New to exercise?

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:

See also…

Safey first: essen­tial guidelines for how to stay safe and well while you exer­cise
The Body MOT: exer­cises for abso­lute begin­ners
Way to walk: tips on good walk­ing habits
Upstairs, down­stairs: how to use your stairs to get fit
Exercise search: click through to the list of exer­cises

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.

Be pre­pared

♦ 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
  • garden­ing
  • dan­cing.

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.

Quick links to Body Maintenance Manual stretches
Seated calf stretch
Standing calf stretch
Chest stretch
Seated ham­string streetch

Working with weights and other strength aids

Scene from old movie with Ethel Burton Palmer, Bobby Burns, and Walter Stull

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.

See also…

Safey first: essen­tial guidelines for how to stay safe and well while you exer­cise
The Body MOT: exer­cises for abso­lute begin­ners
Way to walk: tips on good walk­ing habits
Upstairs, down­stairs: how to use your stairs to get fit
Exercise search: click through to the list of exer­cises

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