Take a few minutes to read this briefing, especially if you are new to exercise, or resuming it after a very long lay-off. The information here will help you to exercise safely and effectively. Click on the list here to jump to a later section. The page covers:
Safey first: essential guidelines for how to stay safe and well while you exercise
- How exercise works
- Hints for beginners: what to expect and what to worry about
- Guidelines for stretching
- Working with weights and other strength equipement
How exercise works
When we put specific physical stresses on our bodies, we nudge them into making changes that develop our fitness. Fitness comes in several types, because the body has different systems, all of which respond to different kinds of stress. If you want to exercise your heart and lungs, you’ll have to focus on activity that makes your heart pump and your breathing work harder than normal – swimming, power walking, climbing stairs etc. If you are after more power in your legs, you need muscle-building exercises such as lunges or squats.
The main types of fitness are:
- heart and lung fitness (cardiovascular)
- muscle-strengthening and power
- better co-ordination and balance
- easier mobility (movement) of your joints
- greater flexibility (stretch and reach)
To get results you need to do the right type of exercise, but also at the right level for you. This level will be just hard enough to make you feel you are slightly overloading your body. If you keep it too easy, you won’t get any improvements. This poses a dilemma: how much should you over-do it? Because overdoing things usually ends in grief. It’s quite a delicate balance. Here’s some guidelines to help you get it just right
New to exercise?
If you’ve never done any before, or not since college 50 years ago, start very cautiously. You probably think you’re a bit fitter than you really are! Even when something feels very easy while you’re doing it, you may get a reaction later on. It can be extremely off-putting to pull a muscle or strain a ligament when you’re just starting out, but it’s easy to do. So be very disciplined about starting gently. You can pick up the pace after a couple of months. The Body MOT is a great starting point for basic preparation.
Numbers of repeats
With all the strength exercises, the aim is to complete as many repeats as you can. Usually the movement will start out feeling manageable or even easy. But within a few more repeats it might get to feel hard, very hard or even impossible. Only do as many repeats as you can manage without cheating, and stop when you feel you could only do one more before totally giving up.
If it’s a completely new exercise, start by only doing half of the recommended number, and wait 48 hours to see whether your body has any bad reaction at all. As you improve, you can add an extra repeat, and then another. You might stick at eg, 6 repeats for a couple of weeks, then try 7. You might be able to go on to 8 the following week, or decide to stick at 7 for three weeks before adding the 8th. When you get to the recommended maximum, move on to the next progression or new exercise. The added challenge will trigger more fitness benefits.
Don’t just carry on doing the same exercise which you have become very good at, until you’re doing 100 repeats. It may impress your friends and feel like you’re working out really hard, but it won’t be making your body any stronger. Far better to switch to a new exercise and start over.
Should it feel like this?
Aches and pains: Unless you are already pretty active, taking up exercise may well cause you a few unusual aches and pains. You need to learn to distinguish between “good” aches and warning pains. It is not an exact science, so if in doubt, stop doing the aggravating movement and consult an expert or your doctor.
If a movement causes a sharp pain, especially in a joint (hips, knees, back, neck etc) while you are doing it, then stop. Check that you have followed the instructions and are doing the movement correctly. Be especially careful with arthritic joints – you should not do any muscle strengthening work when joints are inflamed and painful – and at other times start very cautiously.
If you wake up the next morning feeling an ache or stiffness in some of your muscles, don’t worry. This is likely to be the body’s normal reaction to having been made to work hard or in a new, unaccustomed way. Usually such aches don’t appear until the next day or even two days later. They normally last just a few days – a week at most. The achiness can be really quite intense or it may just be vague, wearing off once you get going. Usually it will only occur the first couple of times you do a new exercise.
If a pain comes on after exercising, feels sharp, or is still bad after a week, it’s best to get it checked out.
Hot and cold: It is normal to get sweaty when you are doing exercise , especially if it’s vigorous. But be aware: when we are older our body temperature tends to be a bit all over the place. You may find yourself suddenly warming up rather a lot, so remove a layer of clothing and make sure you drink some water. Then, be prepared for feeling cold as soon as you stop doing the energetic stuff – put layers back on and eat something to help replenish your energy.
If you suddenly get very breathless, feel faint or develop chest pain while exercising, you should immediately stop and get help. It could be an emergency.
Pumped up and breathy: When doing heart-and-lung exercise (cardiovascular) such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming etc, it is quite normal for your heart rate to go up, your breathing to get harder and faster and your heart to beat loudly. These are all signs that the body is working harder than normal, which is good. As you slow down and finish, your breathing and heart should gradually settle back down again.
Exhausted: Common-sense would tell you that exercise makes you tired. In fact in the longer-term it will greatly boost your energy levels by getting your body to strengthen up and become more efficient. But at first you should expect to feel tired after exercise. Don’t worry and don’t let this put you off, just make sure you get a good night’s sleep. If you still feel really whacked, take an extra day before trying again. Over the weeks, you should be able to increase the amount of exercise without making yourself more tired. If this isn’t happening for you, go and see your doctor.
♦ If you have “emergency” medications, including angina spray, asthma inhaler, Epipen or any other, be sure always to have these to hand whenever you exercise. Just in case.
♦ If you are diabetic and thinking of starting exercise (a very good idea), it’s especially important to talk to your doctor and/or diabetic nurse. Exercise will affect your blood sugar and you may need to adjust your insulin or medication levels or timings.
♦ If you have osteoporosis and are thinking of starting exercise, read up beforehand on what is most helpful for your bones and which types of exercise to avoid altogether, so you don’t put yourself at risk of fracture.
Right place, right time
Exercise and alcohol do not mix well. Never combine them.
There’s no correct time to do exercise. But many older people find they are slow to get going in the morning, and that joints can be rather stiff and achy for the first hour of the day. Some people find their balance is poor first thing, too.
So avoid the times when your body feels it is struggling to get going, or when it’s feeling especially sleepy (eg, straight after lunch). Mid-morning and late afternoon are probably pretty good times.
When doing home exercises, try to do them in a quiet place by yourself, so you can concentrate. Keep pets out of the room while you practise!
Guidelines for stretching
What’s the point?
When you stretch, the aim is to keep muscles at their “correct” length so they don’t get very tight. Tight muscles can be painful, and over time pull your body subtly out of balance, leading to other problems.
One very common example: if you spend half a lifetime sitting hunched over with rounded shoulders, you’ll eventually find that your shoulders will stay rounded all the time, and your neck and upper back will droop even when you try to sit or stand straight. The muscles of your chest and shoulders have become tight, those of your neck and back have weakened and lengthened, until you are stuck in a different shape to how you used to be.
Benefits of stretching
As we age, all the internal fibres that are naturally stretchy or elastic lose their springiness. We become much more prone to stiffness and tightness. Careful stretching can be highly effective in combating these effects, helping you to carry on doing things you used to take for granted, such as:
- doing up back-fastening zips, buttons or bra-straps
- using the hair washing sink at the hair stylist’s
- pulling on socks and tights
- doing up shoes
- clipping toenails, washing and drying feet
- managing a high step-up
- reaching for things on high shelves
- changing light bulbs
Best way to stretch
There are different ways to stretch, but the most common and safest way is the holding still stretch. The technique is always the same:
- get into the correct start position for the stretch
- breathe in to prepare, and breathe out as you ease gently into the stretch position
- Ease in until you feel a moderate pull in the right area (you may feel other pulls too, so it’s very useful to know exactly where you should be feeling the main stretch)
- Stop still and hold steady, breathing normally and counting (see below for how many seconds)
- Ease gently back to your starting point
- If the area is particularly tight, rest briefly, then repeat the stretch.
How long to hold for
- The first 20 times you practise a new stretch, limit it to 8 to 10 seconds, until you are confident about how it feels
- If you have high blood pressure, play safe and always restrict your stretches to 10 seconds. Rather than holding for longer, which may raise your blood pressure, repeat the stretches 2 or 3 times with rests
- For normal stretching, hold 20 to 30 seconds, breathing throughout
- If you are already a very bendy person, do not do a lot of stretching – you may damage your joints.
When to stretch
Always stretch when your body is really warm. The ideal time is after you’ve done something strenuous, like a brisk walk, swim, or climbed a few flights of stairs. Always finish your exercise workouts with stretching. And if you are warm through, stretching can be great to do last thing at night – sometimes helping to prevent night cramps.
Don’t stretch when you feel cold, stiff, chilled through. Get warm first.
What’s the point?
Hand and leg weights, stretchy bands or tubing, cans of baked beans and bottles of water all do the same job in exercise terms: they make your muscles work harder. Any bit of equipment that does the same thing is called “resistance” equipment, and its purpose is to help you build muscle strength.
You don’t always need resistance equipment when you are doing strength exercises, but a basic rule of thumb is:
♦ standing or seated strength exercises usually involve resistance equipment
♦ lying-down strength exercises usually don’t need resistance equipment.
How much resistance?
Build your muscle strength gradually; if you overdo it, you may pull or tear a muscle. So start off with smaller weights and after a couple of months of regular practice, move on to the next size up.
The right starting point will be different for everyone: it depends on your existing strength, size, state of health etc. Whatever you are using for resistance, you should be able to complete the exercise 8 to 10 times before it starts to feel really hard. If you can just about manage 12 repeats before giving up, that’s a good level. If you are still going strong after 25 repeats, you need a heavier weight.
Resistance bands and tubing work a bit differently from weights. The strength of these bands varies, and they come in different colours to make this clear. Unfortunately different manufacturers have their own colour schemes so you cannot rely on the same colour representing the same strength across different makes of band.
But a resistance band is quite versatile. You can make the resistance stronger if you reduce the amount of band you are pulling. If you double the band up, you will instantly double the resistance.
Safey first: essential guidelines for how to stay safe and well while you exercise