The following is a real letter from an actual reader.
I am not fit. I am not athletic. I am not strong. My body has never been my friend in this regard. I’m not exactly clumsy, but I’m not really coordinated either. I have rhythm since I’m musically talented, but I can’t dance.
I’ve just never enjoyed physical activity. Even as a child it was not easy for me. Since I’ve been slender all my life I never had to worry about my weight. However, I’m now approaching 40 and things are changing. I have noticed a small gain, mostly around my middle. Let’s just say I couldn’t fit into my wedding dress anymore. Ugh. (Though I have birthed three children — that’s gotta count for something.)
FFG, the truth is, I haven’t got the foggiest idea where to begin regarding exercise. Exercise looms like a fire-breathing dragon, like Mt. Everest in my path, and I am paralyzed with fear. My body is weak, my muscles are tight and sore, and my joints are swollen and painful because I have rheumatoid arthritis. I know I need to strengthen my body, not just to lose weight, but for my well-being and the health of my bones and muscles. I know that. But as I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea how to start.
What would you advise a poor, pathetic soul such as me to do? Yoga? Walking? Wii Fit? (No running, please. Knees can’t do it.) Weights? Could be a problem if my hands are very stiff. Some days are better than others.
Am I beyond hope now that I’m almost 40? Is it too late now to begin physical fitness after a life of sedentary-ness?
I know a fitness goddess like yourself is probably disgusted with a sloth like me, but have pity. If FFG wishes to answer me publicly, that’s okay. Your kindness and expertise are appreciated.
Dear Unfit Girl,
I am not disgusted with you. In fact, I love you for using the word “sedentary-ness.” That’s so FFG. And while I may claim to be a super hero, I’m no fitness goddess. I’m just a 40-something girl who happens to enjoy exercise, reads up on the latest fitness news and has access to Google (which always makes me look smarter than I really am). Not only will I answer your question, but I’ve called in my Partner in Wellness: Sarah from All Pain, No Gain.
Together with Debbie from Heart Choices, we’ve been fighting fat and slashing “sedentary-ness” each and every Fitness Friday for months now. Surely, between the two of us, you will find all the motivation and estrogen you need to get started–tight and revealing superhero costumes notwithstanding.
First off, let me just say, I completely understand why fitness has not been a priority to you. Being thin probably gave you the illusion that you didn’t need to exercise since you didn’t need to lose weight. Add to that, your rheumatoid arthritis, and the thought of “hurting for no reason” didn’t actually appeal to you. Who would blame you?
Well, there are many reasons to get fit aside from losing weight, as you already stated in your letter:
It will strengthen your muscles and your bones.
It will reduce your risk of just about every kind of cancer.
It will increase your life span.
It will improve your cardiovascular system and your mood.
It will give you more energy and help you sleep better.
And those are just the things I thought of right off the top of my head. I bet there are hundreds of benefits I haven’t even listed. (note to self: Google “benefits of exercise” later.)
Secondly, it is NEVER too late to start getting fit. I’m sure there is a lot of research out there about the benefits starting exercise at any age—and maybe we can talk about that on a future post (note: Google that, too)—but you are far from “beyond hope.” You are younger than I am. And I’m like REALLY young.
Now, before you begin any type of regular exercise, I think it would be very wise to see your doctor. Mainly, because of the rheumatoid arthritis. I would recommend that for anyone with any kind of chronic health condition. Once your doctor clears you to start exercising, you should ideally be doing a combination of cardiovascular or aerobic exercises, strength training and stretching. Here are some ideas for you:
1. Walking, either outside or on a treadmill. This is my cardiovascular exercise of choice. I love being outside. It’s easy on my joints and I can increase or decrease intensity and length of the workout depending on how I feel. For you, I would recommend starting to walk for about 15 minutes, 3 times per week. If you feel good, increase it to 20 minutes and then 30 minutes. Continue to increase length and frequency as you continue to get more fit. You can walk as often as you like. The more the better.
2. Elliptical. If walking doesn’t excite you, an elliptical is a nice alternative. It is also very easy on the joints and can be programmed to increase intensity and length of workout. I’d start easy. Maybe 10 minutes or so at the beginning, 3 times per week.
3. Swimming. If you have access to a pool, swimming is probably the easiest on your joints of all aerobic exercises.
4. Biking. Indoors or outdoors, biking is low impact and lots of fun.
1. Yoga or Pilates. As you mentioned, this is a great way to get strong which also increases your flexibility. These techniques use your own body weight as resistance, so you needn’t ever pick up a weight. (I think using the word “needn’t” also makes me look smarter than I am.)
2. Light free weights. All basic strength training moves can be performed with no weights or light weights. I’d recommend joining a gym and scheduling some appointments with a personal trainer. A good trainer will listen to your story, help you set some goals and then walk you through the gym and show you how to properly perform each and every exercise. If working out in public doesn’t appeal to you, purchase a basic strength training DVD and a few sets of light weights: 1 pound, 2 pounds and 5 pounds. Browse through strength training DVD’s on Amazon and see which ones pique your interest—there are so many! All good fitness DVD’s have lots of instructional information on them to guide you through the proper form. That’s how I learned to lift weights 20 years ago!
1. Again, yoga and Pilates will benefit you greatly here.
2. A physical therapist can show you a whole range of stretching exercises specific to your problem areas. The nice thing about physical therapy is that, unlike a personal trainer, PT is often covered by your insurance. I have chronic back issues, and I still use the stretches my PT showed me 10 years ago.
Some exercises you will want to avoid—at least at first:
1. Running, especially on hard pavement
2. Ply metrics or jump-training (very high impact!)
3. Heavy weight-lifting
I’ve said this before, but the very best exercises are the ones you like—because those are the ones you will actually do. Experiment with a few things and see what feels good and what doesn’t; what is fun to you and what feels miserable. Realize, of course, that taking baby steps is the key. Start out slowly and progress as you get stronger. This will help you avoid injuries and give you a ton of self-confidence.
Then maybe you can become a super hero yourself. Whoa…look at that muscle tone!
Now be sure to head over to All-Pain, No Gain , where Sarah is giving her own answersto this same letter!