Enlightening Exercise Explanations


Fabulous reader enc is a fitness instructor. She is also one of my favorite human beings, so when I found myself mulling over some exercise-specific questions, I knew I could ask her. And I knew she wouldn’t laugh at me, and that she’d give me thoughtful, comprehensible answers.

What I DIDN’T know is that she’d poll some of the fitness and health experts in HER life to give me multi-perspective answers to all of my niggling questions. And the reply she gave me was so fascinating and enlightening, that I just had to share. With enc‘s permission, of course!

* * * * *

SAL: Isn’t ALL exercise beneficial? If I were to chuck the weights and just bike for an hour every day, would I be healthy? Is it really important to work as many muscle groups as possible, watch your anaerobic threshold, and all that if you’re not trying to TONE?

ENC: It depends on what your goals are. If you had previously been completely sedentary, and now you’re taking 30-minute walks every day, then yes, that exercise is beneficial. But is that really all you want to achieve? I think also that each person needs to know why they’re trying to “get in shape.” I find the best results come to those who want to “live longer,” or “be healthy” versus “fit into a smaller size of jeans.” The “whys” really influence the results.

The marathon runner is going to have different goals from the competitive bodybuilder. The swimmer is going to have different goals from the bikini model, and the martial artist is going to have different goals from the competitive cyclist. And all these people will have different goals from the 35-year-old woman who wants to lose ten pounds/drop a size, and tone up her general look. So it’s important to look at who you are and what you really want to accomplish. Then it helps to set specific goals and specific time periods in which to achieve those goals. Time-frames and goals allow for a sense of accomplishment, which is important to building confidence and self-esteem in a person. I know this from personal experience.

Here’s some input from my friend Leslie (she’s over 50), who mentored me in Group Exercise instruction and who has been designing Group Exercise curriculum for years:

As far as weights, they are essential to support bone density for women as we age. So weight lifting is the best way to keep up with it. Yoga, pressing body weight, is another alternative to this as well but there haven’t been any studies I’m aware of that indicate it works as well as weight lifting. But once we hit 50, our body doesn’t take in calcium as well, so weight lifting is the way around that.”

In the end analysis, the most beneficial exercise is the one you will do, so if all else fails, do something. But, as females, we should all be concerned with bone density and how we eat. Lifting weights a couple of times a week and eating a sensible diet being mindful of how many calories are needed in a day is a good lifestyle.

SAL: I’m especially interested in this as it applies to weight loss. A makeover client of mine teaches here at the U and has studied the long-term effectiveness of diets. She’s found that dieting just messes you up, and the only way to truly lose weight long-term is to find exercise you love and do it.

ENC: I sort of agree with this, because doing exercise we love is the only way we’ll keep at it. Regular exercise will take some weight off, it’s true, but we can do more. If we do the exercise, and don’t see the weight loss results we want, it’s time to address food and eating habits.

I think what we eat, as well as how much we eat – and how often – is important. Each person needs to find what works for them. For some people, three squares is how they operate best. For others, grazing throughout the day is the answer. Of course, the old chestnut of burning more calories than one eats applies. For me, it’s been the only way.

I think the word “dieting” is dangerous; it is fraught, and the act of dieting just puts a Band-Aid on a problem. Nobody can keep up a “diet.” We all return to our regular eating habits after awhile when we think of what we’re doing as “dieting.” I think it’s important to look at changing one’s eating habits for a lifetime of healthy living. I think we need to analyze what we’re eating and ask a really tough question of everything we put in our mouths: “What are you doing for me?” If something is devoid of nutritional value, I don’t want to eat it.

If you’re after general good health, then do a little bit of everything—this is the reason trainers have us doing so many things. It’s to address all our general health needs. Once you’re in general good health, then you can start winnowing down the focus. If you want to run a marathon, maybe you’ll run more than you’ll lift. If you want to compete as a bodybuilder, you’ll do more lifting than cardio. If you want to lose body fat, you will want to do a little bit of everything: some cardio, lift some weights, and of course, you’ll relegate Ding Dongs to the Infrequently-Eaten Treat Menu 😉

* * * * *

I’ve been lifting weights for many, many years. The years that it’s toned my arms, I’ve really enjoyed it. Years like this one – in which I’ve gained muscle mass, but it’s masked by fat – I get frustrated and want to flick it in. But honestly? I had NO IDEA about the bone density thing. None! And I like my bones dense, people. So I’ll keep on keepin’ on, now a little wiser.

Image courtesy handles.

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32 Responses to “Enlightening Exercise Explanations”

  1. Sunny

    I loooove lifting, I'm not a huge fan of running but I do it as a warm up before lifting. I also like horseback riding, or walking the dog, pretty much anything outdoors!
    I'm a really tiny girl, and I hate people offering to help me (although its a nice gesture) and I love being able to do things on my own most of the time, plus combined with my major as a hopeful Nutritionist/Dietitian, I exercise to yes, live longer and healthier!

    I've gotten a lot of rude comments along the lines of "You're skinny, you don't need to work out!"
    But my goals aren't to lose weight, but to be a stronger, healthier person overall! This was a really motivating post you made, thanks!!

  2. Leia

    This was such an interesting read! I've recently started exercising properly. I feel ashamed to admit this, but because I've never had weight problems and have always hated sports, I used to avoid exercise like the plague. BUT I've been making a real effort to search for things that I enjoy so that I can live a healthier life. I don't lift weights (but I'm 21, hopefully I'm not having too many problems absorbing calcium at the moment!) but I love bellydancing, as well as Pilates and yoga. I do jog and get on the stationary bike once in a while if I'm feeling sluggish and just want to burn calories, but I much prefer the first three types of exercises because they're FUN and don't really feel like TOO much work. Once I get stronger and fitter, though, I will have to incorporate weights into my routine!

  3. MP

    After the little lady was born I decided that I needed to get my butt in gear. I hired a trainer with the goal of getting healthy by my 30th birthday (three years away…I like to make my goals achievable). I LOVE my trainer and have found it's the only way I get into the gym. I love how much more healthy I feel, even though I haven't lost any real weight. So 3x a week I do 30 mins of strength training and 30+mins of cardio on the rowing machine. It works for me!

  4. spacegeek

    I've always exercised in one form or another until I had my children. As a kid it was running, horseback riding and swimming. In college it was running. In graduate school it was biking and weight lifting. In my 30s it was yoga and walking. Then I had my children… pretty much full stop. An occasional walk.
    We recently got horses on our property, and I'm trying to get back into the horseback riding. I miss the intensity of exercise.

  5. L

    I really liked this post! I'm trying to find exercise that is right for me, and while it's been a challenge, I'm doing my best to keep at it. This mini interview is definitely motivating me to do some arm weights this morning and then go swimming this afternoon.
    Speaking of arm weights, could you do a quick post about the arm routine that you do?


    great point, it's essential to support bone density for women especially…taking Vit D & calcium isn't enough I heard… Great post-thanks Sal & Enc!

  7. Oranges And Apples

    I know that weights are supposed to be good for you, but I find them incredibly boring. I am a complete yoga convert. When I used to do weights I must not have been doing it very well, because I ended up with massive biceps and not much else even when I did all the triceps stuff. But since I started doing ashtanga yoga, I have seen a complete difference in how tonedI am. I now have visible muscles in my shoulder, and I used to think they were a myth. I also like that yoga is a complete form of exercise: a bit of cardio, a bit of toning, a bit of stretching, and the relaxation/spiritual stuff too, which you can ignore or take further as you see fit. And it doesn't get boring because there are so many poses. I still go cycling and swing dancing for fun, but I seriously think that if your main aim is to get fit, flexible and toned, doing as much yoga as possible is the way to go.

    Good post, this!

  8. LPC

    I lifted weight all my adult life. Recently I stopped going to the gym, and consequently stopped lifting weights. I keep telling myself that walking is enough. I'm wrong, clearly. Time to start again – this time with my son's weights that are on the floor of his bedroom. Not joining a gym shouldn't be my excuse. We all need a little nudge sometimes, thanks for the reminder.

  9. K.Line

    This is a great interview with ENC! Very smart questions and terrific, well considered answers. I do think of bone density – even though osteoporosis does not run in my family. And I only do exercise I love – because only liking something will motivate me. I do cardio mixed with strength training but my means are walking 2 hours a day FAST (cardio) and doing Iyengar yoga (strength training). I'm not particularly "hard core" in my attitude. I used to be much more so but I'm too tired for that now 🙂

    But, in my 30s I pay much more attention to calories, nutrition and my metabolism. For most of us, as we age, that's the only way to maintain weight. (Of course, exercise helps to burn calories and keep the body healthy and running well, but lots of new studies posit that it doesn't impact weight loss as much as was once thought).

  10. Leah

    I love this post… I do more cardio exercises as of the moment. And I eat sensibly, just don't tempt me with chocolates and choco mint ice cream. Hahaha!

  11. pretty face

    I did weights for a bit, when I had access to a fitness instructor and gym, as you know. And I loved it. But right now I have to keep my exercise fere, so I only really do cardio. And this week, I have been so busy with school that I only managed to go running on Saturday and Monday so that's not going too well either…

    Luckily I have a few years to wait 'till I'm 50 and the bone density becomes an issue.

  12. kristophine

    I never really got into weights until I started going to the gym and discovered weight machines. I find them very soothing–there's a standard position, graphs, and diagrams, in addition to clearly marked weight bars, so I can check that I'm doing it right AND gauge my progress.

    The bone density thing was what got me into it, too. I took an Anatomy & Physiology class and learned about the actual physical processes by which exercise improves bone density, cardiovascular function, and mood–I've struggled with depression most of my life, and it was a real relief to discover that getting some cardio and weight training, which made me feel better about my body anyway, would also help stabilize mood swings and help me cope with stress.

    (The pathway is related to stress hormones that, among other things, regulate blood sugar. Your hippocampus normally puts the brakes on stress-related hormone release, but–surprise!–prolonged high levels of stress hormones actually kill hippocampal cells, so your brain gets worse and worse at managing stress the longer you're under it, and hippocampal neuron death is linked to depression. It is reversible. You can search for "hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis" if you want to know more.)

  13. Sal

    Kristophine: HAH! No wonder I always feel better after I've lifted … will definitely check this out.

  14. budget chic

    I hate exercising but my doctor has strongly suggested that I start walking or something. So I gotta do it.

  15. La Belette Rouge

    Fantastic interview. I am so happy to see ENC here and back at her blog. I have missed her much.

  16. Jingle Bella

    My exercise is definitely not well-rounded … I do about an hour of walking a day (that's essential just getting to where I need to go – I can't cycle, so walking's the only option) and then have been doing a few hours of dance a week (though sadly that's not been happening during the summer). I think if I was a member of a gym I'd quite like weights machines, but I don't like free weights.

    *goes off to amazon.co.uk to check out some pilates DVDs*

  17. ambika

    I have a friend who's a trainer who really defends weight lifting and has changed my view on it tremendously–not only that lifting weights is crucial but that lifting heavier weights can be key as well. Women are so afraid of bulking up, but the way she explained it, it's almost impossible to get that bulky weight trainer look unless you are lifting intensively and with *very* heavy weights. Using 2 lb weights instead of 15s, when I'm perfectly capable has become a thing of the past.

  18. isleen

    I've always been athletic, but I let that fall by the wayside in the past couple of years because I gained some immoveable pounds. I figured, if I wasn't going to be enviably thin (yes, I admit, I used to be THAT girl) then why bother?

    I changed my tune recently when I realized how much regular exercise made my body feel healthier, boosted my mood, and gave my back my LIBIDO! I kid you not, no exercise = no fun times for my hubby. I have no idea what the connection is, but if going to the gym 4-5 times per week makes THAT big of a difference in our lives, I'm willing to do it with or without weight loss.

    Oh, and you've inspired me to add another day of weights — I usually only do one day per week, I'm guessing I should do at least two, along with my weekend Pilates.

  19. Anonymous

    Interesting post, but I don't think anything will ever make me like weightlifting! I've tried it a few times but it's really not for me.

    My exercise routine varies along with my health. The doctor doesn't know why, but I get phases where I'm really weak and exhausted for months and other phases where I'm fine.

    When I'm well, my favourite exercise is horseriding and I also do yoga, tai chi and cardio (through my Wii Fit and DVDs). I hit a rough patch in June and although my energy levels are recovering now, I don't want to do exercise that has me on my feet because I'm getting lower leg pain when I stand & walk. So basically all I can do right now is a few yoga poses (the lying down & sitting ones) and riding without stirrups. At least I'll have a really deep seat & kick-ass balance when I'm back to normal!

  20. AsianCajuns (Lauren)

    Great questions, Sal, and great advice, Enc and Co.!
    I'm just starting to work out again, and I'm trying to work lifting-weights (even though I hate, hate, hate them- I have no idea why). It's good to read something encouraging and reinforcing as this post to remind me why I'm sweating through a work-out session. Thanks, ladies!
    Hope you have a great weekend, Sal!

  21. Hanako66

    this is very interesting! I am just getting into exercising regularly and am making sure to have weight training at least 3 days per week.

  22. enc

    Lots of cool comments here! I'm glad to read that so many people are exercising *their way.*

    I agree that sometimes, lifting weights can be boring. Sometimes it's all I can do to make myself do bicep curls, but I do them anyway, and I'm always glad afterward.


  23. Manda

    hmmm i agree that this is a useful, interesting post though maybe i have a slightly different perspective. i experienced negative body image, eating disorders and excessive obsessive exercise. when i was getting well i realised i needed to change my attitudes around food and exercise. to do this i stopped exercising. completely. i ate whatever i pleased, whenever i wanted and ate as much as i wanted. i stopped weighing myself (something i still don't allow myself to do) but for a long time i still mentally counted calories, felt the urge to vomit or force myself to 'burn off' a meal. there was so much guilt and negative feeling around nourishing my sick body.

    i had to let go of all the positive and negatives that most people associate with diet and exercise, for example – 'good' food, and the idea it is 'bad' to be inactive. i am fit and active now, but in a different way. i will never again go for a run or join a gym but i bike to work, walk to the supermarket. i made being active a part of my life that is removed from health, weight, image, diet and fat.

    so no, i don't consciously take enc's approach but wholeheartedly agree that diets are a dangerous thing and maybe i don't tick all the boxes, work all the muscles i should or lift enough to protect my bone density but i am happy and healthy. i genuinely love my body and i never feel guilty about anything assoiated with exercise, fitness, food and health.

  24. Sheila

    I really need to do more weights than I do (which is minimal), in addition to the aerobic exercise that I do (which is a lot). Thanks for the great post!

  25. Jenava

    I might just be assuming too much, but doesn't building muscle by lifting weights also help you burn more calories when doing your cardio workout, because you have more muscles? Plus, your resting calorie burn is greater….I think I read that somewhere. Consequently, I always combine weight lifting with cardio when trying to lose weight because, lord knows, those cardio workouts are tough and I want to make the most of every second!

  26. roryborealis

    Nothing new to me in this post, but it's lovely to see sane, accurate, positive non-body-hating fitness information on a fashion blog.

    I've been a distance runner since my teens (er, a while back) and hope to do my first ultramarathon in 2011. I also lift free weights three or four days a week.

    In the past month I have discovered the wonder that is vinyasa yoga, and with that I feel like my fitness routine is finally well-rounded. Not only does yoga nicely dovetail with a lot of the strength training I do (especially the more acrobatic inversion poses), it has actually helped running be more comfortable. Like many runners, my hamstrings and hips tend to be quite tight, and yoga is loosening them up like no other stretching routine I've experienced. Plus, it feels great to not be tense all the time.

  27. Stefka

    I love the feeling I get when lifting weights, and for me it's a key part of health and fitness. I really notice the jump in my metabolism when I start a focused weight-lifting routine.

    And as for anyone who criticizes us for lifting weights or getting "bigger muscles" – forget them!! Strength does NOT correlate directly to muscle size…and as enc notes, there are many options for "how" to weight train, depending on what your goals are. I have a relatively high muscle mass without lifting weights (it's genetic), but I lift anyway because I still need to maintain strength to stay healthy and to avoid injuries.

    My mom (who's 67) has been taking a weights class for the last 5 years, and recognizes that it has had a HUGE impact on her health, mood, and her ability to stay active.

  28. Queen Michelle

    I do absolutely no excercise at all and at my age I am becoming very aware of the fact I should be looking after my body more. The problem with me is that although I'm slim, excercise makes my muscles bulk up really quickly for some reason, and I'd rather have a sinewy frame than a really bulked up one, but don't know how to achieve that.