Health & Fitness

Many of you now think you are faced with three exercise choices, all three unsatisfactory to many people:

  • Do it in the snow,
  • Do it in the gym, or
  • Buy some big, expensive machine and cram it somewhere it doesn't fit. (The best place to put it is usually beside the washer and dryer, because all it's likely to get used for is hanging clothes!)
  1. If you like winter sports, great. Stop reading this, go whip up some of the great recipes at this site, stuff yourself, and hit the road to Endorphinesville and Health City. But realize that no one's going to create playtime for you; carving it out of the same 168 hours we all get in each week is up to you. Your health, longevity, and vitality are in your own hands.
  2. Unless you're too cheap, broke, remote, or disorganized to go to a gym, it is a great place to exercise. If your objection is self-consciousness, just visit a gym and observe. Most people in most gyms are scrawny or overweight, old and/or out of shape - or were until recently. You and I belong there as surely as sinners belong in church.
  3. If you really want a real home gym set (as opposed to those mail-order infomercial gimmicks for your abs, thighs, kneecaps, eyebrows, or little fingers), have the space and money for it, and know from experience that you will cover it in sweat rather than laundry, buy it. Just be aware that some of those cheap cable-and-weight-plate gym sets have enough friction to impair your workout. The Bowflex is an excellent system, but expensive when new and hard to find used; the really good plate-weight machines often cost even more; and both take up quite a bit of space. At least you can roll the Bowflex into a corner ... a big corner. But even buyers of the top-of-the-line Bowflex, at about $1500, still benefit from the addition of some $5 barbells for some exercises.

None of those three choices is necessary even for people fairly serious about their exercise. You can set up a very sound home "gym" for a few bucks which will do all you really need to stay in great shape and stores in a cardboard box. Got a 2 X 4? A milk crate or small one-step stool? A door? A wall? A floor? A wall mirror to monitor your form while exercising and stretching? A mat or throw rug to cushion you and the floor and keep your sweat off the carpet? Congratulations; you have a good home gym. Heavy metal is just icing on the cake, and even that can cost well under a hundred bucks.

Most strength-building exercise depends on one fundamental principle: pick something up, put it down. Pick it up, put it down. Pick it up, put it down. Whether it's construction materials, dirt, boxes filling your garage, your own body, furniture, iron weights, elastic bands or springs, or snow in your or an impaired neighbor's driveway ... you pick it up, put it down, and repeat. You'll be amazed at how good it will make you feel and look; how satisfied you will be with the projects you complete (including your own health and physique); how many thousands of dollars you save in hired labor, snow blowers, gym fees, life insurance and medical costs; how much better you will sleep; and how quickly your pile of video-taped favorite TV shows will shrink. Strength training remains the safest, surest, most effective way to control -- maybe even eliminate -- a weight problem (too much or not enough) and its inherent threats. The older you are and the worse your physical conditioning, the more quickly and noticeably you will benefit. The strength training essentials -- such as gravity -- are mostly free, and will allow most people to exercise and stretch all the muscles they would bother with even if they bought a fancy home gym or joined a gym and actually used it regularly. The free equipment might include cans, a hammer, a mat or throw rug, TV or tunes, a 2x4, a low step or your stairs, and jugs of water (2, 4, and 8-pound weights). Things that may cost a few bucks include a doorway chin-up bar, that mat or throw rug, an exercise book and a stretching book, and maybe an exercise video. For a few more dollars, a few dumbbells and elastic exercise bands made for working out would make some exercises more simple and effective. This whole "gym" awaits you at Walmart or Sears, will take up less space than a respectable dog, and doesn't shed, eat, bark, drool, or poop.

Your next requirement is some knowledge. Without it, you can omit important exercises or even do harm. The basic home workout principles at http://www.soyouwanna.com/site/syws/homeworkout/homeworkout.html may help motivate you towards simple workouts. Karen Voight's fitness site at http://thriveonline.oxygen.com/fitness/experts/karen/space.html will teach you a great deal about home (and office and travel) exercising. She has impressive credentials and a very thorough, user-friendly website. I guarantee you will benefit from your first five minutes at her site, especially from its answers to hundreds of searchable questions.

Your next question may best be answered at http://www.exercisevideosreviews.com/. It critiques many exercise books and videos. Many strength-training books not oriented towards competitive body building include dozens of exercises requiring no equipment and many more requiring less than $50 in dumbbells or elastic exercise bands. [ http://www.nellies.com/maxxband.html is one of many sources for elastic sports bands Google returned from the keywords, "elastic bands".] "Weight Training for Dummies" provides excellent coverage of a very wide range of principles, tips, and techniques, and "Getting in Shape" is a very good weight training and stretching book from the stretching guru, Anderson (Shelter Press). Any fitness book that changes your lifestyle is worth thousands of times its price.

Don't get caught up in the technical details and debates you'll find in some brand-name exercise equipment websites. For your objectives, the physiological differences between different forms of resistance training are not that important. You just want to get off the couch and start lifting something. The best program for you is any program you will pursue consistently.

Your objectives are improved strength, endurance, and/or tone in most of your muscles. You should include at the very least your heart, abs, butt, chest, and shoulders plus your upper and lower legs, back, and arms. Aerobic exercise takes care of the heart; exertion against resistance (e.g., gravity, machines, elastic bands, weights, springs) takes care of the rest.

The basic concepts of home strength workouts are simple:

  1. Lay down the throw rug or mat.
  2. Get on it.
  3. Slowly lift something against the force of gravity. Slowly put it down. The cycle should take 8-9 seconds. Repeat. If you can't do eight, lift less weight. If you can do fifteen, lift something heavier during the next session.
  4. Repeat step #3 with a different muscle, until you run out of muscles. Exercise each muscle two or three days a week, separated by a couple of days. That means two or three head-to-toe sessions or four to six half-body sessions a week, always giving any specific muscle a couple of days between workouts.

Add at least 12 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise, preferably as a warm-up to your workout. Run in place, dance like mad to some great music, jump rope, walk up and down the stairs or step on and off a low stool with alternating feet ... anything that elevates your heart and breathing noticeably and continuously. Huffing and puffing breathlessly is overkill and counterproductive in a general fitness program.

Although some medical or exercise books or tapes may help motivate you to exercise, no book, gadget, or video will directly increase your physical condition. Only your own physical effort will achieve that. The next steps are yours.

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