using a heart rate monitor, which records the heart rate at different workloads. When you're jogging, you can simply take your pulse.  

The beauty of exercise intensity measurement is that it's so simple – it can be described as either strenuous, moderate or mild. What constitutes a strenuous, moderate or mild exercise workload will depend on a person's state of health and fitness. For the average person, in reasonable health, examples of light intensity activities include walking slowly, swimming, slow treading, gardening, cycling with very light effort and dusting.  

Moderate-intensity activities include walking briskly, recreational swimming, playing tennis (doubles), cycling at 5-9mph and scrubbing floors or washing windows.  

Vigorous-intensity activities include race walking, jogging or running, swimming laps, tennis (singles) and cycling more than 10 mph. 

C – duration 

According to the most recent research, this is about 30 minutes on each of the five days a week you are exercising. 

At first this might sound like a lot of time, but don't forget that the intensity is mild to moderate. So this does not mean that you have to jog or do strenuous aerobics for 30 minutes. It simply means that you have to build up to be able to walk for half an hour.  

So now we know it's about frequency, intensity and duration. What type of physical activity can we take up? It all depends on what we're trying to achieve. That's where the components of fitness come into the picture. 

Cardiovascular fitness 

When we talk about cardiovascular health, probably the first thing that comes to mind is aerobics. But it's not the only from of activity that can increase cardiovascular fitness. Basically, anything that gets you working hard enough that the heart is beating faster than at rest will do, and the activity uses large number of muscle groups for a duration of at least 20 minutes.  

An ideal intensity level would be somewhere between 60% and 75% of your maximum heart rate. How do you work maximum heart rate? This is based on a person's age. An estimate of a person's maximum age-related heart rate can be obtained by subtracting the person's age from 220. For example, for a 50-year-old person, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 - 50 years = 170 beats per minute (bpm). The 60% and 75% levels would be 102 and 127.  

Muscular strength/endurance 

Recent studies have shown that strength training is especially useful for older people because it helps preserve bone and muscle mass. After the age of 40, most of us lose some amount of muscle every year (about one-third of a pound). Strength training can slow or even reverse muscle loss. 

Activities that help with muscular strength/endurance are defined as those in which we lift a heavy object eight to 10 times with muscles contracting – lifting weight at the gym, for example.  

In general, if you can lift the weight eight to 10 times before becoming overly fatigued, then that is a good strengthening exercise. The weight doesn't have to be heavy. A 0.5kg or 1kg barbell could be used. If you can lift the weight, say, 15 or 20 times, then a heavier weight should be used. Do this two to three times a week to get a significant benefit.  

Remember, strength training does not equate bodybuilders. The purpose here is to build up strength to help you in your daily activities. 


Flexibility exercises should be part of any good aerobic or strength training programme. During a warm up or a cool down, you should stretch your muscles. With the elderly in particular, balance training exercises can actually improve coordination and reduce the likelihood of falls. 

At the end of the day, it's all about finding the right physical activity, one that suits your schedule and one that brings you pleasure. As a rule of thumb, activities that increase cardiovascular fitness is the most important for young and middle-aged adults because it helps with weight control and cardiovascular health. For those in the late 40s or 50s, strengthening exercises become equally important. 

However, by the 70s and beyond, strengthening exercises become even more important than aerobic activity.  

This is because strengthening exercises help reduce frailty, reduce the risk of falls and can help people maintain their independence.  

Reference: US Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity and health: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; 1996. 

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