Is Your Workout Paying Off?

Is Your Workout Paying Off?

Find out how to diversify your fitness portfolio for long-term gains

Investment-minded people know one of the best ways to strengthen a long-term financial portfolio is to diversify investments. Investing your money in a variety of financial interests can help ensure your money won't disappear in an unpredictable market.

It's easy to think of fitness the same way. Diversify your fitness portfolio now and your health will be less likely to disappear in the future. Exercise variety will help decrease your risk of heart disease, arthritis, disability and even some kinds of cancer. In fact, recent data suggest that regularly engaging in a range of physical activities decreases all-cause mortality rates.

One of the biggest mistakes people make with their exercise program is not including enough variety. Research shows that diversifying your workout routine offers greater payoffs than sticking to the same moves for years on end. That's because exercise variety maximizes benefits and minimizes obstacles to working out, such as injuries, plateaus and boredom.

What's the right mix?
Although your optimal balance of aerobic and strength training may vary slightly, depending on your age, a good rule of thumb is to strive for equal amounts of the two each week, integrating flexibility exercises into every workout.

Although the ratios of the different types of exercise should stay fairly constant, you can add variables to optimize your exercise program and maximize your results. These variables include intensity, frequency, duration and variety within the exercise type.

  • Intensity is measured by the percentage of your maximum heart rate you reach during an activity.
  • Frequency refers to how often you perform an activity.
  • Duration refers to the amount of time spent performing an activity.
  • Variety refers to the number of different exercises you perform for a specific exercise type—for example, the number of different cardiovascular exercises you do or the number of different strength-training exercises you do.

Three sound investments for your fitness portfolio
Make sure your workout is working for you by getting the right mix of flexibility exercises, strength training, and aerobic exercise.

Cardio and aerobic exercise

  • Definition

Aerobic exercise is any activity—walking, running, swimming—that requires sustained movement of the large muscles of your body, such as the thighs, butt, back and chest, for at least 10 minutes. These activities challenge your heart and lungs and keep them healthy. With regular participation, you will be able to sustain longer periods of activity without getting tired.

  • Variety

Don't rely on a single form of cardio exercise, or even two forms. Cycle through several different activities over several weeks to help you avoid overuse injuries and fitness plateaus.

  • Intensity

Researchers recommend working out at 55 percent to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, depending on your age and health. However, where you fall within that range should vary from day to day or week to week. To vary the intensity, add intervals—short bursts of increased intensity—during your workout. For example, add 2 or 3 minutes of running or jogging in the middle of your walks. Or while bicycling, power up a hill. This will help you build endurance and burn more calories.

  • Duration and Frequency

Everyone needs at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week. If you have no physical or medical restrictions, do more for even greater health rewards. Some people must get more than this minimum standard if they are trying to lose weight or are trying to maintain their weight after losing a large amount of weight.

Although cardiovascular exercise remains very important during later years, you should gradually increase either the duration or frequency while decreasing the intensity of your cardio workout. This will reduce your risk of injury while helping you maintain the benefits of cardio exercise. Follow your healthcare provider's advice if you have a medical condition or are exercising for the first time.

Strength training

  • Definition

Strength training is any exercise that involves working against resistance to develop the strength and endurance of muscle groups. Resistance may come from your own body or from equipment such as weight machines, free weights or barbells, a body bar, resistance bands, stability ball, or water. With regular training, resistance exercise will boost bone health, support joints and help boost your aerobic workouts.

  • Variety

Every few weeks, vary the number of repetitions and sets you do and the rest periods between sets. Or, if you usually use weight machines, try free weights or other types of strengthening activities such as exercises that use elastic tubing or your body as resistance. Healthy people should choose 8 to 10 different exercises that involve major muscle groups, performing one set of each exercise 2 to 3 days a week, regardless of age.

  • Intensity

You don't have to break your back to get benefits. Research shows that lighter weight loads and fewer reps can be just as effective at building muscle as heavier loads and higher reps are. Work large muscle groups first, and allow at least 48 hours between strength-training sessions.

  • Duration and Frequency

Aim for a minimum of three 10-minute sessions per week. You may want to devote a larger percentage of your workout to strength training as you get older.

Flexibility and balance

  • Definition

Flexibility training involves low-intensity exercises that increase the total range of motion of a joint or group of joints. Flexibility and balance exercises—which work stability muscles—can decrease the chance for muscle imbalances, which can throw off your body movement and open the door to falls and injuries. Flexibility and balance training also can boost sports performance and make accomplishing everyday tasks easier.

  • Variety

There's more than one way to boost your balance and flexibility. Simple stretches can do the trick when you are short on time. Adding light dumbbells while you stretch can boost the demand on your body if you are fit. Organized exercises such as Pilates, yoga, tai chi and chi-gong (qigong) can help add interest and variety to your flexibility and balance workout. A session with a personal trainer may lead you to more exercises and equipment options for boosting your balance.

  • Intensity

A simple rule of thumb when it comes to intensity is this: If it hurts, stop. Stretching too far beyond your range of motion will not increase your flexibility—it will only cause injury. Use your own comfort level and abilities as your guide. Your muscles and joints should feel loose and tired when you are done, not painful.

  • Duration and Frequency

You should engage in at least two to three sessions per week of balance and flexibility exercises, for a total of at least 60 minutes. Add these workouts to your cardio and strength-training sessions. Although there is no evidence that stretching before activities prevents injury, stretching before or afterward as part of a 5- to 10-minute warm-up and cool-down does have health benefits.

How the three components work together
By altering the variety, intensity, duration and frequency in your aerobic, strength-training, and flexibility workouts, you'll help your body systems work together more efficiently.

The following chart outlines several ways these key exercise areas contribute to your overall health.

Health benefits:
Reduce body fat: Aerobics, Strength Training
Improve heart function: Aerobics, Strength Training
Boost metabolism: Aerobics, Strength Training
Increase bone density: Aerobics, Strength Training
Increase insulin sensitivity: Aerobics, Strength Training

Improve balance: Strength Training, Flexibility
Reduce risk of injury: Strength Training, Flexibility

Improve lung function: Aerobics
Increase muscle mass: Strength Training
Increase range of motion: Flexibility

Keep it fresh
Just as you occasionally review your financial portfolio and assess how well it matches your needs and goals, you should review your workout routine regularly, too. Tweak it to fit your current stage of life and make sure you capitalize on the opportunities each fitness element offers.

Make minor adjustments every couple of weeks or so, and fairly significant changes at least once every 6 months to accommodate your fitness level and needs. Your fitness portfolio deserves at least this much attention; when it comes to health assets, physical fitness is one of the most important investments you can make for your future.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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