Fitness and exercise

The alarm reaction was designed for fighting or running away: in other words, for increased activity. When we exercise, essentially the same alarm response is put into action but without the accompanying emotions. For our ancestors and grandparents, life was far more physical; pulling ploughs and walking miles used up the higher levels of circulating blood fats and catecholamines produced by their stress response. Today, it is up and down escalators and lifts and using the car for the

shortest of trips. We live in an age of inactivity. Studies have shown that our schoolchildren are the unfittest they have ever been. One man said to us that the PMR programme was the most exercise he had taken for years! It is also an age of psychological stressors and emotional crises. These trigger our stress response, preparing us for action when in fact little muscular activity takes place. However, because of our generally sedentary lifestyle there is a reluctance and sometimes little opportunity to burn off the action of the catecholamines. Arguing on the telephone switches on the alarm reaction but we are sitting motionless – apart from maybe pounding the desk. So, the actions preparing us for fight or flight are not used. We put the telephone down and we are left with high levels of circulating blood fats and glucose and blood that will clot more easily. The best way to get rid of these is to exercise. Take a brisk walk at lunchtime or after work. If you are upset at the office and feel signs and symptoms of distress, leave the office for a few minutes and walk up and down the stairs. This way you can avoid or reduce the symptoms of distress and will feel relaxed and ready to work productively. Staying in the office will only keep you in touch with the source of your distress.

Regular moderate exercise of 30 minutes a day changes the body’s metabolism and helps maintain a desirable body weight. Recent research suggests that the 30 minutes need not be taken in one session but can be accumulated over the day. Exercise is an essential part of any slimming campaign. Furthermore, regular moderate exercise helps reduce the LDL-cholesterol (bad’ cholesterol) in the blood and increase HDL-cholesterol (good’ cholesterol) which is thought to give protection against heart disease.

Regular exercise leads to fitness. Feeling fit will increase your sense of well-being. You will feel good about yourself and therefore more able to face the demands and pressures of life. Exercise will also improve the quality of your sleep – another essential part of your coping resources.

Exercise need not be expensive. You do not have to rush out to buy the latest in sports fashion wear, or aids such as exercise bicycles and multigyms. Walking and many other activities such as swimming and cycling are relatively inexpensive.

One important benefit of exercise and fitness activities is the possibility of increasing social contacts and developing new friendships at clubs or on an afternoon walk. Exercise and fitness should be fun and not a chore or too competitive. You will need to find an exercise that suits you – your abilities, schedule, personality. As a general rule choose an activity that would have been done in the days of your grandfather. For example, take up walking rather than squash, especially if you are unfit.

Do not rush into an exercise regime (Type As take note!), particularly if you are over 35 years old. Have a check-up with your doctor, particularly if you are an angina or heart attack sufferer before you embark on an exercise programme. Always follow a programme which starts slowly and gradually increases to your prescribed level. Do not push yourself too hard. If you have pains (particularly in your chest) or breathlessness, do not ignore them – stop at once and see your doctor as soon as possible. Better to be safe than sorry – exercise can kill!

Avoid exercising when you are unwell, particularly when suffering from flu and other infectious diseases, because infections can spread more easily to the heart muscle and this may lead to serious problems. Try not to exercise too soon after a meal. You should never exercise to the point where you do not have the breath to hold a conversation. Always keep a check on your heart rate by taking your pulse (Figure 23) and stay within the safe limits shown in the following table:

Maximum exercise pulse rate per minute

For an individual these rates are only a general guide since there are many factors, such as general state of health, to take into account. You should consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise programme.

How do you decide on your level of fitness? A simple test is to check how fast your pulse returns to normal after you exercise. For fit people this usually occurs within a minute or two. If it takes a long time you are probably unfit.

In the meantime, consider walking to the shops instead of taking the car, walk to work instead of taking the bus, or get off a few stops before your destination and walk the rest of the way. Use the stairs instead of the lift. Ten minutes brisk walk two or three times a day will soon build up your stamina, particularly if you choose an uphill course. Walking is the cheapest, easiest and safest way to exercise and achieve fitness.

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