Fitness trends and follies

 In a world of a multitude of choices for every thing from the flavor of pasta sauce to face cream, it is only natural that we come up with a mind numbing number of options for exercise as well. Whatever happened to good old walking and running? It seems to me a new “Exercise Fad” is born every week. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is exciting. As someone who loves exercise and fitness and loves to experiment, it is wonderful to have choices. 

When I started out teaching fitness in the year 2000, there was basically only Stepper, Floor aerobics, Dancercise and Jazzercise. Then came Tae-Bo and kickboxing with Billy Blanks and his high-energy routines. Aqua Aerobics, Zumba, Bollyrobics and the numerous take offs on Yoga have grown in the recent past to accommodate the ever-increasing need for variety. There are ‘Fitness Trend’ forecasts by industry experts that predict which form of exercise is likely to be the most popular for the year. There are clothes and shoes made ‘just for Zumba or Yoga’ for instance. It is a huge industry that is not necessarily only about fitness. 

 What does an average person do? How does she choose which kind of routine to follow? With advertisements that claim, “get a flat stomach and slim waist doing Zumba”, it is easy to see how people can fall prey. 

 One should firstly understand ones basic requirement. The four pillars of Fitness (Ref my book ‘Get Size Wise’ ) – Stamina, Strength, Flexibility and Muscle Endurance. You then decide what you want to do to improve each of these four pillars. You could for instance take a Step class or Zumba twice a week and add a run twice a week to accommodate your cardio. Do Yoga twice a week for your flexibility and train with weights at least twice a week for your strength and muscle gains. 

Floor Aerobics, Zumba, Bollywood dance, Jazzercise, walking, running, cycling swimming fall under the category of the first pillar or fitness or Stamina/Cardio. 

 Traditional weight training is focused on increasing strength and muscle mass. Forms like Boot Camp, Body pump, P30 X, Crossfit are strength-training sessions in various formats which also kick up ones cardio to a very high intensity by the way the exercises are performed.

 Simple stretches and Yoga work to fundamentally increase flexibility with Yoga also increasing balance and core strength.

 Muscle endurance is improved by adding to your routine low intensity, long duration exercise in the form of long walks, treks or cycle rides, mostly recreational.

 Weight Training of the traditional kind to increase muscle mass and strength by going through several sets and reps of specific exercises to address single muscles or groups of muscles is important to build a strong foundation of Strength and Muscle mass. This is particularly important for someone of Indian origin as we are inherently endowed with less muscle mass at birth (called Sarcopenia). Learning the exercises with precise form is important for prevention of injury. 

 Thereafter, having built that foundation of strength, experimenting with Boot Camp, Body Pump and other spawns is justifiable as by then you have understood the nuances of Strength Training with external weights or with using ones own body weight. If you have established that strong foundation of strength, the chances of injury are minimized. When you then attempt to attend a class where there are several students, with the trainer’s attention diverted as he screams out instructions and tries to keep an eye on everyone, you will be able to take care yourself. You will be mindful of how you perform each exercise, however difficult. You will recognize if something does not “feel” right for your body irrespective of what the trainer may say. 

 Traditional weight training to build strength and muscle also helps prevent injury from other forms of Cardio like Step Aerobics, Zumba, Bollywood Dancing etc. Some of the moves encouraged in these classes are not always kind on the knees or hip joints. If you inherently “know” how to move properly and have the necessary muscle Strength and Body intelligence to protect your joints then the chances injury with these forms is minimal. If however you go in blindly with no clear understanding of body mechanics you could twist a knee or injure the back trying to mimic your instructor.

 Some of these forms of exercise claim to include ‘weight training’ or ‘toning’ within their routine by adding 0.5-1 kg dumbbells (which I call baby rattles) , which are then moved to music. One cannot build a respectable amount of muscle mass OR strength with these light weights so frankly, I think that is a waste of time. You would much rather go through a traditional Strength Routine in a Gym or Boot Camp and use your Zumba, Jazzercise, Stepper, Floor Aerobics as a form of cardio. 

 Yoga improves flexibility. There is no question. Strength increments and building muscle from Yoga is limited by the fact that the contractions are isometric and your own body weight is the ceiling. Proponents of yoga would argue that it not to be used a form of ‘exercise’ and is a whole lot more holistic than physical exercise as it focuses on the Pranayamas, Kriyas and a lifestyle change. 

 Yoga in my opinion, is a very important aspect of fitness. Those who train with weights will do well to do Yoga contrary to the commonly held belief that those who do Yoga should do nothing else! Especially not, weight training! I think the two are complementary.

 Here’s why –

Training with weights involves addressing one muscle group or a single muscle strengthening it, increasing mass and improving the quality of the muscle. I would think one of the great spin offs of having stronger shoulders; chest, arms and core would be to be able to hold a pose like “The Crane” for instance. 

 Both forms of exercise focus on breathing. You really cannot train with weights or do yoga without knowing how to breathe. Doing both, somehow brings home the concept and importance of ‘breath’. 

 Yoga greatly increases flexibility which is beneficial in preventing injury while training with weights. At the same time, strengthening the various muscles of the body, helps one perform Yogic poses with better muscle control, preventing injury, using those very muscles and challenging them in different ways.

 Yoga helps you understand how to use your body as an entire unit and brings about a kinesthetic appreciation and sense of balance without the help of the mirrors in the gym! Weight training, improves and creates even more body awareness as you focus your mind on individual or groups of muscles, ‘feel the burn’, and go beyond yourself to strengthen. 

 They complement each other very well. Bring about a kind of balance of spirit between the calm introspection Yoga demands and the driven power Weight Training produces. Doing both, I think produces an endless loop of benefits that feed off each other. Love them both!

 The wide variety of ‘fitness forms’ to choose from is to accommodate this society of ours which suffers increasingly from ADD. We search for something different because we are easily bored. We want everything quickly so the latest fad that promises to be the easiest way to quick weight loss naturally attracts us. 

 Here’s the thing – practice makes perfect. You will have to concentrate on one thing long enough (10,000 hours if you are really looking for. perfection!) if you want to do it well. When you excel you enjoy it more. It is that simple. Flitting from one thing to another too often only sets the stage for injury. 

 It is good to cross train and challenge your body in different ways. Not all of us can though. (Ref chapter– ‘What is your Fitness Personality?’- Get Size Wise). Some prefer the simple act of running or walking for cardio while others enjoy music, dance and choreography. To each his own. 

  • Include the four Pillars of fitness 
  • Lay a strong foundation in strength
  • Learn to work with your required level of intensity whichever form of cardio you choose. This means you need to know the routines and moves well enough to get your heart rate up to the required level. 
  • Choose your instructor wisely. The exercise form is only as good as your instructor is. 
  • Maintain perspective and a sense of humor! Fitness is supposed to be fun as well. Enjoy the journey.