SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Whether you've been working out for two weeks or two decades, you're probably making mistakes that prevent you from getting optimal results. Here are some exercise dos and don'ts from top fitness pros.If You're Just Starting Out
Work out every day. That's right, seven straight. "It's important for beginners to form an exercise habit. Doing something daily, even if it's small, helps with consistency," says Liz Neporent, a New York City-based trainer and coauthor of The Fat-Free Truth. For the best results, don't overwhelm yourself. Neporent recommends aiming for 30 minutes of cardio every day and strength training twice a week for two to three months, or until you feel that exercise has become an ingrained part of your daily routine.
Stay loose. Whether it comes from a lack of confidence or a determination to lose weight f-a-s-t, beginners are particularly prone to tensing up when working out. "If you're white-knuckle-gripping the bars on the bike and clenching your teeth, you're wasting a lot of energy," says Tina Vindum, founder of Outdoor Action Fitness in Marin County, California. "Relax the muscles you're not working, and focus on the ones you are. You'll have more energy and get better results."
Get stuck on the treadmill. New exercisers often do the same routine for the same duration and at the same intensity every time they work out. "So you'll stay on the treadmill until you either die of boredom or get hurt," says Charleene O'Connor, an exercise physiologist at Clay fitness club in New York City. This bad habit gets reinforced because, as your workouts get easier, you're fooled into thinking you've become uberfit. In reality, your muscles have just grown accustomed to the challenge. Be sure to mix up your routine by varying your time and intensity and by cross-training on the bike or elliptical machine, or by going for a jog outside.
Be a slouch. Whether you're leafing through the latest gossip rag on the elliptical or curling dumbbells on a bench, straighten up. "Posture affects your mood as well as your performance," says Vindum. Slumping causes you to check out of your workout both mentally and physically. The less you focus during your sweat session, the less you'll receive in the way of benefits. Slouching also keeps you from breathing deeply, which is necessary for delivering the oxygen your muscles need to work at full capacity.
Set new goals. It's easy for gym regulars to hit a slump and stop seeing the benefits or having the fun that kept them motivated in the past. Before you start dodging gym dates, find a new challenge: Sign up for a 5K, or plan an active vacation like hiking the Tetons or kayaking and surfing in Baja, suggests Steve Glass, PhD, of the Human Performance Lab at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.
Breathe better. To improve your performance, focus on your breathing, says Vindum. "Inhale deeply during the rest phases of an exercise, and exhale forcefully in the work phases." Try inhaling to a count of three and exhaling to a count of three. A powerful exhale can help you generate more force, which means you'll be able to do more work.
Skimp on shoes. Choose footwear for its functionality, not because it's stylish, says O'Connor. Inadequate shoes can lead to injuries, so go to a sporting goods or athletic-shoe store, where knowledgeable staff can fit you with shoes designed to support your feet during specific activities. If you wear your shoes regularly, make sure to replace them every three months. Though the treads might still be intact, the cushioning and support in the midsoles will likely have worn out by then.
Be unbalanced. Most regular exercisers are diligent about including cardio, strength, and flexibility in their routines, but they forget about balance, says Vindum. This critical skill allows you to move fluidly and avoid injuries. At the end of your workout, stand on one leg and lift the other out in front of you. Try to hold this for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat with the other leg. When this move gets too easy, you can shake things up by closing your eyes, making circles with the raised leg, and/or standing on the edge of a step, balance disk, or Bosu.
What you hate. Many advanced exercisers don't like struggling with things they aren't naturally good at, so they avoid the exercises that really challenge them, says O'Connor. But those are the moves that help build a stronger, more balanced body and prevent overuse injuries. Whether you're avoiding squats, crunches, or stretches, add the moves to your routine two or three times a week.
Work out with someone slower. Once a week, exercise with a buddy who moves at a more leisurely pace. You'll give your body a chance to regenerate, and maybe you'll even have a bit more fun. Fitness fanatics tend to exercise competitively: "That's why this group has a higher injury rate; they're always pushing as hard as they can," says Glass. "You need to take it easy periodically so your muscles can repair themselves and become stronger before your next workout."
Be a slave to the numbers. Tracking your heart rate or running time can provide instant, valuable feedback; but when used obsessively, these tools can dampen the joy of exercise itself -- or even make you push yourself when you're not feeling 100 percent. "Every now and then, go unplugged and focus your attention on what your body is telling you," advises Tim Church, MD, MPH, PhD, medical director of The Cooper Institute. Move at a pace that feels good, listen to your body, and enjoy the experience.
Eat like an Olympian. Energy bars and sugary sports drinks are necessities for top athletes who struggle to meet caloric demands out on the playing field. But unless you're training for the Ironman, a 200-calorie energy drink and a 300-calorie carb bar can undo all your hard work, says Neporent. Fuel up with three balanced meals and two light snacks, such as fruit and crackers, per day. Any more than that will just go to your waist.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July 2006.