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First steps toward fitness

July 27, 2012

By Patricia Nicholson

The best athletes in the world are gathering in London for the Olympic Games, and around the world people are taking a seat on the sofa to watch them compete. But it’s also a great opportunity to get inspired by the Olympics, and to get off the sofa and become more active.

To encourage all of our readers to act on that Olympic inspiration, Women’s Health Matters spoke to Dr. Julia Alleyne, medical director of Sport CARE at Women’s College Hospital, and chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic team. Dr. Alleyne also served the Canadian Olympic teams in Salt Lake City, Torino, Beijing and Vancouver. Before she left for London, we talked to her about what steps can be taken to become more active and improve fitness levels.

First, sedentary people should complete a short screening test before starting activities.

“If you have never been active we would recommend that you complete a questionnaire called the PAR-Q,” Dr. Alleyne says. The PAR-Q, or Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire, is available online from Health Canada, or at any gym. “It is seven questions to screen whether or not it is reasonably safe for you to start an exercise program without a medical assessment.”

Start low, go slow

If you’ve passed the PAR-Q, the next step toward getting fitter is to increase the amount of activity in your daily life. That means moving a bit more whenever possible, whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the escalator, getting up from your desk more often, or parking a bit farther away and walking the extra distance.

“That in itself is part of increasing your fitness because we’ve lost a significant amount of daily activity with technology and with sedentary lifestyles,” says Dr. Alleyne.

Once you’ve added more activity into your daily routine, it may be time to add some cardiovascular activity. Dr. Alleyne recommends starting with a low-impact program.

“That may be walking, it could be cycling, it could be swimming, but it’s something that’s a little bit easier on the joints than a high-impact activity such as running or skipping or a high-impact class,” she explains.

Remember: it’s important to start low and go slow.

“You don’t actually go to the level that you think you want to be at, you start much lower and build up,” Dr. Alleyne says. This allows your body to accommodate new activities, prevents injuries and allows you to get used to your new activity and decide how you want to customize your routine to suit you.

“For example, with a walking program, you wouldn’t start with an hour walk – even though you may have read that that’s something useful or is something that your friends do,” Dr. Alleyne says. “You’d start with 10 minutes.”

That 10-minute walk should give you some valuable information about how to customize your activity so it best suits you: are your shoes working for you, or do you need to change them? What route will you walk? What time of day do you like to walk? How do you feel 24 hours after your first 10-minute walk?

The next day, increase your walk by 10 per cent, and continue to increase by 10 per cent increments.

“So you actually go from a 10-minute walk to an 11-minute walk, and you gradually build up,” Dr. Alleyne says. “And all the time you’re customizing it to what you enjoy.”

The final addition is weight, or resistance.

“I usually add toning then as step number three,” Dr. Alleyne says. “So you start initially getting your whole body moving and then you start to target with specific muscle groups.”

Choosing an activity

When choosing a fitness activity, Dr. Alleyne notes that enjoyment might not be the first priority.

“You don’t actually have to like the activity,” she says. “I do have people who say ‘I hate exercise,’ but they feel better, they are motivated by health benefits, they understand the need to do it and therefore that becomes their reward, versus the enjoyment of the actual activity. So they find something that they can succeed at and that they can tolerate.”

If you’ve never been active and don’t know what type of activity might work for you, Dr. Alleyne suggests thinking about big-picture factors, rather than trying to narrow it down to individual activities. For example, instead of trying to figure out whether yoga or kickboxing would be a better choice for you, start with thinking about bigger questions: do you want to do an individual or a group activity? Do you want something supervised, or independent? Do you want to be in a gym or do you want to be home alone? Do you want to take a class? Do you want to go for a walk?

From there, you can begin to narrow down your options.

If you’ve been active in the past, ask yourself what you enjoyed, and why you enjoyed it. For example, if you used to ski, you might find another outdoor winter sport enjoyable, such as skating or snowshoeing or walking.

Whatever you choose, remember to start low and go slow: begin with increasing daily activity, such as taking the stairs and walking a bit farther to the car.


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  • Women's College Hospital