Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Training thresholds - The minimum amount required for healthy living

[This post is quite lengthy, but the contents is very useful and informative. Make yourself a cup of green tea, sit back and happy reading!]

I initially thought of calling this post "The lazy exerciser's guide to losing fat and living healthy," but then I realized that no one can call anyone lazy if they're actively trying to make improvements to their health and fitness. No, calling someone lazy when they're trying to improve themselves would be a wet slap in the face. But, in essence, that is what this post is all about. How can one improve their health and fitness in the most laid back manner possible? What is the absolute minimum effort required to become fitter and healthier? How can one gain, without any pain?

Questions like these lead us to the concept of training thresholds. A training threshold can be seen as the boundary of a circle, the inside of which denotes an area of progress. Everything outside the circle boundary can be seen as our comfort zones. Outside the circle, we never progress. Outside we can only stay the same, or digress. In order to progress physically, we need to step within the circle for a limited amount of time or, in other words, we need to cross the threshold.

Whenever we're inside the circle, whenever we cross the threshold, we place ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Our bodies always want to stay within the comfort zone, because that means less stress and trauma to our systems. To counteract the influence of stress and trauma, our bodies start to adapt to the stimulus beyond the threshold. This adaptation process is how we get fitter and healthier. Soon, the body is able to handle this stress and trauma, and what was once a threshold area, is now another level of normal comfort.

So what would be the minimum requirements for crossing this threshold, for how short a duration do we need to stay within the threshold area and how intense should our level of activity inside the threshold be to take us out of our comfort zones and into an area of adaptation and progress?

Fortunately, the minimum requirements to cross the threshold is indeed very minimal. Contrary to popular belief, you really don't have to sweat buckets in order to look and feel healthy and fit. For improvement we need to overload our bodies for a very short time and then allow it to adapt. That is, sustain a level of activity or movement above that which is normally comfortable for a minimal period of time and then rest long enough afterwards for the body to adapt and grow. This concept of overloading makes it easy to see exactly what qualifies as exercise and what does not.

According to the concept of overload, sitting in front of the TV does not constitute an activity beyond our comfortable levels. Reasons being that the activity does not overload our systems, or push us through the threshold. But, off course, you knew that already. So let's take an activity like walking for example. Many people go for a walk to remain active and maintain a reasonable level of health and fitness. If you never walk more than a few hundred meters a day (from your front door to your car, from your car to your desk, then back to your car and then back into your comfy chair in front of the TV) then a brisk walk around a couple of blocks will be a system overload, an activity that pushes you through the threshold and into the progress circle. This brisk walk is then your minimum requirement for overloading your system, causing your body to adapt and grow.

For a person who walks several miles a day, a few blocks will not be a sufficient amount to cross the threshold. Their bodies have already adapted to the stimulus of a few miles a day and can easily handle the walk around the block. Such a person must either increase the intensity (i.e. walk faster, jog lightly, wear ankle and wrist weights, etc.) or increase the duration within the threshold circle (i.e. walk for 30 minutes instead of 10, etc.). Only then can they overload their systems for adaptation and progress.

These examples show you how you can identify an activity that overloads the system and place you inside the threshold circle for improvement. Fortunately, you don’t have to think about whether an activity is enough for adaptation every single time, there are a number of basic physical parameters one may use to see whether the threshold is crossed or not. This leads us to the minimum threshold requirements for health and fitness improvement.

Aerobic fitness (read cardio) can be improved with only 20 minutes of effort at a heart rate of 60 to 80 % of your max heart rate. What is your max heart rate? It's not necessary to concern yourself about what your max heart rate is, what you do need to attempt is to keep your heart rate between 130 and 150 bpm (beats per minute) whilst partaking in cardio activities.

How can you determine what your heart rate is? Well, you can measure it by placing your fingers on your aorta in your neck, or on your wrist and then counting the beats in a 15 second time period. Multiply that number by 4 to get your bpm. Otherwise, you can invest in a heart rate monitor, a small device used to measure your heart rate. Also, many cardio machines these days have on-board heart rate monitors. You simply place your hands on the sensors and the machine will measure your heart rate and display it on the screen.

Which exercises can you do to increase your heart rate? The options are legion, but I include some of the most commons sorts. If you have access to a gym, then a minimum 20 minutes of cardio that'll elevate your heart rate to between 130 and 150 bpm can be achieved by walking on a treadmill, with the platform tilted so as to make it seem you're walking uphill, or making use of a stationary or recumbent bike, with some added resistance to the pedals, or by using an elliptical trainer, rowing machine, stepper, Stairmaster or Jacob’s ladder machine. An extremely good form of exercise for increasing your heart rate is swimming. If you have access to a swimming pool, go ahead and make liberal use thereof. Swimming has no impact on your joints, you can involve the whole body in the activity and the cold water will help you to lose more fat due to heat loss than what would otherwise have been with cardio machines.

If you don’t have access to cardio equipment like these mentioned above, then go for a brisk walk around a couple of blocks, or jog lightly. You could go for an uphill trial hike or ride your bicycle. And just as well, you could go for a swim, if you have access to a pool. There really are so many, many options available. Use your heart rate monitor, or measure your pulse to determine whether you’re progressing or not.

Muscle may be built by engaging in resistance training activities in which you move slightly more weight than 60% of your one rep max. What is a one rep max? It is the most weight you can move in just one repetition. If your one rep max for a bench press is 100 pounds for instance, then training with just 60 pounds will make you develop and tone your muscles. There is also one other means of developing muscle with minimal effort, and that is training to failure.

Failure is that point where you cannot move against the resistance even one more inch. It is the total fatigue of all muscle fibers in a given muscle group. How does training to failure help? When all the muscle fibers in a muscle group becomes fatigued, the body senses that it needs stronger fibers to handle the stress. The process of muscle hypertrophy then kicks in when you rest to strengthen the muscle tissues so that you’ll be able to handle the stresses better next time around.

It is much quicker and easier to train to failure, than it is to train at 60% of your one rep max, but it’s also more painful. You only need one set of an exercise if you train to failure, whereas you may need up to three sets of an exercise if you use the 60% method. Training to failure also enables you to do a body weight workout at home in as short a time as 15 minutes. In fact, just yesterday afternoon, my wife and I trained our legs by doing simple body weight squats and lunges back to back, until we couldn't walk anymore. It took us no more than 10 minutes and as I write this post today, I can definitely feel that I trained my legs yesterday.

So there you have it, the minimum requirements for health and fitness. You can improve your health fitness by engaging in just 20 minutes of cardio activity, which increases your heart rate to between 130 and 150 bpm every other day, and training to failure for about 10 to 15 minutes, using simple body weight exercises in the comfort of your own home, every other day. Cardio and exercises are performed one after the other so that you don’t do both at the same time.

These minimum requirements for aerobic fitness and muscle development will push you through the threshold and into the circle of adaptation easily and you’ll be able to improve in no time, if you perform these in conjunction with a healthy eating plan and adequate water intake.

Now that we know how little is required to make a health and fitness improvement, we can move on to another concept called progressive improvement. The human body has the amazing ability to adapt to the stimuli surrounding it. While this is great for survival, it does not bode as well for ongoing improvement of health and fitness. As you cross the threshold and step into the circle, your body adapts to the stimuli until eventually it becomes a normal activity. This is known as hitting a plateau. Further engagement in the same level of activity does not produce any more meaningful results, because it is no longer an overload to your system. To be able to improve further, we need to progressively increase the intensity and duration of our training activities, in small increments, to get fitter, leaner and healthier.

So, if you started off by swimming three laps in the swimming pool for cardio improvement, you’ll have to add one or two more laps for further improvement. And eventually, you’ll need to add more and more to that as well to make sure the body keeps on adapting and improving. This is what progressive improvement is all about. If you get to the point where you’re able to swim 15 laps for instance, and that is the point where you’re happy with your look and fitness level, then no further progressive increases are required. You can stick with 15 laps and simply maintain the state you’re currently in.

In the same vein, if you want bigger and stronger muscles, you’ll need to progressively increase the weight you use, in small increments. However, if you get to a bench press with 200 pounds for instance, and at that point you’re satisfied with your state, then remain at 200 pounds and simply maintain your level of fitness and your look.

With all this being said, increasing intensity, duration, frequency and rest (up to a safe point) will increase the rate at which fat is lost and new lean muscle is developed. In other words, the more you elevate your activity level above that which is normally comfortable, the more you do over and above the minimum threshold requirements, the faster you'll be able to lose fat and build muscle. So, if you’re looking for the absolute minimum required, then you've come to the right place, but if you want more and better improvements than what the minimum requirements deliver, then you’ll have to find yourself a program that increases intensity, duration, frequency and rest.

Keep in mind though that at a certain point, too much exercise, too intense, too long and with too few periods of rest in between is just as detrimental as living an unhealthy lifestyle. Too much training can lead to over training, a state in which the body releases cortisol and adrenalin to counteract the immense shock placed on your system. Cortisol has been shown to break muscle tissue down and over training may weaken your immune system and interfere with your sleeping patterns. So be careful, don’t train too much.

Knowledge of the minimum threshold enables the person with little available time, or the person who wants to improve health and fitness without too much pain for gain to do just that. This post can also be read in conjunction with my other post on how to lose fat without going on a diet orstepping one foot in the gym for nutrition tips that'll help you to lose many, many pounds of fat without breaking a sweat.

I always recommend that people engage in some form of activity, and now that you know what the minimum requirements are, you have no more excuses for improving your own levels of health and fitness. It really is so very easy to do.

Until next time friends, STAY TRUE AND TRAIN HARD! 

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