I stumbled across a friend’s Facebook status recently that gave me pause for thought. It said, “I’ve joined a gym and I’m ready to exercise regularly, but I realise I have no idea what I’m doing. Help!”
I pondered this for a bit and wondered how many others feel the same way. How many of you have at some point found yourself wandering the gym floor in a bit of a daze, with a look of anxiety on your face and apprehension in your heart? How many of you once had high hopes of embarking on a brand new fitness regime, full of excitement and anticipation, only to pull up an online video or hit the store to purchase exercise equipment and discover that you have no idea what to buy or how to even go about getting started. My bet is more than a few of you have felt this way at one time or another, so I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. I’ve been there, I’ve conquered (mostly!), and I’m here to help.
To do that, I’ve compiled a list of some of the many questions that have been lobbed at me over my more than 20 years as an exercise enthusiast, workout buddy and motivator for the fitness crowd. I hope the following tidbits of information, presented in no particular order, will answer a few of the questions you might have regarding exercise and its proper procedure, and maybe even address a few areas you hadn’t considered.
Here we go!
Q: How often do I need to exercise each week?
A: Typically, a well-rounded exercise routine will include 4-6 days per week of exercise, or about 2.5 to 3 hours. However, those who regularly participate in vigorous and more lengthy workouts can scrape by with three days a week. Whatever you choose, make sure you take a break at least one day a week to ensure muscle repair.
Q: When combining cardio and strength training in one session, which should I do first?
A: There is no hard and fast answer to this question as either practice will work, but my rule of thumb is to complete my cardio exercises first, as they usually leave me more winded and require more energy, then move on to strength training.
Q: Is working out in the morning more effective than in the evening?
A: I’ve studied this issue a lot and most studies conclude that there is no one factor which would make one time of day more ideal to exercise over the other. In fact, the best time to exercise is whatever time you can most easily fit it in on a regular basis, even if that time changes from day to day. Bottom line, when you can make it work, work it!
Q: Will my workouts suffer if I only stick to one type of exercise?
A: Yes, it’s important to adjust your routine, ideally every three weeks or so. Our muscles adapt quickly and, if exercised continually in a repetitive fashion, you will find the effectiveness of your exercise will diminish. Plus, can we say boredom? Shake it up every now and then!
Q: What should I do if I’m feeling burned out – take a break or power through it?
A: Honestly, when I’ve got to the point that the thought of yet another workout was enough to send me running for cover (and I’ve been there, believe me), I gave myself a break. My ruts usually last about a week and by the end, I’m raring to get back into the groove. If you need a break then take it, but if you find your motivation fading with every day you’re out of the game, it might be time to make like Nike and “Just Do It” or you risk slipping into an endless cycle of inactivity.
Q: Is it OK to work out on an empty stomach?
A: The experts are divided on this, so I caution you to use your own judgment. However, your body needs fuel to work at its highest level so a smart move would be to have a small, 200- to 250-calorie snack, one preferably packed with protein and complex carbohydrates (think apple slices slathered lightly in almond butter), about an hour or so before you begin exercising. The energy will give your body what it needs to put in maximum effort during your sweat session, which makes for a more active and effective workout.
Q: How long should my workouts last?
A: There are different answers for this one, but I’ll give you a basic rundown. If you’re doing high intensity interval training, a good limit is 30 minutes as this type of exercise is stressful on the body and should be limited somewhat. If you’re heading out for an evening stroll, a brisk walk or even a light jog, you could exercise for up to an hour, but 45 minutes or even half an hour will do the trick. The same goes for cardio sessions with a mix of moderate and high intensities. Weight training can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, but if you do perform a longer session, I would recommend focusing on multiple muscle groups rather than one single body part.
Q: When strength training, should I focus on more reps with a lighter weight or less reps with a heavier weight?
A: If you’re looking to create more muscle tone rather than building mass, more reps with a lighter weight is your answer. Heavier weights tend to grow the muscle faster than their lighter counterparts. But let me say this. I, and several other women I know, have lifted heavy weights for years and not a single one of us is sporting He Man-like muscles or bulging biceps, not even close. In fact, I believe it’s us ladies who go heavy each time we weight train who have benefited the most in terms of muscle toning, shape and faster metabolisms. Ultimately, how you weight train is something only you can decide, but I urge you not to be scared of it and definitely don’t be afraid to pick up that heavier dumbbell.
Q: How long do I have to spend weight training each muscle group?
A: As a rule of thumb, each muscle group should be trained to the point where you are struggling to complete your last two reps with good form; that will sufficiently fatigue the muscle and set you up for becoming stronger. Remember, form trumps all. It doesn’t matter how many reps you complete, if you’re lifting incorrectly, your workout will suffer and your routine will be much less effective. You’re also putting yourself at risk for injury, which doesn’t benefit anyone.
Q: Should I eat immediately following my workout and if so, what types of food should I choose?
A: Eating well after you exercise is super important, and what you put into your mouth matters. First and foremost, remember to drink water before, during and after you exercise. You lose a lot of water through sweating, and you need to replenish your body. When you’re finished, fruits (complex carbohydrates) and nuts (protein) are a great option to refuel your body. They will help your muscles repair themselves and come back stronger and ready to propel you further during your next workout.
Carissa D. Lamkahouan is a career writer, journalist and mum of three. She enjoys fitness, reading and travelling to Morocco, the homeland of her husband. She has been a Muslim since 2005 and lives in Houston, Texas.