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Move with the Rhythm 3: A Prescription for Life
We know that regular body movement ultimately means better health & quality of life, regardless of the type of activity you do or when you do it. However, there are some specific factors, such as the degree of body-challenge, the circadian timing of activities, and applying the power of dreaming & visualisation, which can be incorporated to enhance the benefits gained from your activities.
I’ll explore these over the next few articles.
The first, and most important, factor is to provide enough metabolic challenge to stimulate health-related changes in your body and mind.
It has been found that there is an optimum level of energy-output (degree of effort) necessary to achieve the best long-term health outcomes. Below a certain threshold, most health benefits rapidly diminish, while above the upper threshold, body-stress outweighs potential benefits.
If you aim to create a balanced activity schedule which meets the goals set out below, you can stay healthy in the long-term without needing to think about it.
Body Balance … Mix it up & Break it up
If you have a specific purpose for exercising, such as building upper body strength or running a 4 minute mile, then obviously you will select targeted activities to help you achieve that goal. However, when it comes to general health & fitness there is no particular type of activity which trumps all others.
The best approach is to include a variety of activities which work all parts of your body, in different ways, over time.
Different types of body movement can be roughly assigned to several basic groups, based on how they ‘work the body’ and the effects they create. These are not distinct divisions as most activities fall into more than one group.
> aerobic … whole-body activities which are often rhythmic, use large muscle groups, and get the heart & lungs pumping (to make you huff & puff and encourage circulation) … eg. power-walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, cycling, chasing the dog, digging the garden, splitting wood
> resistance … activities which apply weight-bearing and pressure against muscles & bones (to encourage remodeling, and increase strength & endurance) … eg. lifting weights or carrying heavy items, push-ups, chin-ups, jumping, slow-pace tai chi, climbing stairs, hammering nails, moving furniture, scrubbing, pushing & pulling a full shopping cart
> flexibility … activities which involve slow-paced muscle & joint flexing-relaxing-stretching (to release tension, lengthen and strengthen muscles & ligaments, increase joint flexibility, and open the flow of blood, lymph & nerve communication through muscles & joints) … eg. pre-exercise warm-ups, joint rotation routines, yoga, pilates, reaching on tip-toes, bending down, hanging, climbing a tree
> meditative movement … activities which involve rhythmic, repetitive movement and deep breathing, while allowing the mind to ‘wander & reflect’ or focus on the experience (to encourage centering, inner stillness and self-awareness) … eg. any activity can be meditative if you allow the meditative space to evolve, but commonly things like walking, swimming, tai chi, qi gong, yoga, and household tasks of low complexity like weeding the garden, sweeping or doing the dishes
> random variable movements … body movements that happen naturally within general daily activities … eg. twisting, bending, flexing, reaching, pushing, pulling, twitching & fidgeting
Being generally active in everyday life is the best way to encourage the vast variety of movement & stimulation needed to support whole-body-mind health.
The variable movements described in the last group above are crucial for exciting all the little odd muscles & tissues which may not get attention in repetitive exercise training programs. So just ‘get up and do’ … anything, any time, be random.
In addition, varying your activities and/or the environments in which you do them provides mental stimulation. This helps keep your activity routines interesting and adds further health benefits, like better-quality sleep.
Consider how you can create a lifestyle which involves a variety of body movements throughout the day and over the week.
For your social hours, choose physically & mentally stimulating leisure activities which involve unusual body movement and interesting environments.
If you like routine exercise, schedule different types of sessions on different days, or create a balanced exercise routine which incorporates movements from each activity-group.
If your daily work routine is low-active, break up sitting or standing with hourly bursts of movement (away from your work-space to refresh your attention). Step outside and take a brisk short walk, run an errand, have a stretch while looking out the window or, if at home, get up and do a brief household task.
This ‘variety’ approach is shown to have a direct positive impact on mood & energy levels, while also supporting your metabolic health.
The body doesn’t like long blocks of inactivity, nor extended periods of challenging activity. I believe it prefers ‘little-doses-more-often’, rather than being in a ‘holding pattern’ of either for too long. The variety makes for a more dynamic metabolism, and shorter periods of disruption & challenge give the body a better chance to adapt and stay on top of whatever the situation is demanding from it.
Even what is generally a beneficial activity, such as a 30 minute exercise session, can have a greater overall impact when that time is spread over the day in 3 shorter 10 minute sessions. This is liberating news for those of you, like me, who start to get bored after the first few minutes. You can be certain that your little random efforts are not wasted!
Exercise activities like interval training apply a similar principle within the session itself, alternating a few minutes of high-intensity with a few minutes cruising (low intensity), and repeating the rhythm for 5 or 10 cycles. Compared with a continuous moderate-to-high effort workout (previously considered the ‘bees-knees’) interval training encourages better overall fitness, as well as greater metabolic improvements for the time you spend.
Body-Effort … Exercise Intensity & Energy Output
General activity improves your quality of life (it makes you feel happier, keeps you flexible, and keeps your blood & lymph flowing), but to maintain the degree of metabolic health required to keep disease and age-related deterioration at bay, you occasionally need to work a bit harder.
‘Exercise-intensity’ is a description of how challenging an activity is to perform, and ‘energy-output’ is the amount of calories your body uses to perform it. These factors describe the effort required, which varies from person to person, based on individual fitness level, weight and metabolic rate. What is ‘easy work’ for a fit athlete may be considered ‘hard work’ for you.
To provide a general reference for the effort required, which allows for individual differences, activities are assigned a metabolic equivalent (MET) value. For example, sitting quietly for 1 minute = 1 MET (the baseline unit).
> Casual walking around the house is a low-intensity activity at 2 MET. It requires little body-effort and minimal energy-output (calories).
> A brisk purposeful walk is a low-to-moderate-intensity activity at about 4-5 MET. It works the body more than a casual stroll, and uses more calories per minute.
> Power-walking (race-walk) and general jogging are moderate-to-high intensity activities at 6-7 MET. These require more vigorous effort and so burn more calories per minute.
> Running a 4 minute mile is extremely high-intensity exercise at about 25 MET. Don’t try this at home!
From the collected research it appears that, for good metabolic health in the long-term, you should aim to:
(a) Do enough activity to use up at least 1,000-2,000 kcal per week, but not more than 3,500 kcal per week, and/or
(b) spend a minimum of 4-5 hours per week doing activities of moderate-intensity (4-7 MET).
In relation to the first parameter (a), less than 1,000 kcal of weekly energy-output is considered sedentary with a high risk of health deterioration. A regular output of 1,000-2,000 kcal per week can reduce potential health risks by 20-30%. A higher output can provide even greater protection, and generate improvement in most chronic health conditions.
However, if you push yourself beyond the upper threshold of 3,500 kcal per week, you tend to lose these benefits and may even increase the health risks. So, it appears you can do more exercise than is good for you!
The calorie amounts suggested above apply to body-movement only. This is in addition to the energy your body uses for internal metabolic processes just to keep you alive (a very generalised ballpark figure of about 10,000-12,000 kcal per week).
In relation to the second parameter (b), moderate-intensity activity requires a degree of effort which challenges the body without taxing it, and this has many positive stimulating effects on metabolic functions. Low-effort activities keep you moving, and this is a good thing, but they don’t provide the necessary degree of stimulation for this purpose. So, the aim is to keep moving generally, while pushing yourself a bit harder occasionally.
Due to variations in health conditions & fitness, different people can experience the same activity at different levels of intensity (or challenge), so you need to choose the activities which give your body a moderate-intensity challenge.
An easy way to gauge the intensity of any activity you’re doing is to apply the ‘talk-test’. If you can chat without really noticing your breathing, your effort is considered low-intensity (less than 3-4 MET). If you are huffing & puffing but can still manage broken conversation, you’re working at moderate-intensity (about 4-7 MET). With high-intensity activities you’ll find it very difficult to get a word in between gasps.
Putting it into Perspective
To get an idea of what these numbers actually mean in ‘real-life’, let’s imagine an average individual weighing about 70kg.
For this ‘Jo Average’, a weekly activity energy output of 1,000 kcal would equate to about 3.5 to 4 hours of moderate-intensity walking, covering about 18-20km (or 25,000 steps). This is brisk-purposeful walking at a speed of 5-7 km (or 3-4.5 miles) per hour.
As a daily walk, this translates to a 20-30 minute walk covering 2-3 km (3,500 steps).
This assumes, of course, that your only activity is walking, but you will usually tally up your moderate-intensity activity minutes in a variety of ways, including things like carrying groceries, digging the garden, or working out at the gym, as well as taking the occasional walk.
If you simply aim to do more than 45 minutes moderate-intensity activity (of any kind) each day, or more than 4 or 5 hours over a week, you’ll have it very well-covered.
Remember, also, that you walk about during the day while doing other activities. It’s unlikely you’d reach these moderate-intensity speeds around the house, but you may well reach these speeds more often than you think in other situations.
Don’t limit yourself to thinking only of “taking a walk” as such, but think about the walking you do generally (possibly at work, or during outings, or when walking to-and-from places). If you have a tendency to stroll, try ‘marching’ instead and you’ll easily make up a good portion of moderate-intensity time with these incidental walks.
Here are a few examples of moderate-intensity activities (4-7 MET) and the ‘Jo Average’ amount of calories they use.
> walking … 15m brisk walk (75 kcal) … 15m power walk (140 kcal)
> mucking about … 10m chasing the kids around (70 kcal) … 15m on the trampoline (70 kcal) … 30m playing hopscotch (70 kcal) or basketball (240 kcal) or footy (280 kcal) … 10m rough & tumble with the dog
> active yard-work 60m (360 kcal) … eg. mow lawn, clean gutters, prune, push wheelbarrow, dig beds
> active house-work 60m (250 kcal) … eg. scrub & hand-wash, shift furniture, or generally ‘put your back into it’
> dancing … 30m general (200 kcal), eg. shake, shuffle, step … 30m active (300 kcal), eg. twirl, kick, jump about
> vigorous sex 30m (100 kcal) > bike-riding (30m) … leisurely / pleasure (190 kcal) … faster / purposeful (300 kcal)
> jogging … slow 3km in 30m at 6kph (220 kcal) … fast 3-4 km in 15m at 10kph (200 kcal)
> water activities … 30m swimming & splashing about (150 kcal) … 30m purposeful laps (230 kcal)
> vigorous calisthenics for 10m (100 kcal) … eg. push-ups, star-jumps, lunges
> a 20-30m slow-paced tai chi session, with slow kicks & deep squats (125 kcal)
Based on the examples above, in a week you might mow the lawn (180), do an hour of spring-cleaning (250), go out dancing on Friday night (200) and get laid! (100), take a couple of 20m walks (200), take the kids to the beach after school one day (150) and play hopscotch with them on another (70).
That’s enough to bring you over the minimum calorie threshold (at about 1250 kcal) and tallies up lots of moderate-intensity time (at 4 hrs). Any other general activity you do will add health benefits by increasing your total energy-expenditure further as well as incorporating the necessary variety of random stimulating body movements.
Illustrating the upper limit of 3500 kcal per week with a single example is not so easy, because it’s not simply a matter of distance (which equates to about 70km brisk walking per week, or 10km per day). It’s more about reaching an intensity that over-taxes the body, or pushing it for too-long, even at lower intensities.
This may be a single high-intensity exercise session lasting an hour or so, or it may be an ongoing period of regular high-intensity training that wears the body down. Casual walking is unlikely to do this, even at 10km/day if your body is fit and well-entrained to this amount. However, if an unfit, normally sedentary person, suddenly decides to take a 10km walk, they could certainly push their body over the ‘wellness line’.
One source suggested this upper threshold equated to jogging 30-35 miles per week (about 50 km). I can’t imagine any ‘Jo Average’ ever managing to squeeze in 50km of jogging (about an hour a day) between the school-runs and working week, so no fear there.
For most people, the issue is generally not being active enough and, in respect of the upper threshold, perhaps exercising too intensively when they do manage get to the gym, in an attempt to make up for the deficit.
Body-Challenge vs Body-Distress
The term ‘stress’ is often applied negatively, but it is more accurate to think of it as ‘stimulation’ or ‘challenge’ … something which encourages growth & evolution in all aspects of being, physical-mental-emotional-spiritual. What determines if such stimulation is to be a ‘healthy stress’ or create ‘distress’ is the degree of resources available and our ability to adapt to the challenge.
Our life-challenges can either push us to greater heights, if we have the resources to adapt, or push us over the edge if we don’t.
Similarly, stimulating or ‘stressing’ a muscle or bone encourages the body to nourish and strengthen it, but over-taxing the body beyond its resource-limits can lead to damage.
The energy-output and activity-intensity parameters described above, define a general level of activity in which the body receives enough stimulation to encourage growth, repair and better health, but not so much stimulation that it is pushed beyond its resources and adapt-ability.
However, the effort required to perform an activity varies from person to person, and the moderate-intensity activities given above generally apply to people of average fitness. A highly fit person will need to work harder to feel the challenge (their own moderate-intensity threshold), and experience the necessary degree of body stimulation. Likewise, someone who is very unfit or frail will experience moderate-intensity stimulation with activities which may be considered low-intensity for a fitter person.
For ongoing benefits, as your fitness gradually increases you need to keep pushing yourself that little bit more. Use the ‘talk-test’ to notice when a previously challenging activity begins to require less effort. As the edge gradually moves away, keep stepping up to meet it.
Athletes amaze us with their incredible feats and it’s easy to assume they are in ‘perfect health’, but this is often not the case. Many athletes and exercise fanatics sacrifice their long-term health for short-term success by pushing themselves right through fitness and out the other side!
You can certainly force your body to do a lot more than it can ‘healthily’ cope with, without immediate symptoms, but there is always a trade-off. When the body is pushed beyond its resources, it becomes unable to maintain homeostasis in the face of the challenge. The resulting distress can produce immediate & ongoing biochemical changes which lead (ironically) to reduced performance, mental-emotional disturbance, and physical health problems.
By comparison, moderate-intensity training is shown to encourage greater resilience in both body & mind.
The immune system lies at the core of health on so many levels, and provides a good example of how over-taxing the body can disturb the balance.
A single bout of moderate-intensity activity stimulates the immediate release of specific immune cells and anti-inflammatory factors in a normal adaptive response to mitigate the natural tissue-stress of body-movement. And, when you go to bed that night, the immune system’s normal sleep-time healing & repair activities are further enhanced, including the important function of scavenging and destroying abnormal cells.
Engaging regularly in moderate-intensity activity enhances immune function overall, and encourages an anti-inflammatory body environment. This provides ongoing protection against many chronic illnesses associated with the inflammatory conditions encouraged by ‘modern living’.
Conversely, a single bout of highly intensive exercise (or even less intensive activity in a very unfit person), can take the body beyond healthy stress and into ‘distress’. While it can ramp up sleep-related repair-work, time and resources may fall short before balance is restored.
Similarly, an ongoing period of intensive training can wear the body down over time. Rather than accumulating the benefits of stimulation, such activity tends to have a generally suppressive influence on immune function, and encourages a more inflammatory body environment, as the focus is turned towards basic survival-related tasks. This reduces the efficiency of functions like maintaining healthy normal tissue or keeping infections at bay.
Such immune changes are found to persist even after an intensive training period has ended and the body has had time to ‘recover’. With ‘normal’ immune functions slow to return, particularly if the situation is repeated, susceptibility to chronic inflammatory and auto-immune diseases is increased.
Aside from the many issues associated with poor immune function & inflammation, over-taxing the body can also lead to a variety of other problems, including malnutrition, chronic fatigue, poor sleep-quality, reduced bone density and increased susceptibility to stress fractures, as well as mood issues, mental confusion and poor concentration.
Even with things like activity-related weight-loss, there is an intensity threshold at which the body will begin to make metabolic adjustments in an effort retain the existing weight.
All these various examples of loss & deterioration are transformed into experiences of benefit and gain when you engage in regular activity within your body’s healthy-stimulation limits.
If your goal is general fitness and quality of life, it clearly doesn’t pay to work ‘too hard’.
Instead, challenge yourself with activities which give you lots of pleasure (and just a smidgeon of pain).
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