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Pain-Free Exercise: Add Intensity to Workouts, Not Impact

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If you’ve been avoiding intense exercise because you’re afraid the impact will cause pain, know this…impact and intensity are not the same thing. While impact can have an effect on intensity, they don’t have to go hand-in-hand. Intensity refers to the amount of energy you expend, while impact refers to the amount of stress you put on your body. In fact, you can get all the intensity you need with minimal impact on your joints. And that’s great news because intensity can keep your muscles young, no matter what your age.

AGING MUSCLES: THE PROBLEM IS INACTIVITY

What if much of the muscle loss commonly blamed on advancing age actually is due to inactivity, pure and simple? After all, modern men and women are not nearly as active as they were during most of human evolution, when people needed to be intensely active to survive. What if that level of activity is what our muscles still need today?

To test this theory, researchers in the UK studied muscle tissue from a group of recreational cyclists, men and women who ranged in age from 55 to 79. They were not professional athletes, which could skew the results, but people who had been very active for many years.

Their conclusion: A high level of exercise—intensity—enables muscle to maintain many of the properties of healthy young muscle that are lost when aging is accompanied by inactivity. In other words, use it or lose it applies to muscle mass, too.

ADDING INTENSITY WITHOUT IMPACT

Intensity works not only your muscles but also your heart and lungs. Yes, impact is one way to add intensity but not the only way, explained health coach Shannon Fable. Even fitness pros falsely link intensity and impact, but there are many more ways to rev up intensity other than with high-impact workouts such as running and basketball. Some impact is good (if it doesn’t hurt) because weight-bearing exercise is good for bone density, but it’s not necessary to jump or run for an effective exercise session.

This is important news for people with knee problems, obesity or arthritis, among other conditions that make exercise a challenge, and who give up on exercise completely because it is too painful. You can get the benefits of intense exercise with no impact or low impact. Just don’t opt out altogether because you assume hard means hurts.

BEST LOW-IMPACT, HIGH-INTENSITY EXERCISES

Talk low-impact, and swimming immediately comes to mind. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise. Its limitation is that it isn’t weight-bearing, so it doesn’t offer bone-building benefits. (Realistically, many people don’t have access to a pool, and not everyone likes to swim.)

As the researchers found, cycling is another great choice, and you can vary your intensity indoors or outdoors. But keep in mind that it’s not weight-bearing, either. Fable’s overall favorite is plain old walking. It’s easy, can be done with intensity and is great for bones and balance.

Once you’ve chosen your low-impact activity, there are three ways to possibly increase intensity—increase range of motion, your speed or the amount of weight you’re carrying. For walking, it would be best to focus on covering more ground in a shorter amount of time. Or you could add a weighted vest if you needed more intensity over time. Start with a small amount of weight—10 pounds is plenty—and add slowly over time. Fable prefers weighted vests, which more evenly distribute the weight, over hand wrist or ankle weights that can alter your biomechanics.

You can add intensity to just about every exercise. For instance, if you’re doing floor exercises or squats and lunges, make each movement wider, deeper, bigger or longer to extend your range of motion—taking up more space increases intensity. To increase speed, do more reps in your usual amount of workout time.

If you’re unsure of how to start on your own, have a certified fitness trainer set up a program to fit your needs and abilities. Above all, don’t let fear be a barrier to exercise or an excuse to stay on the couch. Get up and get moving!

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Source: Shannon Fable, certified group-fitness instructor, personal trainer and health coach in Boulder, Colorado, ShannonFable.com. The study titled “Properties of the vastus lateralis muscle in relation to age and physiological function in master cyclists aged 55–79 years” by researchers at King’s College London, UK, was published in Aging Cell. Date: April 19, 2018
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