In This Article
- Why you need to be physically active
- The physical and psychological benefits of lifelong activity
- Program options for an effective workout
- Monitoring yourself for success
When it comes to managing your health, diet prevails. However, you can’t be truly healthy unless regular physical activity is a part of your life, too. Diet and exercise are the dynamic duo. Whole-plant foods flood your bloodstream with nutrients, and exercise distributes those nutrients into your cells. The innumerable benefits of staying fit make a consistent exercise program vital.
In this article, we explore the myriad health benefits for both mind and body resulting from an active lifestyle. While exercise can play an important role in daily activity, remember that exercise isn’t a magic bullet. The opposite of sedentary isn’t “working out”; the opposite is active. Exercise is a way to schedule in activity in a short period of time, but it will not mitigate a bad diet. What and how often you eat will dominate your health.
We break down the separate components that together define fitness, and show you how to incorporate each one into your routine. Remember, fitness, like a healthful diet, is a process that includes continual assessment, monitoring, and progression. Your journey to excellent health requires that you keep moving!
With approximately 640 muscles all eager to contract and expand, your body was built to move. Your heart, of course, is also a muscle, and it needs regular exercise to maintain optimal function. Your body is more likely to rust out than to wear out, so move it or lose it!
Exercise encompasses several features that together define fitness—strength, cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, flexibility, and balance. You need to incorporate all these factors into a program to maximize results so you thrive in every way possible. Certain types of exercise incorporate several fitness components. Walking and jogging, for example, improve balance, cardiovascular capacity, and muscular endurance all at once. You can train these attributes separately or combine them for an individualized program of your choice.
From stable energy and decreased stress to improved sleep and cognitive function, exercise has an extraordinary ability to improve your life from every angle. And consistency is key. You’ll find plenty of ways to design a perfect exercise program, but the truth is, doing anything is beneficial—as long as you do it regularly. This dedication keeps all organ systems in your body conditioned.
The Physical Benefits of Exercise
Nothing feels better than post-workout euphoria. Every cell in your body rejoices for the gift you’ve given it. Among a multitude of physical benefits, exercise …
- Encourages nervous system communication.
- Boosts immune function.
- Increases insulin sensitivity.
- Develops positive bone turnover.
- Reduces stress.
- Protects the heart and blood vessels.
- Stimulates the endocrine system to release healthy hormones.
- Metabolic Myths of Exercise
We discussed the cellular power plants, the mitochondria, that fuel all cell activity. This activity ranges from basic cellular repair functions and enzymatic activity to the coordinated functions required in the contraction of muscles during a push-up. Each cell’s respiration results in the utilization of oxygen and fuel and generates carbon dioxide, water, and heat. When a lot of cellular activity is happening at once, our breath rate increases to dump all that carbon dioxide formed, and we begin to sweat to eliminate the waste heat. The unit of measure for metabolic energy and activity is the calorie (technically a kilocalorie). We see similar calorie labels on food, which indicate the amount of energy contained within a serving.
Your metabolic rate changes from minute to minute, moving up and down, to match the required energy for the current level of activity. Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the lowest energy required for basic life functions and all activities will increase metabolic rate from basal. Researchers typically measure BMR first thing in the morning when the subject is rested and fasted. Even the process of digestion necessitates a “boost in metabolism” as so many people will ascribe to certain foods.
Metabolism is the whole range of biochemical processes that occur in your body and are necessary to maintain life. Basal metabolic rate (BMR), a measure of the rate of metabolism, is the minimum energy needed to sustain the metabolic activities of cells and tissues to maintain circulatory, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and renal processes. Thermic effect of food (TEF) is the increase in energy expenditure associated with the processes of digestion, absorption, and metabolism of food.
Seems like managing your metabolism should be pretty simple, right? Yet how many times in the past have you counted calories, busted a move in the gym, and not seen a shift on the scale? In other articles we learned about oxidative priority, how recently ingested food is metabolically disposed of based on the body’s ability to store it. We also learned that during these metabolic boosts, sometimes called the thermic effect of food (TEF), the metabolic energy of the rise isn’t primarily coming from fat stores and consequently these boosts do little to move the scale. It turns out that the metabolic activity of exercise works much the same.
As this applies to metabolism of activity, realize that the body has reserves of glucose and fat. While both of these fuels add to the number on the scale, it’s only fat loss we are after and activity largely burns glucose.
You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
Yes, eating meals boosts metabolism. Yes, exercising increases daily expenditure. Yes, the calories on food packages are generally accurate. No, you can’t add all of these up into a table and easily predict weight loss or gain. It’s much more complicated. An active lifestyle unquestionably promotes health span and longevity. Exercise improves overall fitness and conditions all the muscles in your body, especially your heart. These are all great reasons to be more active, but don’t be fooled into believing that the metabolic magic of exercise is going to wipe out poor choices on your plate.
Immune function is greatly enhanced through active lifestyles. People who exercise regularly report fewer colds and sick days than their sedentary peers. The reason is twofold. First, running parallel to our circulatory system is the lymphatic system. Because the lymphatic system doesn’t include a pump (like the heart, which acts as the pump of the circulatory system), it relies on muscle contractions to move lymph fluids throughout the body. Activity stimulates this process, which encourages the elimination of bacteria, viruses, and other immune stressors.
The circulatory system consists of the heart, arteries, capillaries, and veins, and is responsible for transporting blood, oxygen, and nutrients to all cells in the body. The lymphatic system includes vessels and lymph nodes separate from the circulatory system that filter out microorganisms and other toxins before it returns fluid and protein to the blood. The lymphatic system carries white blood cells throughout the body to help fight infection.
Physical activity also suppresses the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, which the endocrine system secretes when tension is induced. Constant stress makes you vulnerable to illness at all levels, from colds to heart disease. Simply having an outlet for the stress through movement is also beneficial. It’s impossible not to feel calmer after a workout.
Your sleep also improves with a more active life. Moreover, it enables you to reach a deeper, more restful state when you do sleep, making repair and regeneration superior. Sound sleep is essential for immune system function, among everything else. There really is no substitute for a good night’s rest.
Heart-healthy cardiovascular exercise (also known as “cardio”) has a major influence over risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Consistently raising and sustaining your heart rate lowers your blood pressure, “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, and total cholesterol. Interestingly, exercise is one of the few effective ways known to raise your “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels. Working out is a far superior option to taking cholesterol-lowering medications—more benefit with no harmful side effects.
Cancer risk is also reduced with exercise. Colon, breast, endometrial, prostate, and lung cancer incidence can significantly decrease with a consistent fitness plan. This may be because exercise helps maintain ideal body weight, reduces excess hormones in your blood, moderates insulin and IGF-1 levels, boosts immunity, and suppresses inflammation. These are all cancer-promoting factors.
Once a cancer diagnosis is made, exercise may help improve outcome. Quality of life is enhanced, and fatigue is reduced. Physical activity boosts cancer survival and decreases chance of recurrence. It’s never too late—and always advantageous—to kick up your activity to the next level.
Support your plant-fabulous diet with a consistent dose of exercise, and you’ll maximize the benefits of both. Together they make the perfect team.
The Psychological Benefits of Exercise
An undeniable example of the interconnectedness of mind and body is the psychological response to a more active lifestyle and exercise. Moving your body positively affects the way your mind functions. All you have to do is pay attention immediately after you finish your workout. Endorphins, neurochemicals produced in the body that act as natural painkillers, flood the brain and cause a rush of calm, clear, and comfortable feelings. Mood is stabilized, stress is reduced, and cognition is enhanced.
But the bliss doesn’t end right after your workout. Regular exercise has long-term benefits as well. A steady workout program can measurably minimize depression, anxiety, and stress while improving body image and self-confidence.
Being active isn’t automatic. Typically, your energy levels hit peaks and valleys throughout the day, and you may struggle to keep yourself steadily vitalized. Exercise notoriously balances those waves and helps you maintain stamina all day long. Being filled with energy empowers you to be productive, sustain a level mood, handle stress, stay motivated, and sleep more efficiently. If everyone ate a whole food, plant-based diet and exercised regularly, productivity would be unparalleled!
Choose Your Physical Activity
“Active”—not “exercise”—is the opposite of “sedentary.” Before we get into some of the more technical aspects of exercise, let’s spend a little more time discussing an active lifestyle. You don’t need to change into workout clothes or count calories, reps, or steps to be active. Instead, it is more of a mindset. From cutting the lawn to vacuuming, there are always ways to put more pep in your step and turn the mundane into activity or opportunity. Of course, there are many calisthenics that can be easily incorporated into the day. You can use apps and activity trackers to prompt you regularly with reminders to move and breathe. It’s easy for repetitive exercise to become too mechanical or boring for some, so get creative. You probably know already whether or not you like the gym or the group workout environment. For those who don’t gravitate to the competitive and intense, you need to make certain that regular physical activity is a priority in your life.
For physical activity, one hour of moderate exercise 5 to 7 days per week seems to be the sweet spot for health benefits. Moderate exercise should pass the “talk, not sing” test. During appropriate activity, you should be able to easily carry on a conversation but be too winded to sing. With plenty of physical activity options, you can choose activities based on what you like. You’ll never have a problem finding something you love—or at least something you can tolerate:
- If you thrive in a creative environment, dancing or weight training is perfect.
- If you prefer simplicity, walking, jogging, and swimming are excellent.
- Are you competitive? Sign up for a sport or a race, or take a class at the gym.
- Need variety? Try a new activity every day, developing a varied program to keep it interesting.
- Live by the ocean? Work out on the beach or take up kayaking, windsurfing, or surfing.
- Enjoy focusing on the mind-body connection? Yoga may be right up your alley. Or try martial arts, which challenges your mind and body while getting you in fighting shape.
If you have no idea what to do and feel intimidated, personal trainers are eager to take your fitness to the next level, no matter what shape you’re in. (Just be sure you choose a qualified individual—more on that later.) Ultimately, find something that makes you feel great, tickles your fancy, and keeps you going.
Let’s take a look at some types of traditional exercise so you can better choose the one that’s right for you.
Technically, cardiovascular endurance is defined as the ability to increase stroke volume and maximize cardiac output while reducing your resting heart rate. Simply stated, it’s a well-conditioned heart.
Stroke volume is the amount of blood pumped from the left ventricle of the heart with one contraction. Cardiac output equals the total amount of blood flow from the heart during a specified period of time, or stroke volume multiplied by heart rate. Cardiac output is regulated by the amount of nutrients and oxygen the cells require, as well as the requirement to remove wastes.
One way to measure your progress with a cardio program is by your heart rate. On average, a resting heart rate, or the number of times your heart beats when you’re completely inactive, is 60 to 80 beats per minute. In physically fit individuals, this rate is lower.
Test for your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. Simply find your pulse, either by your carotid artery on the side of your throat or on your wrist. Have a stopwatch or a watch with a second hand ready. Use your pointer and middle fingers together to locate your pulse, not your thumb (it has a pulse of its own). Ideally, count the beats for an entire minute. You can also count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply the result by 6.
For maximum cardiovascular benefit, you need to keep your target heart rate between 60 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, or the greatest number of times your heart can beat in a minute. Your target heart rate is the recommended intensity level to ensure adequate stimulation of your cardiovascular system based on your age. Calculating target heart rate is a useful tool for setting and monitoring fitness goals. Here’s the formula:
(220 – your age) × .60 and .85
The first number (× .60) gives you the low-end of the range, and the second result (× .85) is the high end.
An easier method of determining whether you’ve reached your target heart rate during exercise is to note whether you’re out of breath but not gasping for air. You should find it difficult but not impossible to talk.
When your body is working hard, as during exercise, your cardiac output increases to meet your body’s demands, resulting in enhanced fitness. Exercises that improve cardiovascular endurance engage the large muscle groups for a sustained period of time, allowing the heart rate to remain elevated. Endurance exercises include walking, running, swimming, cycling, jumping, hiking, and using an elliptical trainer, step mill, or stationary bicycle.
For improved endurance, exercise a 30-minute (or more) session most, and preferably all, days of the week. You can break up the time into 10-minute intervals for an accumulated total of at least 30 minutes a day. Done every day, this adds up to approximately 600 to 1,200 calories of extra energy expended per week. Of course, this depends on many variables, including your age, weight, muscle mass, and intensity of exercise.
Muscular strength is the ability to exert force on a physical object using muscles. Muscular endurance is the capacity of the muscles to sustain a repeated force over a period of time. These two components are individually important, and each is trained differently.
To improve strength and muscular endurance, a force needs to be applied methodically on a regular basis. A strength-increasing program positively impacts muscle endurance. However, the inverse is not true. Emphasizing endurance won’t necessarily enhance strength gains. To illustrate, imagine you want to build muscle and gain strength. You develop a program in which you progressively increase the weight used for your sets. Because you lift the weight during each set for a number of repetitions, you incidentally improve endurance.
Strength training, also called resistance training, requires the use of machines, dumbbells, barbells, tubing, or your own body weight to create a force your muscles can resist. Consistency is key, as muscle is hard to build but easy to lose. Programs vary depending on goals, but ideally, you should work each major muscle group at least once a week.
Strength training can lead to injury if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve never worked with resistance, either hire a qualified personal trainer for a few sessions or watch an instructional video on how to do certain exercises with proper form. The last thing you want to do is sustain an injury when you’re trying to boost your health.
Here are some calisthenic exercises you can do (these require no or minimal equipment):
- Push-ups (on the wall, from your knees, full push-up, with feet elevated)
- Triceps dips
- Plank holds
- Abdominal crunches
- Calf raises
- Lunges (forward, stationary, walking)
- Side planks
- Bear crawls
- Wall squats
- Single-leg balances
Typically, a strength-building workout consists of 2 to 4 sets of anywhere from 4 to 10 repetitions per exercise for each muscle group. As you get stronger, you must increase the weight to continue building strength. You may need to do two to four different exercises per muscle group, depending on your objectives. When you’ve reached your strength goals, you can maintain them by lifting the same weight but increasing repetitions when your sets start to feel too easy.
To build endurance, use a lighter weight for longer sets, with more repetitions per set. For example, you can perform 3 sets of 15 to 25 repetitions.
Stretching is the most neglected component of fitness. Yet the benefits are infinite, and improvements happen fast if done regularly. Flexibility matters because it elongates muscles, which enables movement and protects the joints.
Flexibility is a joint’s ability to move freely through a full and normal range of motion. Many factors influence joint mobility, including genetics, the joint structure itself, neuromuscular coordination, and strength of the opposing muscle group.
The benefits of regular stretching include increased performance and decreased risk of injury. Training also increases blood supply and nutrients to the joints. This improves circulation and nutrient exchange and decelerates degeneration of the joint tissues.
The most effective way to stretch is to hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, breathe deeply, and relax into it. Be sure your body is warm before you begin by warming up with a cardiovascular activity to prevent injury. Stretch each major muscle group after you use it, and be consistent. Daily practice is best, and dedicating at least 10 minutes during each session optimizes results.
Currently “functional fitness” has inundated the workout scene. And justifiably so. Taking rehabilitation and injury prevention to the next level, exercises are specifically intended to enhance activities of daily living, such as walking, sitting up, preparing meals, eating, lifting, and bending. Essentially, it’s fitness aimed at surviving and thriving in the real world by preparing the body to handle physical stress.
Training functionally usually entails a lot of core work to strengthen the muscles used to protect the back and maintain posture. (Your core is the group of muscles located around the trunk of your body—the abdominal muscles: rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and external and internal obliques; the pelvic floor muscles; and the spinal stabilizer muscles.) Exercises that incorporate the entire body are used as well. The focus is on improving balance, strengthening the entire body, and elongating muscles.
Engaging in sports is a great way to stay in shape without even realizing it. If you have a competitive spirit or just enjoy the challenge, you can sign up to play sports locally or round up a group of friends and start a team. Whether it’s basketball, softball, or soccer, opportunities abound for everyone from the former high school jock to the seasoned athlete.
Accountability to a team will ensure you show up. Plus, you’ll be motivated to maintain your fitness level, knowing your performance depends on it. Huffing, puffing, and being unable to keep up with your teammates, will inspire you to keep heading to the gym.
Always be sure to warm up before you play a game or practice, and stretch during and afterward. Also strengthen the muscles you use in the sport on different days with resistance training to enhance performance and prevent injury.
Just Move It!
Regardless of your workout program, always include movement throughout your day whenever possible. Get creative in finding ways to do so. Consider these examples:
- Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator—even if it’s five floors.
- Park far from the entrance of where you’re going.
- While you’re talking on the phone, stretch; do squats, lunges, pliés, or calf raises; or walk up and down stairs.
- When you’re in your car stopped at a stop light, squeeze your glutes and your abdominal muscles until the light turns green.
- When doing dishes or brushing your teeth, do leg swings, calf raises, or abdominal squeezes.
- Drink a lot of water all day so you get up and walk to the bathroom more often.
- When scheduling a get-together with friends or a romantic date, include an activity like a hike, a jog, or a hot new fitness class. Wall climbing or salsa dancing is sexy and fun!
- While waiting in line, squeeze, hold, and release different muscles throughout your body. Nobody notices you making isometric contractions, but you improve blood and lymph flow.
- If you watch TV, stay active while doing so. Do calisthenics on the floor. Place a minitrampoline, step, or other cardio equipment in front of the TV—and use it! Save movies or recorded TV shows you’re excited to watch when you’re exercising.
- On your way anywhere throughout the day, don’t just walk. Instead, either run or do walking lunges to your destination.
- Sit on a large stability ball instead of a chair at your desk to engage your core muscles. (I, Julieanna, wrote this entire book while sitting on my big, red, stability ball.)
Go to the Gym or Work Out at Home?
You may be a gym rat or a gym-phobe—it all depends on your personality. Gym-goers may like being around other people and taking classes. Each comes with its own benefits.
Working out at the gym means you have a convenient assortment of equipment options and classes. You’ll find inspiration oozing from surrounding gym members, and you’ll also have the opportunity to learn new exercises by watching others or asking a trainer. Plus, there’s more variety at a gym than you’re likely to get at home.
If you do exercise at the gym, be sure to plan your workout before you get there. Also, schedule your workouts according to the gym’s less-hectic times so you can have your choice of equipment or space in the classroom. And always bring some water and a towel.
If you prefer to work out at home, you can still achieve a progressive and balanced workout program. Literally thousands of online videos, workout DVDs, podcasts, live streams, apps, and other high-tech options are available for free or for rent or purchase in every genre of fitness. After some trial and error, you’ll know which work for you and challenge you in a good way. Be sure to vary the workouts; don’t get stuck on just one or two. Variety is the spice of your fitness life, so shake it up often.
You can purchase a wide assortment of workout equipment for your home, from the small and inexpensive to the large and costly. Dumbbells, kettlebells, foam rollers, exercise balls, and rubber tubing can fit easily into any home and are an affordable way to stay in shape. This equipment usually comes with instructional videos or manuals so you have an idea of how to use them. You can find additional resources online or at your local store.
On the other end of that spectrum are large pieces of equipment that may fit into your space and price range. Commercial-grade treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes have come a long way in the last several years. So have other types of fitness equipment, like total body resistance machines and Pilates equipment. Ultimately, what matters most is finding something you either love or at least can commit to.
Many personal trainers do in-home training. In fact, that’s how I worked my way through graduate school. I spent 12 years going to people’s homes and getting creative using tubing, their furniture, and even their kids to make fitness fun and effective. You can hire a certified personal trainer for a short period of time to help you set up a program or, if possible, on an ongoing basis to motivate, monitor, and help you progress.
Working out at home means you can wear whatever is most comfy (even your torn-up sweats) and not have to worry about what anyone thinks. Plus, there’s the convenience factor—if you’re home, you’re at your gym! And unless you live with others who will also work out in your gym, equipment and space in the classroom are always available. As a bonus, you can enlist the support of your family members—or even your pets!
From home, you can always go for a walk, hike, jog, bike ride, or swim if you have access to a pool. Depending on the weather, you may prefer the outdoors anyway.
The take-home message here is that you need to be active. It will enhance your health in hundreds of ways and be well worth the effort. How you divide up your training (how much cardio versus strength workouts, for example) isn’t as important as just doing something. Find what works for you and stick with it. The rewards will come instantly, and they’ll only get better with consistency.
Keep these tips in mind while planning your workouts:
- Set goals for yourself that are realistic, measurable, and timely. Write them down, and re-evaluate them often.
- Incorporate all the components of fitness into your training regularly.
- Don’t announce goals to your family, friends, or fellow gym-goers. Contrary to popular opinion the brain may view these announcements as progress, even where none is made. Let people notice your progress.
- Schedule your workout into your day and prioritize it. If possible, do it first thing in the morning, because excuses tend to build up as the day goes along.
- Keep your body guessing. The moment your workout feels easy, kick it up a notch. The only way to continue seeing results is to constantly challenge your body.
- There’s no need to be a fitness model or a gym rat to get the benefits of physical activity. Don’t let perfection get in the way of consistent performance.
Monitoring Your Progress
Stay tuned in to your workout program. It should be a dynamic, fluid process that bears results immediately and continuously. You should always feel great afterward and see gains in endurance (you can go farther or for longer), strength (you can lift more or do more reps), flexibility (you can stretch farther), and balance (you can balance better). Keep track and be aware of your body.
Adaptation occurs quickly and often when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing in your workout program. Your exercise program should never feel easy. If it does, you won’t benefit, and you’ll get stuck in a plateau. Always consider adding more time, speed, weight, intensity, and/or frequency to keep your body challenged.
Adaptation is your body’s physiologic response to exercise. It occurs with a persistent training regimen and means your body has learned to cope with the stress you’ve placed on it from your current program. To avoid plateaus, change your workout frequently.
Another way to monitor your progress is to notice physical changes. You may weigh the same on the scale but fit better in your clothes. This is a great marker of muscle growth. Measuring yourself—chest, arm, waist, hips, thigh, and calf—affirms that your weight has redistributed. You may also be able to witness actual growth of muscles by looking in the mirror. Be sure to take note of how you feel, too.
And ask yourself some questions as you progress. Have you reached your current goals? What do you need to achieve the next goal? Assessment is crucial. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Do some problem-solving until you figure out what works best for you to attain your goals.
To achieve optimal health, you need a clean diet, plenty of rest, and relaxation or stress- management skills. Exercise completes the equation and adds quality to your life, pep to your step, and clarity to your mind. Embrace regular exercise—if you haven’t already—and you will thrive.
The Least You Need to Know
- Incorporating physical activity into your days boosts the benefits of a plant-based diet.
- Being fit incorporates cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. Include exercises to improve all these.
- It doesn’t matter where or what you prefer—find any exercise program you love and will stick to, and then commit to it.
- Keep your body on its toes. As soon as something becomes easy, change it up so you continue to challenge yourself and reap the benefits.