You’d like a straightforward answer: Precisely what you need to do to stay healthy, keep in shape – and continue to fit into your favorite jeans.
And lately, no doubt, you’ve been bewildered by a barrage of recommendations on just how much exercise women need (advice ricocheting anywhere from 30 minutes three times a week, to a full 60 minutes a day).
But, health and fitness experts caution, there is no supreme cardiovascular doctrine: Exercise simply isn’t a standardized, one-size-fits-all system.
“There are a lot of different body types out there,” explained Susan Ahlers, a personal trainer at Health Coaches in Portland. “Everybody is going to react to an exercise program in different ways.”
Of course, there is a baseline: Thirty minutes of some sort of moderately intense physical activity nearly every day, according to the American Heart Association. But add in any number of factors – a goal to lose a small or a significant amount of weight, a pregnancy, high blood pressure, risk factors for certain diseases or cancers – and that can shift significantly.
So, then, just how much – and what – you do is quite a personal matter.
For those beginners out there, try starting with 30 minutes three to four days a week, Ahlers suggested.
If you stick with it, you’ll feel a boost in your strength and endurance and you’ll soon be able to bump up to four or five days a week for periods of 30 to 45 minutes (which is a good bet for those looking to drop some pounds or alter their body composition, she noted).
And especially for those striving to lose weight, you have a built-in gauge.
Specifically, aim to exercise so that you’re working at between 80 and 90 percent of your maximum heart rate (you’ll need a heart monitor to do this, and you can identify your range by subtracting your age by 220, then multiplying the result by both .8 and .9), according to Jessica Gagne, personal trainer with Mobile Fitness Personal Training in Portland.
Still, fitness professionals urge, your exercise time should go beyond treadmills, StairMasters or step classes. Ask most any physical trainer, and they’ll recommend a robust mix of both cardio and resistance training (or weight-lifting).
Which might scare you a little – you’ve seen those rippling, bulgy-muscled Ms. Olympians on ESPN.
But trainers get that a lot.
Getting bulky from weights “is a fear that a lot of women have, absolutely,” Ahlers acknowledged.
Often, though, it’s unfounded.
As Gagne explained, “It’s really hard for women to get bulky muscles. The only way a woman is going to bulk up is if she’s lifting heavy, heavy weights.”
So don’t feel you have to spend hours grunting at the bench press. Instead, try light weights with lots of repetition, or more functional exercises that mimic daily activities.
But if you’re still reticent, maybe this’ll change your mind: Weight training not only builds muscle, it revs up your metabolism.
As Gagne explained, strength training tears muscle fibers, and, as the body heals over the next 24 hours, it continues burning calories.
Ultimately, she said, “It increases your metabolism, which helps you burn more fat and lose more weight.”
Overwhelmed? Try getting advice from a trainer, or start out with group classes. In any case, discover something that will stir up your motivation.
“Find the activities you really enjoy,” Ahlers advised, “and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.”
Also, fitness goes well beyond the part of your day you spend at the gym. So try to stay active throughout daily life, Ahlers said – work in the garden, walk your dog, mow the lawn, play with your kids.
“Activities outside the gym contribute to a good, healthy body,” she said.
And don’t consider yourself out of the game if you’re overweight or elderly, or if you have health problems or are nursing an injury. There’s an exercise out there for everybody.
“Anybody can move who wants to move,” said Gagne. “You just have to want to do it. That’s really the bottom line.”
Trainer Jessica Gagne works with client Deborah Russell at Mobile Fitness Personal Training in Portland. Strength training is great for women, says Gagne. “It increases your metabolism, which helps you burn more fat and lose more weight.”