News | Monday, 13th January 2020
Top tips for starting to get fit — from our experts
Advice on making the best of your new exercise regime, and the pitfalls to avoid
Have you made a New Year's resolution to get fit and healthy but aren't sure about how to go about it?
Here three of our academics provide their top tips to sticking to your goal and how to set yourself up for success, from training and nutrition advice to psychology and lifestyle tricks.
Firstly, Dr Gladys Pearson, Deputy Director of the Musculoskeletal Science and Sports Medicine Research Centre, gives her five recommendations for beginners on how to approach exercise and diet.
1) When to exercise
People feel as though they have a body type – they might consider themselves a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person. We carried out a research project where we took people who classified themselves as a Morning, Evening or Not Decided person and had them train in the morning one day, at midday the next and in the evening the third. What we found was that, regardless of what body type you think you are, your hormonal background prefers the evening in terms of optimising your training responses and your muscle increment potential. You are stronger in the evening and the effort will feel less even though you’re lifting the same amount of weight, and you have better balance of your testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, which means you have more muscle-building hormone than muscle-breaking down hormone.
2) Type of training
If someone is looking to get fit and improve their cardiovascular health, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) shows you get a lot better results than with longer, relatively gentler exercise. HIIT is when you are working at more than 80 per cent of your maximum capacity for a very short period of time, typically a minute, and you have a minute or two-minute break and repeat the exercise, such as jogging on the spot. It’s particularly good for people who don’t feel they have got the time to exercise. You could fit in a 15-minute HIIT session at home with no equipment or machinery needed – just your own body resistance – and get as good a result as someone who spent an hour or more at the gym doing similar exercises at a lower intensity, 40 to 70 per cent of their capacity, as part of a normal training regime, such as an exercise class. High tempo music is important with HIIT as you need a soundtrack to help you really max out and reach what you feel is your limit.
3) Carbs vs Fat
Fat has been given a bad press for a very long time when the biggest culprit is actually carbohydrate. Our bodies prefer to work with fat as a fuel, while carbs are more of an energy storage resource, ready for an emergency fight-or-flight response. If you’re giving your body it’s preferred source of fuel – fat – you'll feel less hungry and when you’re not eating, your body will resort to burning the stored fat you already have instead of asking for more food. The key is not to mix carbs and fat because when you consume both together, such as eating a cake or big sandwich, carbohydrate causes an insulin spike. This encourages a very quick opening of the cells to gorge and store whatever new source of energy is available, and your cells are more likely to prefer to take in fat and store it as fat rather than burn it as fuel. In other words, deconstruct that bacon sandwich if you can bear to do so! Eat your carbs half an hour or an hour after your fat. In fact, once you start to eat your fat separately, you’re less likely to start craving carbs.
4) Intermittent fasting
A lot of the time in today’s society we eat constantly so our body is forever yo-yo'ing between high and low sugar and insulin states, which makes it difficult to lose weight. It means every time we’re a little bit hungry, we eat and sometimes we mistake thirst for hunger. Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle where you try to shorten your eating window to give your body time to learn to live in a low insulin state and learn to utilise other sources of energy in the body, namely your stores of fat. For those people who can manage it, I recommend the earliest to eat is 12 noon and the latest to eat is 9pm. If you avoid breakfast and only have your first meal of the day at about midday, you will have given yourself around 12 hours’ fasting, which is good, long enough to give your blood sugar and insulin levels a chance to settle at a low level, rather than being kept constantly in a state that makes you more dependent on external energy source (meaning you feel hungry). Knowing how to break the fast is also important: start with something full of protein rather than carbs – think a bar of good quality dark chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa rather than porridge, even if it sounds strange for people to hear! With intermittent fasting, the feeling of hunger will normally last for approximately the first two weeks and will then decrease substantially as your body gets used to recycling its internal energy stores. The second reason why intermittent fasting is useful is that it restricts your total daily calorie intake, although you need to ensure you consume at least 1,200 calories a day to prevent your body falling into ‘starvation’ mode.
People don’t realise how important sleeping is. Our circadian rhythm regulates our daily cycle of hormones and when you don’t sleep enough your level of cortisol – the hormone that encourages the storage of fat (through its effect on insulin) and modulates your stress level – remains raised, and you’re more likely to crave carbohydrates and store fat. A good diet and a routine of getting enough hours’ sleep are actually more important than exercise for your body composition.
Secondly, Professor Neil Reeves, Professor of Musculoskeletal Biomechanics, provides three key ideas on getting your training right in order to improve your health and fitness.
6) Don’t forget strength training
People are interested in weight management and losing body fat and the activity they most often turn to is cardiovascular exercise, so walking or running. However, resistance exercise training – otherwise known as strength training, where you are using relatively heavy loads to train muscles –can actually be beneficial as well. It covers things like using weight machines in the gym, using your own body weight as resistance in a squat or a press-up or using the stretchy training bands. One of the reasons for that is that our muscles in the body demand a lot of energy and they use a lot of energy even when we’re just at rest. If you can improve the size, strength and quality of your muscles, it helps the body use more energy when you’re resting and helps in weight management. Secondly, it will help you sustain cardiovascular exercise for longer, improving your fitness.
7) Concentrate through the entire movement
When people are doing strength training exercises, typically involving lifting and lowering a weight or a band such as in a bicep curl, they often forget about the lowering phase. They let their arm drop or drop down in a squat without much control because they think the movement is over. People should concentrate on both the lifting and lowering phases. The lowering phase is when the muscle is lengthening and that’s equally, if not more, important than the lifting phase when the muscle is contracting. People should use their muscles to control the weight down. Form is important and sometimes people mistakenly want to use heavier weights at the expense of technique, certainly when starting out.
8) Muscle soreness
People often get muscle soreness after exercise and it puts them off. But it’s completely natural. It’s called delay onset muscle soreness and it develops typically a day or two after exercise. It’s brought on by eccentric exercise, the lowering phase that happens when we’re lowering a heavy weight, or descending stairs or running downhill. The good news is, the more you keep doing this kind of exercise, the more the soreness will disappear. You can get over it by continuing to practise eccentric exercise. The soreness is a symptom of the muscle improving and becoming stronger.
Lastly, Dr Martin Turner, Reader in Psychology, discusses how to ensure you have the right mindset from the start to be able to reach your goal, even with the inevitable challenges and setbacks
9) Plan properly
When starting any new fitness regime, you need to set your goals in a specific and structured way. You need to define an Outcome goal, various Performance goals that contribute to that outcome, and for each Performance goal you will have Process goals that help you meet each Performance goal. For instance, in order to complete a 5km Parkrun – your Outcome goal – you need to split it up into individual Performance goals, which might be firstly to be able to run 1km, and build it up from there to 1.5km and 2km over consecutive weeks. Another Performance goal might be to improve your diet in order to train properly. Another might be to avoid injury.
In turn, those Performance goals break down into Process goals: what do I practically need to do –tasks I’m fully in control of – to achieve my Performance goal? This involves simple steps such as setting your alarm early enough to be able to go on that run before work, organising your kit the night before to ensure you are ready to go in the morning, learning some new healthy recipes to help you with your diet, making sure you stretch before each training session. The mistake people make is that their plans are not detailed enough: they only set an Outcome goal and think it’s enough to have something in the distance to aim towards. But they end up haphazardly trying to reach the goal, come up against issues such as injuries and then have no idea what went wrong, or how to overcome this adversity. You need the structure of Outcome, Performance and Process goals and far from being complicated, the idea is that once you break your goals down and focus on attaining each Process goal in turn, it becomes simple.
10) Contingency plans
You need ‘If... Then’ plans. These are contingency plans, or implementation intentions, used to frame your goals and also address the various barriers and adversities that come up in pursuit of meaningful goals – ‘if I want to achieve X, then I will need to Y’, or ‘if X happens, then I will do Y’. For instance, people can say to themselves ‘If I run 1km this week, then next week I will run 1.5km’ or ‘If I become uncomfortable and in pain when running, then I will slow down and rest’. It’s important because when people set themselves goals they sometimes think it’s going to be an easy and direct route to success, and all they need to do is complete the Process goals and they will reach the Outcome goal. But the problem is, they will fall ill, get injured, fail, or have a change in their life circumstances, because many things in life are outside of their control. It’s not enough just to be reactive, you need to try to use some forethought to consider what potential things could happen (‘if’) and what you would do to mitigate them (‘then”).