If you want to maintain an exercise program over the long run, choose an activity that’s both convenient and enjoyable. For example, swimming may sound good, until you realize you hate getting into a cold pool during the 6 a.m. lap swim hour. Instead, try to choose something you’ll do for the sheer pleasure of it, and work it into your routine at a time that fits your schedule.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute guidelines make these recommendations for starting an exercise program:
- Start slowly and increase intensity gradually.
- Exercise for 30 to 45 minutes, three to five days a week.
- Set a long-term goal to perform 30 minutes or more of moderate-to-intense activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. The 30 minutes don’t have to be completed in one session. For example, you can split your exercise into three bouts of 10 minutes each. Recommended activities are ‘erobic, meaning they make the heart and lungs work hard to meet the muscles’ need for oxygen, and include walking, swimming or bicycling.
Resistance training, also called weight training or strength training, is not mentioned in the guidelines. But it is recommended by exercise experts. As William Evans, exercise physiologist and director of the Nutrition and Metabolism Laboratory at the University of Arkansas describes it, building muscles through weight training helps you burn fat and lose weight this way:
Muscle burns more fat than any other kind of body tissue. Weight training builds muscle mass. Building more muscle means a higher metabolic rate. And a faster metabolism burns more calories per hour, even at rest.
For women in particular, weight training can help burn calories, Evans says. That’s because women naturally have more fat and less muscle than men do, so their basic metabolic rate is slower. This makes it harder for women to lose weight than men.
When women build muscle mass, it increases their metabolic rate so they burn more calories, even when resting, than they did before. So building muscle mass is particularly important for women who are trying to lose weight.
But there’s a trick to it. The amount of weight you lift must be sufficient to build muscle. In other words, lifting a 5-pound hand weight 30 times won’t build muscle. But lifting 20 pounds eight times will. That’s because lifting a heavier weight uses more muscle fibers than does lifting a small weight.
In addition, lifting heavier weights causes small tears in the muscle fibers. It is the natural body process of repairing these muscle tears that builds muscle mass.
Here are Evans’ recommendations:
- Choose weight machines or free weights over the small hand weights often used in ‘erobics classes. (Smaller weights aren’t heavy enough to increase muscle strength.)
- On each machine, lift an amount of weight that will fatigue your muscles after no more than 10 lifts.
- Perform your weight training routine three times a week. (Twice a week is adequate, but three times is optimal.)
- Include ‘erobic exercise such as swimming, walking, bicycling and running in your routine, either on the same day as you lift weights or on alternate days.