Fitness: Exercise Your Options
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Fitness: Exercise Your Options

Pump up your daily routine and get fit for life.

Why Exercise?

Imagine This... Hike Kauai's rugged Na Pali Coast? Of course! You wouldn't want to miss those views. Help out with your groceries? No thanks, you can handle it -- even when you buy bleach and kitty litter. Sit out a jungle gym play date with your favorite 5-year-old? You wouldn't think of it -- and now you know you won't pay for it later with sore muscles. How'd you get so fit? Once you realized exactly what your body needed, the many ways you could satisfy those minimum fitness requirements, and how much better you felt when you gave your body what it craved, you found it surprisingly simple to ring the recess bell regularly and get a little exercise. Feel like getting fit for your life? You can do it!

The Payoffs

  • Sanity. In addition to stress management and mood enhancement, the expert you're about to meet loves the way exercise lets her busy mind "go blank." While some think deep thoughts and get bright ideas, many also make movement a meditative experience.
  • Let's talk about me. Many of us look forward to our exercise time because it's practically the only time that's completely our own.
  • Health. Heart, lungs, bones -- exercise is good for every part of our bodies, including the reproductive system (easier periods and pregnancies, increased libido).
  • Weight management. Exercising solely to achieve some pie-in-the-sky body standard isn't any fun, but workouts help many of us eat more of what we like (including pie!) while maintaining a healthy body weight.

From the book: YOU CAN DO IT!, The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls, by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, (c) 2005 (Used with permission of Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, CA,

Meet Your Mentor

Sarah Bowen Shea

What She Does: A freelance health and fitness writer, Sarah writes often for publications including Real Simple, Shape, SELF, Living Fit, and Parenting (she has a 3-year-old daughter). She runs, swims, does Pilates, works out at a gym, and has completed several marathons, triathlons, and adventure races.

Why She Does It: "My dad always said, 'Let your avocation be your vocation,' and I think I'm successful writing about health, fitness, and athletics because I actually do what I write about. That said, I wasn't much of a jock when I was an editor at City Sports. In fact, when I was getting ready to do a century (100 mile) bike ride, an event where something called a 'sag wagon' picks up the exhausted, my supportive coworkers said 'sag' stood for 'Sarah's a goner'! My family was all about reading, and I didn't really get exposed to sports as a kid. I'm also really tall and was kind of uncoordinated, so I always felt dorky in P.E. class. I accidentally got into crew in college. The crew coach sent me a note -- which I'm sure he did to everyone five foot ten and over -- and because I wanted to get into the school, I went for it and wound of up loving it.

Word from the Wise: "When I'm going up a hill or pushing out a heavy rep, I always tell myself that this tough or maybe even slightly unpleasant moment is just a moment. I felt fine five minutes ago and will again in another five. Workouts have taught me that, and I remember it in every aspect of life -- when something goes wrong in my work or even with things like my first husband leaving me. We are all a lot stronger than we think we are."

Badge Steps

1. Take an honest look at your health.

The goal of this badge is to help you understand -- and get -- the exercise you need for overall health. We'll give you the minimum weekly requirements that support your heart, bone, muscle, and mood health (and which can jump-start your efforts on personal goals like weight loss, sport performance, cholesterol management, etc.). To assess your current fitness, a good personal trainer (see Sarah's Fitness-Savvy Tips) would recommend you do the following:

  • Check in with your doctor and let her know that you're planning an exercise program. This is especially important if you haven't exercised in years, are considerably overweight, or have chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or lung problems. Your doc may suggest specific dos and don'ts based on your health issues. Ask for a blood pressure reading.
  • Get to know your heart rate. Take your pulse at rest. (With your index and middle fingers, find your pulse on the underside of your wrist. Count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply the number by four.) Then take your pulse after exertion. Jog in place, jump rope, or climb steps for two minutes, rest for a minute, and then take your pulse again. (We'll talk more about your target heart rate while exercising.)
  • Can you touch your toes? Do a push-up or sit-up? (How many without pause?)

Dedicate a new notebook to your fitness plan and note your answers to the above -- blood pressure, pulse rates, etc.

2. Get to know your fitness needs.

Depending on your overall fitness levels and specific health issues, the training you'll need to get into tiptop shape will most likely include:

Cardio. Thirty minutes, five to six days a week. Cardio training is often accomplished with one of the -ing words -- walking, biking, swimming, jogging -- but an activity you enjoy more (see Step 3) could provide your cardio, as long as it gets your heart rate up to 60-80 percent of your maximum. Your max heart rate is 220 minus your age. So if you're forty, that's a max heart rate of 180, and a good target workout rate would be 108-144. Take your pulse while exercising, wear a heart monitor (available at sporting goods stores), or give yourself the talk test. Sarah says you should be working (that's why it's called a workout) but still able to carry on a conversation. Regular cardio activity will not only make you look and feel better, it provides some long-term health benefits (see Give Me One Good Reason!).

Strength. Fifteen to 20 minutes, twice a week. Strength training involves resistance and includes plenty of things you can do at home (leg lifts, push-ups, ab crunches, lifting free weights, using exercise bands or balls). Strength training helps prevent weak bone breakage and osteoporosis. Bonus: Strength training activities boost your metabolism.

Flexibility. Five to 10 minutes, three to four times a week. Some activities, like yoga, build in stretching, but if your preferred activity doesn't, stretch for a few minutes before and after your cardio and strength routines. Slowly and gently stretch out your hamstrings before a walk or run, extend your arms overhead and side-to-side before lifting weights, etc. While simple to do, gentle stretching is part of a sound overall fitness routine because flexibility helps prevent everyday aches and pains and exercise-related injuries.

In your notebook, jot down your current fitness activities. Note things like the brisk 10-minute walks you take to the bus each morning -- they count! Brainstorm ways you can maximize the impact of what you already do and what activities you could add.

Evaluate your fitness strengths and needs.

More Badge Steps

3. Pump up your daily routine.

If you can't imagine finding 20- to 30-minute chunks of time in your schedule for workouts (or if you feel like calling a paramedic after exerting yourself for this length of time!), know that studies show that several 10-minute periods (the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee or write an e-mail) are more than fine. Also know that we find the time and energy for activities we genuinely enjoy (don't force yourself to jog if you hate it) and that some activities satisfy more than one fitness requirement. (Yoga is strength and flexibility; tennis and rowing are cardio and strength.) Augment your current activities with at least one new activity to create a regimen that fulfills the fitness requirements outlined in Step 2.

Pick a fitness kick.

4. Schedule it.

Get out your calendar for the coming month. Go over the requirements spelled out in Step 2, then highlight times when you'll meet those cardio, strength, and stretching requirements by doing the activities you've outlined in Step 3 (three different colored highlighter pens are ideal for this). Spell out what you'll do in those highlighted time slots. Write down dance class, not just cardio -- and call to register for the class. Make dates with the friend you'd like to walk with, put air in your bicycle tires, rent the movies you'll distract yourself with as you do your free weights routine, etc. Get to it, and don't forget to stretch! A typical week might look something like this:

Sunday. Family bike ride or hike, one hour (one cardio, one strength).

Monday. Yoga class at lunch, 45 minutes (one strength).

Tuesday. Walk briskly to work, or to distant bus stop in each direction, 40 minutes (one cardio).

Wednesday. Crunches, push-ups, etc., while watching favorite TV show, 30 minutes (one strength).

Thursday. Walk/run errands at lunch time, 45 minutes (one cardio).

Friday. Evening jog with neighbor, 30 minutes (one cardio).

Saturday. Yard and housework in the morning and swing dancing at night, one hour total (one cardio).

Exercise physiologists say it takes six months for a new habit to take root, but Sarah assures us that "most people are going to notice some kind of positive change -- more energy, better sleeping, having more patience -- in 10 days to two weeks." Sticking with your program may help you reap the benefits, but feel free to make adjustments to activities, playmates, and times of day to prevent boredom. To keep the benefits coming, increase the duration, frequency, or intensity of what you are doing when a cardio workout no longer sets your heart aflutter.

Get your fitness requirements for a month, and log your activities in your notebook. Now answer the fitness assessment questions in Step 1 again -- see what a difference a month can make?!

Feel great about feeling fit!

CONGRATULATIONS! Your inner job is on the move. You did it!

More Tips and Pointers

Success stories from other women who have dared to dream.

I Did It!

"When I was a teenager, I stumbled across a book on weight lifting for women. This was in the late '70s, way before we all went nuts for Linda Hamilton's arms in The Terminator. The book was for everyday folks, not competitive lifters, and let you use soup cans and jugs of bleach as weights. But I loved how serious dumbbells made me feel, even though my family thought I was nuts! More than 20 years later, I still use weights at home several times a week. The best thing about weights is that you see results quickly -- and while I know I'm doing something good for my bones, I have to admit that I do it more for how good it makes my muscles look." -- Vanessa

Walking Tall

The best exercise is right at your feet.

"Walking is a perfectly legitimate form of exercise for beginners and the more advanced alike. You don't have to drive to a gym or pool or buy any fancy equipment (other than comfy and supportive shoes). You can make walking enjoyable in so many ways -- by exploring new settings or walking with friends, for instance. You can do it just about anytime and anywhere -- on your lunch break, by walking instead of 'running' errands, first thing in the morning to jump-start your brain and body or at the end of the day to unwind. You can start walking at any age and keep doing it as you age. And you can build in challenges by walking faster, seeking out -- rather than avoiding -- hills, or incorporating jogging intervals." -- Sarah

Fitness Faux Pas

"It was one of those New Year's resolutions: I was going to go to the gym three days a week for two hours each time, no matter what! I joined a gym, bought workout clothes I wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen in -- and made it to the gym three times in three months! What was I thinking? I much prefer playing sports outdoors, and with a little help from a couple of visits with a personal trainer, I've also figured out quick and simple things I can do each day in between my weekends of tennis and hiking. I thought you had to go the gym to get fit, but though many of my friends love their workouts there, it's just not for me." -- Katie

Log Your Jogs

And notice your progress!

When Sarah started working out as a teen (to those Jane Fonda aerobic albums and clipped-out magazine articles like "Six Moves to a Better Butt"), she kept a log of her activities: "Did Jane, 30 minutes," "Ran around the reservoir twice." Knowing you get to make such an entry makes the effort easier. Writing down what you do also motivates you to push yourself. It's great fun to note that you walked that mile faster than last week, added another loop around your block, managed three more sit-ups or another bicep curl. For all these reasons, keeping such a diary is especially helpful at the outset of an exercise program.

Give Me One Good Reason

Here are three:

  • Cardiovascular disease is the cause of death for more than 40 percent of American women. Cardio exercise fights this, as well as lowering blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol, and reducing the risk of diabetes and some cancers.
  • Weak bones break more easily and develop osteoporosis; strength training fights this.
  • Everyday aches and pains, not to mention more serious injuries, restrict us. Stretching fights these things.

Your Likes and Dislikes

Make exercise personal and fun by taking the following into consideration.

  • What exercise plans have you tried in the past that didn't stick?
  • Was there something that kept you active as a kid (or at another point in your life) that you miss?
  • What do you already do that is so fun that it doesn't feel like exercise? (Swing dancing is cardio!)
  • Do you want to be alone or be in a group or on a team?
  • Do you like to be outdoors or do you feel, like Fran Leibowitz, that "the outdoors is what you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab"?
  • Do you feel like a fish in water?
  • Does music keep you moving?

Advice from the Expert

Sarah's Fitness Savvy Tips

  • Set personal and attainable goals -- a lower heart rate, a bit of definition in your upper arms, being able to keep up with your toddler at play, doing a charity walk, skiing better, etc.
  • Effective workouts aren't about "no pain, no gain," but do entail pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Learn to listen to your body while exercising. You know the difference between discomfort and pain, and unless you are having a sharp, shooting pain or can't speak for lack of breath, you are probably doing something that's good for you when you push the exercise envelope.
  • Personal trainers can be a wonderful resource. They can help you reach goals, make friends with the mystery machines at a gym, motivate you to push yourself, and teach you new moves that can help keep you interested and surmount plateaus. Remember that you don't have to make a lifelong commitment; many women work with a trainer for three to five sessions when beginning or just setting out to reinvigorate their routine.