Fitness 101 begins at home

The newbies tend to start off enthusiastically and wane miserably as the days go by. Never jump into exercises without warming up the muscles first.

Staying active is easy. You can read a book, hop from the theatre to the restaurant and bar, surf the Net, sing a song... all these chores can keep you active, but they don't burn many calories.

To keep yourself moving requires a bit of effort, though the rewards are far greater.

Yet, many people find it difficult to motivate themselves to get started, or give up halfway through an exercise programme. If you fall into this category, you're not alone.

Why is it so difficult for people to get on the exercise bandwagon? It's akin to brushing your teeth. If you don't want cavities, brush and floss daily, with a good toothpaste. Who cares if your teeth are misaligned or resembles a rabbit's? As long as they're not decaying, serve their purpose of chewing food, and your dental bills are minimal, you should be happy.

Likewise, take care of your body and health. Your investment will show inside and out. You don't need money, credit cards or cars to exercise. Just time, persistence, discipline, and perhaps, an exercise buddy, will do.

Exercising doesn't necessarily mean following a strict, military-style, time-consuming regimen at the gym. You can do it from the comfort of your home, and in time, exercise will become part of your lifestyle.

Sizes getting bigger

Last month, I attended an intensive dance workshop in New York, United States, and took the opportunity to do some quick shopping during break time.

I've always been able to find clothes that fit my tall, small, disproportionate frame at my favourite store here. Alas, this time around, even the XS petite sizes were floating on me! I may have lost a kilo or so, but not enough to drop to the next size down.

When I signalled for assistance, the sales person, who was four times my size, waddled over. She simply responded: "Honey, we've gotten bigger through the years, can't you tell? Clothes now come in bigger cuts. You need to fatten up and you'll fit right in."

While the majority of my American friends are slim and lead a relatively healthy lifestyle (they're professional dancers and fitness gurus, after all), a number of them tend to think exercise is a dirty word.

Malaysians are not far behind in this aspect.

Statistics show that a staggering 44.3 per cent of our population is overweight. Gosh, that's close to almost half our population! Our rich, delicious culinary delights and saccharine-sweet teh and kopi tarik (reality check: kurang manis is not going to make a world of difference to your flab) are of no help to the expanding girths and incidences of cardiac arrests, the nation's number one killer.

Soon, more clothing stores will have to cater for plus-sized folks. If you're thinking of going into business, this is your chance to rake in the cash.

Cannot afford gym memberships? Don't like the gym or the pollution outdoors? Fine, then work out at home. You don't need any equipment.

However, if you abhor getting sweaty, and number one on your priority list is watching telly with a packet of keropok in hand, then please be prepared to face the consequences.

Equipment-free workouts

Workouts can be done at home using your body weight as resistance, come rain, haze or shine. The journey to fitness starts with a single step, so take it slow if you're a beginner.

The newbies tend to start off enthusiastically and wane miserably as the days go by. Never jump into exercises without warming up the muscles first. It also helps if you have a good pair of shoes to cushion the impact on your joints.

There are many forms of aerobic activity, and almost any physical activity that is done at a mild to moderate pace can be aerobic.

Try out these simple moves. For starters, all you need is about 30 minutes, three times a week. Work cautiously and slowly.

Begin by marching in place while swinging your arms for 10 minutes. If this is easy, jog in place for another five minutes.

If you live in a condominium, walk up and down the stairs. You may or may not break into a sweat, but that's not important.

Next, give these strengthening exercises a try. Start with two sets of 10, and progress on to three sets as you find yourself improving.

Wall slides: Stand with your back against the wall and legs stretched out away from the wall in front of you. Slide down the wall until you are sitting on an imaginary chair with your back supported. Pull in the stomach, relax the toes, and make sure the knees don't go past the toes, ie the knees are bent at a 90° angle. Stay in this position for 30 seconds and repeat. This strengthens the quadriceps.

Lunges: Stand with feet together. Step forward with your right leg as far out as you can, lowering your hips until both knees are bent and the back heel is lifted off the floor. Again, make sure the front knee doesn't go past the toes. Keep your back erect, look forward, and engage your core. Then step back and repeat with the left leg forward. This is the quintessential exercise to tone your thighs and butt.

Toe raises: Stand with feet parallel, shoulder width apart and rise onto the balls of the feet and come down. Great for working the calf muscles.

Crunches: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and cross your arms on the chest. Your feet can be on the floor or you can keep them in the air. Exhale, lift your shoulders and upper back off the floor, while looking at the ceiling. Works the front abs. If crossing the arms bothers your neck, lace your fingers and put your palms behind your head to support your neck.

Push-ups: Lie on the floor, face down, with your hands and legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Push off the floor, keep your elbows straight and keep the core engaged. This is the push-up position. If this is too hard, you can opt to keep your knees on the floor. Lower yourself by bending your elbows until your chest almost touches the floor. Come back up by pushing through the floor. Works the chest and arm muscles.

Plank: Similar to the push-up position, this time the elbows are underneath the shoulders. Push off and balance on the elbows for 30 seconds, making sure your core is engaged. If it starts to hurt your back, push the hips slightly higher up. Repeat three times. Works the entire core and shoulders.

Back extensions: Lie on your stomach, with hands clasped behind your head. Pull your stomach in to create a space between the floor and your tummy. Lift the upper body off the floor.

Hold for four seconds and return. After 10 reps, lift the legs off the floor while leaving the upper body on the floor. Newbies should never lift both arms and legs off the floor at the same time. This exercise strengthens and stretches the lower back muscles while stretching your abs as well.

Scarecrow: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms sideways at shoulder level, palms facing back. Bend your elbows at a 90° angle with your lower arms dangling downward like a scarecrow. This is the starting position. Extend your lower arms outward, keeping your upper arms still, then bring it back to the starting position. This works the deltoid muscles.

Once you feel stronger, incorporate one minute of jumping jacks in between the strengthening exercises. If this is too hard, scale down the jacks to 30 seconds. Also, keep yourself hydrated and drink lots of water when you exercise.

If at any time you feel pain, listen to your body and stop immediately. You should be able to distinguish good pain from bad pain. Good pain usually means a muscle or tendon is being stretched beyond what may be presently comfortable, but not beyond its capacity.

Bad pain means it is being pushed beyond what it is capable of, muscle fibres are being torn, and will need to be re-knit and healed before the muscle or tendon can be used again.

Pain is highly personal but generally, if you feel fatigued, you might be able to push through it. But, if the pain is sharp or there is a needle-pricking sensation, that's not a good sign. Good pain will go away after 24 to 48 hours, but bad pain may linger on for much longer. Then it's time to consult a doctor.

Remember, one step at a time and soon, you'll be shedding the pounds, firming up the muscles, and radiating with health.

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