Doing exercise you enjoy is good – it helps keep you motivated. But sticking with the same routine week after week can also slow down progress because our bodies soon get used to it, explains Alisha Smith, education manager for the Australian Fitness Network which runs education courses for fitness professionals.
“You need to challenge your body by doing something different to avoid reaching a plateau where weight loss slows down or stops," she says. “It doesn’t have to be a drastic change – you could just change the surface that you run on by trail running or running on sand, or add a hill or two to your run or your walk, or if you always do Zumba, swap one session for a circuit class. “
Faced with unfamiliar equipment hung with cables and hulking weights, it’s tempting to retreat to the exercise bike (at least you know where the pedals are). If this is you, you’re not alone. Gyms can be intimidating places for newcomers – and a reason why some people never venture off the exercise bike. Ask for help: none of us is born knowing how to use exercise equipment.
Rather than investing time on exercises that work single muscles, learn some compound exercises that work a number of muscles at once.
“Instead of doing a biceps curl with a pair of dumbbells, for instance, you could do a lunge and a biceps curl with dumbbells at the same time,” suggests Smith.
The squat is a classic compound exercise. That’s where you bend your knees and lower your body until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor (making sure your knees don’t go beyond your toes). It works the quadriceps muscles of the front thigh, the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh, the gluteal (buttock) muscles and the lower back.
It’s good to get as much movement as possible into your day by finding ways to walk instead of sit. But with structured exercise, you can cut down on workout time if you increase the intensity with interval training.
“Interval training means alternating a brief period of high intensity exercise such as 20 seconds of going all out, with another brief period of recovery such as 10 seconds at a slower pace,” Smith explains. “It’s a technique you can apply to different exercises – you could alternate 20 second sprints when you’re running or cycling with ten seconds of going slower. You can apply it to walking by alternating walking with power walking.
“Interval training improves fat burning and can make it easier to stick with an exercise program, and studies have shown that it’s good for people with diabetes, as well as for older people.”
How hard should you work in the intense intervals? As a guide, imagine a scale of effort that rates doing nothing as ‘one’ and working flat out to the point of exhaustion as ‘ten’ - and aim for an eight or nine.
“Avoid the thinking that says ‘I’ve worked hard, I deserve this’”, says Smith. “If you’re genuinely hungry, have a healthy snack like fruit and yoghurt or if it’s time for dinner eat lean protein and vegetables.”
If exercise sessions are new to you, it's tempting to think that a 30 minute walk or a 45 minute gym session is all the physical activity a body needs. But along with a new exercise habit, it's smart to find as many ways to move as possible during the day - walk up the escalator, find excuses to take the stairs, watch TV - but do some ironing too. This isn't just because extre movement burns a few extra kilojoules but because the kind of prolonged sitting that comes with sedentary jobs can up the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease - even if you're a regular exerciser.