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As lockdown continues, and we face another few months of life without access to our traditional gym settings, I have been inundated with questions regarding training strategies that can be implemented at home.
One of the most common questions being asked, unsurprisingly, surrounds training; more specifically, how much training should I do, and what kind? Six days a week? Four days? Should I run? Or do HIIT training?
My favourite answer is one that often invites a blank stare, or perhaps a subtle eye roll. I have found that, especially when it comes to fitness and nutrition, people want direct, concrete answers...and this answer is anything but that. That answer is... it depends.
In trying to determine how much, and what type, it is prudent to start with what we should NOT be doing. We are now living in a world, whether we like it or not, that is stressing our psychological and biological systems more perhaps, than the world before lockdown.
Do not underestimate the physiological stress being placed on our bodies and minds with all the uncertainty in society currently, and the mere fact that we are largely now more sedentary, and more isolated. With that being said, we must be careful not to engage in any activity that is going to further enhance this stress.
Looking at lockdown as an opportunity is a great thing; looking at lockdown as an opportunity to suddenly DOUBLE the amount of exercise you're doing is not. The same can be said for nutrition. Utilising this time to work on building some great habits that you can carry on beyond lockdown is something we probably could all be doing... maybe eating more vegetables, or focusing on maintaining better hydration.
However, engaging in a crash diet, or completely turning the way you eat upside down could possibly do more harm than good. The reasoning here is simple. The sudden change to any system causes stress. This stress, with regards to our biology, is a surefire way to drive cortisol (the body's stress hormone) up, which can compromise our immune system. If ever there was a time to be avoiding immune system suppression, it's now!
With this thinking in mind, there is another point to consider; the high-intensity model. In fitness today, sex sells, and apparently to many of us, there is nothing sexier than a man or woman in minimal clothing sweating their ass off in the latest 15-minute fat frying inferno blast!
This may come as a surprise to many, but these high-intensity training modalities should be largely avoided. I do believe there is a time and place for ramping up the intensity, but this must be done carefully, in a very well thought out manner, and should absolutely not form the basis of one's training. Too much high-intensity training is not only unsustainable, but it will also lead to burnout, and compromised immune function.
We also must consider varying movement patterns. Bodyweight training is a fantastic tool, however, it is all too tempting to rely on the same movement patterns over and over. A classic one I have seen of late are things like press up challenges. This is where someone sets themselves the goal of doing say 100 press-ups every single day for a month, or in some cases even more.
This can be problematic, as it invariably leads to overuse issues. While many people can do bodyweight exercises on a daily basis and not feel sore the next day, this doesn't mean we should do it. Though circumstances have changed, the basic principles of physical training have not. Varying movement patterns is a key component to achieving balanced and long term health and fitness.
Finally, one last point before we tie all this together...
There is a false assumption in many people's minds that because running is such a primal, fundamental modality, we can all do it. The truth is, we can't. At least, we can't all just decide to start running, and then go out and do it.
Running is a skill. It must be practised, and you must earn your way to it. Unbeknownst to many, there is a prerequisite in terms of relative strength that must exist before you lace up the Nike's and start pounding the pavement. The bottom line is that running is for some, and not for others. We don't all need to do it...there are many other forms of exercise that deliver great benefits, without the drawbacks and injury risk of running.
For those that truly want to start running, there of course is a path you can travel to get you there. For many, it may involve walking 3 days a week first for a month before graduating to a gentle jog.
Regardless, there must be an honest assessment of where you truly stand in fitness, especially as it pertains to running, and then a plan must be in place to get you to where you want to be.
If you have made it this far through the ramblings of a semi-literate Ex-Marine, well done. Let's put it all together. Here, plainly put, are my answers to the burning questions of what kind and how much?
1. If you have been engaged in fitness before lockdown, do your best to change as little as possible. Keep your routine, i.e. your training frequency, as close to the same as it was before. Granted the movements may change with limited equipment, but if you have been strength training, keep doing so. With some creativity, we can practice great strength training and get great benefits, even with bodyweight.
2. If you were not engaged in fitness before lockdown, starting your journey in fitness is a great idea, so long as it's done smartly. Have an honest think about where you stand within fitness. It might be that simply going for a walk for 30-60 minutes a day is a great start. That may, over a few weeks or months, evolve into a few full-body resistance (strength) sessions 2 or 3 times a week, with some longer walks outside in the sun on your off days. This type of training, resistance combined with longer aerobic work (a brisk walk absolutely counts as long aerobic work), is THE best practice for immune system function, health, and longevity.
3. If you are someone who is looking to increase the frequency in which they exercise during the lockdown, whether out of sheer boredom or for continuing progress, do so gradually. If you are someone who has been training 3 times a week, you might consider adding ONE session per week and keeping that consistent for a period of time before adding anything else in. The same goes for anyone wanting to run more. If you run twice a week before lockdown, say for 30 minutes each time, you can add a third run. However, to begin, try taking the runs down to 25 minutes each. This equates to 75 minutes of running a week, an increase of 15 minutes over your previous 2 x 30 minutes. This is significant.
4. Use this time for small, incremental changes, not life-altering, turn your nutrition upside down, changes. This is the time to build habits that will last a lifetime. Small changes, small successes, and easy wins. That's the way forward.
5. If nothing else, avoid habits that will suppress your immune function. Sudden dietary changes, ramping up intensity and volume in your training, or adding needless and unwanted stress to your biological systems, could make you less physiologically resilient.
While these points may not apply to every single person out there, they do apply to the vast majority. For those who are competitive athletes, trying your best to keep your edge during the lockdown, that is a different conversation (and one I would LOVE to have). But for most who are looking for health, longevity, and long term success in fitness, these strategies are your best path going forward, lockdown or not.
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