Everyone knows exercise is good for them, but many do not realise just how important it is. Having an effective and regular exercise routine is about more than just toning up, losing a few pounds and looking after your physical wellbeing.
In fact, exercise is something of a miracle cure for all ills. According to data from NHS Choices, those who get the right amount of exercise reduce the risk of major illnesses, including stroke, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer by as much as 50%.
How much is enough?
When it comes to vitamins, nutrients, protein and carbohydrates, there is plenty of information about how much we should be getting every day. But with more people leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles, spending more time in the virtual world than the physical, there is a growing tendency to fall short on the recommended daily dose of exercise.
The consequences can be significant. Not only do we put our physical health in danger, there is also compelling scientific evidence that physical activity makes us happier and improves our mental and psychological wellbeing. It is a proven weapon against stress, depression, anxiety, mood swings and even dementia.
As health consultant Nick Cavill put it: “If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.” So just what sort of a dose should we be taking?
Doctors recommend that adults should try to undertake some physical activity every day, and that over the course of a week, they should complete at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, along with strength exercises at least two days a week.
Vigorous, moderate or both?
It is possible to mix and match. Essentially, one minute of vigorous activity counts for two minutes of moderate activity. So what do we mean by these different types of exercise?
- Moderate activity encompasses activities such as walking, swimming or cycling.
- Vigorous activity encompasses running or playing a highly active sport, such as tennis.
- Strength exercises are ones that work all the major muscle groups of the body, including arms, legs, abdomen, hips, shoulders, chest and back.
Just as you would not take a week’s worth of vitamins in one sitting, it is important to spread the activity out across the course of the week. Even those who live a relatively inactive lifestyle can manage to achieve their weekly dose with half an hour of moderate activity, five days a week.
Of course, those wanting to achieve peak fitness and performance need to push the boundaries, and a brisk 30 minute walk with the dog every day is just not going to do it. If you are serious about taking your fitness to the next level, the chances are you will be more focused on the vigorous aerobic activity and stepping up the strength exercises to give your body a serious workout.
Allow yourself to recover
The other thing that is well-known about exercise is that it is easy to overdo it. It seems ironic that when the objective is to improve health and fitness, the opposite can often occur.
There is a scientific reason behind this, however. Exercise essentially hurts, and when the body experiences pain, it triggers a reaction. The discomfort you experience after a long run, a workout at the gym or a game of football tells your body that it is not up to the challenge. The result? It does something about it to become stronger, better or more efficient.
It is the whole reason we exercise, and it works perfectly – as long as you do it right. Giving your body this stimulation leads to steady and progressive improvement. But as you are literally putting yourself through punishment, it is essential to give your body the opportunity to recover before the next cycle.
Lack of recovery can lead to a range of unpleasant consequences, ranging from the purely physical, for example muscle strains, to the psychological, such as inability to sleep or reduced libido. Here are some ways to help your body recover, and reduce the symptoms of strenuous exercise so you remain comfortable and energised, no matter what.
Factor in rest
The idea of only exercising on certain days in a given week is not just to give you time off to kick back and watch TV. Factoring in rest days is an essential component of a training programme – and the more intense it is, the more important it is. Remember, the strengthening in your body happens as a result of the exercise. In other words, you actually get stronger while you are resting, not while you are exercising.
Even top athletes tend to incorporate a “down” week every two to three months. This might not mean completely stopping all exercise, but it will involve a week of reduced intensity. Give it a try, and when you step things back up again, you will feel ten times better.
Maintain energy and nutrition
Like any machine, your body needs fuel to function effectively. The fact that fitness is often associated with those seeking to lose weight can lead to poor decisions on the nutritional front. If you are not getting sufficient Vitamin B12, you will be unable to function effectively and will feel lethargic. You can reduce tiredness and fatigue by ingesting foods with the right nutritional content, enhancing your ability to focus.
Similarly, depriving your body of carbohydrates and protein will mean it does not have the fuel to build more effective muscles. As a result, your vigorous exercise could actually result in losing, instead of gaining, muscle mass.
A good night’s sleep is essential. If your body is sleep deprived, it will impair the effectiveness of your exercise regime, as you will find yourself unable to attack it with the same intensity. At the same time, it will also mean your recovery takes longer.
Good sleep is as much about quality as quantity. So as well as trying to get a clear seven hours or so every night, think about factors such as the quality of your mattress, the temperature of the room and reducing exposure to blue light before bedtime in order to energise yourself the next day.
Warm up and down
Going through some stretches before and after your workout is crucial, as it facilitates recovery by reducing the lactic acid your body produces and improving circulation. You might consider an activity such as foam rolling, yoga or pilates to really get the best out of your stretching exercises. This can be a particularly valuable discipline to follow during that “down” week.
Mind and body in harmony
By now, it should be clear that there is a stronger correlation than you might first have thought between physical and psychological fitness and wellbeing. Just as physical fitness can be beneficial to your mental health, so your mental attitude is crucially important to achieving peak performance.
Take a look at a professional athlete who is at the top of their game. For Usain Bolt, Venus Williams or Cristiano Ronaldo, getting that extra 2% to stay on top of the rest is often more about what is happening between the ears than anything to do with physical fitness or technique. When the top athletes employ the best coaches, trainers or dieticians, that elusive X-factor can often be psychological rather than physical in nature. There is a general canon within the athletics community that a positive mindset can give a 1% boost to performance.
What does peak performance mean to you?
Those who are looking to attain peak performance come at it from diverse angles. Whether you are a runner, a football player or just someone who loves spending time challenging yourself at the gym, what does peak performance mean to you?
You might view peak performance as setting a new personal record, beating a sporting rival or lifting a trophy. And while any one of these could certainly meet the dictionary definition of peak performance, there is more to it as an overall concept.
Attaining peak performance is not something you can switch on for a big event and then set aside ready for the next one. It is something that needs to form part of your daily life and mindset. The interesting thing is that it is not an exclusive club to which only the freakishly talented, such as those sporting names mentioned earlier, can aspire. You have it within yourself to be a peak performer – whatever your skill, talent or starting point.
Peak performance needs preparation, dedication and constant refinement at every level – technical, physical and mental. New York Yankees short stop Derek Jeter was a legend of baseball, who enjoyed a 20 year career at the top, before retiring in 2014 at the age of 40. He summed up the concept of peak performance perfectly. Let’s leave him to have the final word on the subject:
“There may be people that have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.”