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New Year’s Resolutions: Getting Fit

In January 2008, our guest expert in Le Club's Ask the Expert segment was Pascale Bellemare, a kinesiologist at Montfort Hospital in Ottawa.

Pascale did her undergraduate studies in kinesiology at l’Université Laval in Quebec City. She then moved to Montreal to do a Masters degree in exercise sciences, specializing in cardiac rehabilitation at the Montreal Institute of Cardiology. She is a member of the Fédération des Kinésiologues du Québec.

Pascale has worked as a kinesiologist since 1998. She has had the opportunity to train women of all ages who suffered from various health problems, as well as pregnant and post-partum women. Herself the mother of one child, Pascale started a post-partum exercise program in the Laurentians. She has worked since 2007 in the cardiac unit of Montfort Hospital where she has coached women with cardiac or metabolic problems and other patients.

Here are Pascale’s answers to your questions on New Year’s Resolutions: Getting Fit:

Q: It's 10 years after having my last baby and I still have the abdominal dome in between my abs. I can't do sit-ups or any other exercises that put pressure on my neck or I get horrible headaches. How can I safely get my abs back in shape and get rid of that dome?
*Note: My first baby was by c-section. The second one was by home birth 10 years later. I don't know if that makes a difference.

A: Your abdominal dome may be due to two things: weak abdominal muscles or abdominal fat. If your abs are weak, you can do strengthening exercises involving the legs in order to tone them, such as the hip roll:

Hip roll

This exercise strengthens the abs without straining the neck. Another possibility is to do crunches with the help of an Ab Roller or other device that provides support for the head during the movement. However, this type of exercise is less effective than doing traditional crunches because these devices don’t work the abs exclusively, but also the arms, which reduces the abdominal work achieved.

If your abdominal dome is due to abdominal fat, ab-strengthening exercises will not help you. You’ll need to do some cardiovascular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day in order to help you lose the fat, which is not achieved with sit-ups or any other strength exercise.

Editor’s note: Another thing you can try to do in order to strengthen your abdominal muscles after having children is to work on the core abdominal group using the transversus abdominus. This is the muscle group that covers the entire front of the abdomen and is an ideal starting point for getting back into ab work. To exercise these muscles, tighten the stomach muscles as you would to squeeze into a tight pair of jeans without flattening your back, holding your breath or tightening the buttocks. Do this often throughout the day while sitting, standing and walking, holding for 5-6 seconds and repeating 5-6 times. To make this more difficult, try doing the ab tightening, (also called an ab set) while back lying and then try lifting one bent leg slowly and lowering and then the other leg. As you get stronger, try raising right leg (bent) then left (bent) without letting the stomach pop up. These exercises will strengthen the abs without straining the neck and will provide excellent support for the trunk and back.


Q: I have a lot of weight to lose (over 100 pounds) and also want to eat healthier. I have been eating smaller portions, more fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking more water as well as trying to get out and walk more. I have purchased some exercise DVDs (kickboxing) but they are too hard to do just yet. Could you suggest an exercise program that I can start off with that I can combine with walking to help me start to get in better shape and have more energy?  Thank you. 

A: If your goal is to lose 100 pounds, it’s important to consult a nutritionist or dietitian and a kinesiologist in order to reach your goal safely. You’ll need to adopt healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle and you’ll need qualified people to help guide you, if you haven’t already found some. Yes, kickboxing is indeed too demanding for a beginner. The following exercises could be interesting alternatives: low-impact aerobics classes (they exist on DVD), aquafit classes or swimming. If you enjoy walking, perhaps you would like snowshoeing as well. Gradually working up to 60 minutes per day of walking is very good exercise, provided you walk with enough intensity to feel slightly out of breath while still being able to speak. If you’re not out of breath at all, the exercise is not intense enough; if you are too out of breath, you need to slow down. For a complete weight-training program or other exercise program, you’ll need to be assessed by a kinesiologist so he or she can design a program suited to your specific needs.


Q: I am 44 yrs old and I am working as a hotel housekeeper. My question is: how do I know if I am living a healthy lifestyle?

A: You could get yourself a pedometer to ensure that you are moving enough at work to be considered active. This device will help you check if you are taking more than 10,000 steps per day, which is considered the standard for an active person. To improve your health, it’s important to do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. So if walking at work doesn’t leave you at all out of breath, you’ll need to do some more physically demanding exercises.


Q: I would like to know about a specific activity or exercise to strengthen my back. I have done spinning and downhill skiing (during the winter) twice a week for several years. As well, I am an aquatics instructor and teach 30 hours per week. At the age of 52, I am now for the first time feeling fatigue and pain in my back. I want to stay in good shape.

A: First, you need to determine if your posture is adequate while you’re working or performing physical activities. Do you hold yourself straight or are you constantly leaning forward? To have good back health, it’s essential to strengthen the muscles of both your back and your abdomen. However, since I don’t know what your current symptoms are, it would be wise to consult a kinesiologist to be certain that your activities are appropriate for your condition. I can however suggest two exercises that are often prescribed in addition to crunches for people suffering from back pain.

If your back is painful, it would be wise to begin with flexibility exercises such as this one: while lying on your back with your knees bent , bring your legs onto your stomach and hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.


If your back is sensitive but not painful, you can try the above exercise or the following: lift one arm and the opposite leg to the horizontal position; alternate with the other arm and leg until you have completed 10 repetitions on each side:


Editor’s note: Before doing any exercises to help your back it is imporant that you first obtain a diagnosis for your back pain from a doctor or therapist. If it is simply a weak core abdominal group with tight back and leg muscles, a gentle core stability program would be appropriate to initiate along with some stretching for the low back and posterior thigh muscles.However, please note that some back exercises may actually worsen your symptoms if they are not appropriate for your particular condition.


Last year, for the first time at age 49, I completed the Toronto Half-Marathon. I would like to run it again this year, in celebration of my 50th birthday, while raising money for cancer research. What do you recommend I do throughout the winter months to properly train? And how can I train in order to improve on last year's time (two hours, six minutes)?

A: Congratulations on your performance! I recommend that you visit the Montreal Marathon Web site: www.marathondemontreal.com. There is a section about training in the list at the left. You can find a half-marathon training program based on your goal time for your next run. Muscular endurance exercises for the legs will also help your performance. It would also be wise to consult a nutritionist to make sure you have the energy you need to complete your marathon. And don’t forget to drink before, during and after the run. Good luck.


Q: I am 48 years of age and do a variety of workouts including trips to the gym, swimming, cycling etc. My workouts in the gym are quite repetitive and I am wondering if I am spending the right amount of time on: warm-ups, stretching, cardio, weights, abs etc. How much time should be spent on each part of the workout and in what order should they be done?

A: It’s difficult to specify how much time you should devote to each component of your workout because I don’t know your exercise goals. If your priority is losing weight, focus on the length of your cardio workouts. If your priority is increasing your muscle tone and bone density, spend more time doing weight training. Finally, if you want to be more flexible, do more stretching.

I can however suggest a typical one-hour training session for anyone whose simply looking to improve her health: Begin with a five to 10-minute warm-up; next, do about 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of weight-training; to conclude, do some stretching for about five to 10 minutes.


Q: I am preparing for my second degree black belt in karate. Although I have found the physical aspects less challenging than the memorization of kata, I sometimes avoid certain activities such as tumbling and sparring because I am afraid of injury (including ripped tendons and retinal detachment). At 54 years of age, should I be wary of such activities or am I worrying unnecessarily? Apart from a good warm-up, is there anything I can do to avoid injury?

A: Although I don’t know much about Karate, I can certainly tell you that to avoid injury, you should choose muscle-strengthening exercises that target the muscles you use most during your karate classes. It would be wise to strengthen your wrists and ankles, among others, by doing specific exercises. Strong muscles provide better support to joints and are also more resistant to shocks.

Q: I am quite thin and find that if I embark on a jogging program I tend to lose too much weight.  Nevertheless, I feel that my current exercise program (pilates and weights for upper body strength) lacks a cardiovascular workout.  What type of exercise do you recommend that would be good for my heart, but wouldn’t lead to weight loss?

A: If you want to help improve your heart health, you’ll need to do exercises that use it, which means cardiovascular exercises. In order to limit the use of your fat mass while exercising, try doing so for shorter periods of time (10 to 15 minutes, two or three times a day). To avoid weight loss, eat more to compensate for the calories used during your cardiovascular activities. Weight-training exercises can help you avoid weight loss by increasing your muscle and bone mass. Do exercises for the lower body, back and abs in addition to the ones you do for your upper body. Do sets of 10 to 12 repetitions during your weight-training sessions and choose a weight that is heavy enough that your 12th repetition is relatively difficult.

Editor’s note: Consider consulting a dietitian or nutritionist for guidance on how many calories you will need to increase in your diet when starting an exercise program.


Q: I am pregnant and want to stay in shape. What kinds of exercise can I do during each trimester? Are there things I should avoid doing?

A: Exercise is an excellent way to stay healthy and happy during pregnancy, however, you must first be cleared by your doctor to continue or start an exercise program. During any part of the pregnancy, it’s important to avoid exercises that involve quick changes of direction jumping (e.g. aerobics, skipping) or a risk of falling (e.g. alpine skiing, skating). From the 4th month onward, you should avoid exercising or sleeping while lying on your back in order to avoid blocking the return blood flow to your heart (in the inferior vena cava); if such a blockage occurs, you may experience circulation problems or dizziness. Avoid high-intensity activities, saunas and steam rooms because they increase both your body temperature and your baby’s and may harm your baby’s growth. Hydrate yourself regularly while exercising. Avoid holding your breath. If you are used to checking your heart rate while exercising, here are some recommendations for pregnant women according to age:


Target zone (bpm)

Target zone for 10 sec.

Less than 20









40 and over

Consult your physician

Maintain good posture throughout your pregnancy and do exercises that strengthen your abs, back, chest and pelvic floor.

Editor’s note: You may consider asking your doctor to use a screening tool called the ParMedX for Pregnancy, which is available from Health Canada and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiologists. This tool is used to determine if you are having a low risk pregnancy. If your doctor feels that you can safely exercise, focus should be placed on maintaining or decreasing exercise in the first and third trimester. Starting a new program, or increasing an existing exercise program should only be done during the second trimester.


Q: I am 65 and just starting on an exercise program. I have my doctor’s approval. I’ve heard that you need to do cardiovascular training, strength training and stretching. Is this true? How should I fit all this into my schedule? What proportion of my time should I spend on each of these to make sure I am getting the benefits I need?

A: It’s true that cardio, weight-training and stretching are all important for good health. Each type of exercise helps you keep different parts of your body healthy: your heart, arteries, muscles and bones. At your age, it’s also important to work on your balance in order to avoid future problems, such as falling. Recommendations call for 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day, as well as stretching. As for weight-training, two or three sessions per week are recommended to achieve benefits. You could choose to join a gym and follow an exercise program that contains each of these components.

You could also do activities that involve several of these components, such as tai chi, which improves balance, flexibility, muscle tone and, for some, even cardiovascular health. If it is done with moderate intensity, walking provides cardiovascular benefits and improves leg strength at the same time. Walking with walking poles improves balance, arm and leg strength and cardiovascular fitness. Swimming works your cardiovascular system and improves arm and leg strength. Many classes are structured in a way that works each component of your physical health equally: low-impact aerobics, 50-plus aquafit classes and more. You have many options to stay in shape in your own way.


Q: I just joined a gym as part of my New Year’s Resolution. In the change room, I hear long-time members complaining about how crowded it is – and then they tell each other not to worry, it won’t be crowded in a month once all the new members stop coming. How do I avoid being one of the drop-outs they are talking about? I want to keep motivated but it seems the deck is stacked against me.

A: First, ask yourself if you like the exercises you are currently doing. You will not continue with your exercise program if you don’t like it. It’s essential to ask yourself what kinds of exercises you like to do. Do you enjoy walking? Do you like exercising in the water? Do you prefer exercising inside or outside? Do you like to exercise alone or in a group? You need to ask yourself these questions in order to determine if joining a gym is appropriate for you.

If you think not, perhaps you could become adept at another type of activity that is just as good for your health. You don’t have to do a structured gym workout to stay in shape; a nice moderate-intensity walk, a dance class or a swim can be other solutions. Have you ever tried snowshoeing or cross-country skiing? These activities might help you enjoy winter more as well. Whatever you choose, always try to do something that you enjoy enough to stick with it for the rest of your life.


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