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By Stacey Colino
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

When it comes to exercise, how do you measure success (or even progress)? Some people are so gung-ho about getting fit (yesterday!) that they do too much too soon, burn out and throw in their sweaty towels. Others get hopelessly lost in the details, wondering whether to be most concerned about the duration, distance or intensity of their workouts. Still others play a numbers game as they try to hit a personal best during each tryst with the treadmill or elliptical trainer.

What should you be aiming for? It's a good question, fitness experts say. But before you can answer it, you need to know what your fitness goals are. "The basic issues are: What do you want to get out of it? Why do you want to exercise?" says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist with In other words, your target will depend on whether you're exercising to stay healthy, lose weight or run a marathon.

After getting an accurate pulse on your underlying motivation, the next step is to be SMART about how you frame your fitness goals. That is, establishing an exercise goal that's Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (to your life) and Time-bound, explains Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

"Rather than saying, 'I want to get in better shape,' which is a goal that's too nebulous, you should really define what that is -- that you want to be able to run four miles without stopping, [for instance]," Bryant says. "Once you do that, you can start to break it down." Let's say you currently run out of steam after a mile: You might set your sights on running two consecutive miles within a month then add a half-mile to your target every two weeks until you've reached your goal.

But if you're exercising to boost your health or well-being, your aim might be quite different. The Surgeon General's guidelines, along with those of many other health associations, recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. (During "moderate" exercise, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but you shouldn't be able to belt out your favorite show tune.) Instead of thinking about how hard or fast you're moving, "it's better to develop consistency and regularity," Bryant says. "What you're thinking of is punching the clock, hitting that minimum target each day."

For those who have been exercising consistently, it's fine to think about stepping up intensity. "If you do the same activity over and over at a set rate, once the cells in your muscles or bones adapt to being able to do that easily, they don't adapt any further," explains Carol Torgan, an exercise physiologist in the District and a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "In order to get further improvement, you need to provide additional stimuli by increasing the frequency, intensity and/or duration."

At that point, the key is to increase your workouts gradually so you don't set yourself up for injury or exhaustion. A good rule of thumb, exercise physiologists say, is to increase the speed or duration of your workout by 10 percent per week.

Or you can alternate hard and easy workouts, Bryant says: During one workout per week, go for increased intensity or duration but not more than a 20 percent boost; then, in the next workout, make it slightly easier than what you'd been doing normally. "This gives your body sufficient time to adapt to and recover from the additional level of stress and allows you to avoid significant muscle soreness," Bryant explains. Alternate two hard sessions with three easier ones each week for the first month, followed by three hard sessions and two easier ones each week during the next month, and so on, until all five of your workouts in a given week are at a higher intensity.

At the gym, it's easy to get into a beat-the-cardio-machine mentality. Don't. Besides upping the risk of injury, becoming obsessed with the machines' digital feedback can be misleading. For one thing, there's a considerable margin for error with the calorie-counting. "The feedback is based on the assumption that you're not [leaning] onto the machine's handrails," Bryant says. "If you're offloading 20 to 30 percent of your body weight, you can reduce the calorie burn by 20 to 30 percent. Getting into this whole numbers mind-set can be counterproductive."

That's why ACE-certified personal trainer Ted Vickey, president of FitWell, a fitness management company based in Vienna, prefers that people focus on exercising hard enough to get into their target heart zone (60 to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate). "If you aim for that zone range, you can then cross-train between different machines," Vickey says, by trying to stay in that ideal intensity range with each activity.

While your age, fitness level, body weight and overall health can affect how quickly you reach your fitness goal, rest assured: If you exercise regularly, the feel-good fitness gains will come.

"Regular physical activity is like a fountain of youth," Torgan says. "It may prevent, delay or ease cardiovascular problems, diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers. It can improve mood and sleep, reduce stress, anxiety and depression -- and even increase life expectancy." In the end, these may be the measures that truly matter most. ยท

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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