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Physically Fit for Life

In the last article posted to this blog, I discussed the current widespread attraction to extremes in the realms of physical fitness and appearance and the potential damage that this can do. If you haven’t read that article you can check it out: Attraction to the Extremes of Physical Fitness.

I want to spend this post developing an idea alluded to in the previous post, that of a more sane approach: the goal of being physically fit for life. Lets start out working backwards by defining the results we require of exercise, results that will match our aim of being fit for living. Then we can go on to look at the best practical exercise approaches for stimulating those results.


Physically Fit for Life: The Sixteen Factors

Exercise that helps to bring the below factors into a personal optimal range:
  1. Aerobic base system fitness (central and peripheral adaptations to moderate-intensity exercise)
  2. Speed of recovery from intense exercise
  3. Immune function and ability to endure stressors
  4. Stress levels, relaxation and mood,
  5. Energy levels, and general quality of life
  6. Sleep patterns
  7. Body fat mass (via calorie utilization during exercise)
  8. Muscle tissue mass
  9. Strength, across the entire muscular system
  10. Bone mass density and the strength and integrity of joints, tendons and ligaments
  11. Flexibility across all joints. (For some individuals this can mean reducing hypermobility just as it can mean increasing a range of motion that is below normal for others)
  12. Posture
  13. Protection against aging and some chronic diseases; including certain cancers and coronary heart disease
  14. Protection against joint diseases and associated pain
  15. Body fat mass and metabolic health (via metabolic enhancement and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)
  16. Cardiovascular fitness (central and peripheral adaptations to high-intensity exercise). 


Addressing the First Seven Factors: As Simple as Walking

The first seven considerations on our list above are actually best stimulated by moderate-intensity activity. When it comes to building a healthful lifestyle it helps to have a daily habit, something that you can engage in frequently: moderate-intensity exercise.

Ideally walk continuously for 20-30 minutes at a time, two separate times a day, for example morning and evening.


Walking is a fantastic choice of moderate-intensity exercise: it doesn’t cost anything and you can literally get up out of your seat and engage in walking pretty much anytime and anywhere.

“Surely”, you may be thinking, “walking doesn’t do much of anything for us, fitness wise?” The good news is, yes it does: walking provides a multitude of benefits relating to health and wellbeing. For instance, walking has been shown to improve mood and helps us to relax, these effects alone are of immense benefit. Regular walking can also help improve both quality of sleep and sleep cycle regularity, two factors important for our general health, which in turn enhances recovery from our daily stressors; physical and mental.

At a purely physiologic level walking can help to build the aerobic base or oxidative system, stimulating positive enzymatic and mitochondrial adaptations. Beneficial changes can also happen within the heart itself: a stretching of the left ventricle occurs as a response to regular low-intensity activity. This has the result of improving stroke volume, increasing the amount of oxygenated blood that the left ventricle can push out to the rest of the body in one pump. Simply put this is helping to build a more efficient heart.

Walking can also enhance immunosurveillance, increasing efficacy in the way the immune system looks for and identifies pathogens including viruses, bacteria and cancerous cells. Those who walk regularly tend to have greater resilience to colds and flu than those who are comparatively inactive.

Finally walking also aids in speeding up recovery between bouts of more intense forms of exercise. When you do perform more intense exercise a simple walk will enhance your physiology’s ability to repair itself and be ready for further physical challenges.


How to make walking work for you

Ideally walk continuously for 20-30 minutes at a time, two separate times a day, for example morning and evening. Once is good but you’ll likely get more health and wellbeing benefits from twice. If you have the inclination to take longer walks occasionally, for example at weekends of course that is fine to do.

For convenience you can make your walks part of your daily commute, or when you have the time, and for even greater benefit seek out as nature-rich an environment as possible to walk in. If you are in a city even a tree-lined street will enhance your experience or better yet pick a local park. Out of town head for fields, hills, forests, river valleys or the coast whenever you can.



Walk at a brisk pace, this will likely be in the region of 3-5 miles per hour (dependent on how conditioned to walking you are currently), which means that in a 30-minute walk you will probably cover about 1.5-2.5 miles.

Practically speaking, maintain as fast a pace as you can whilst still being able to breathe exclusively through your nose as you walk. If you find you have to open your mouth to breathe comfortably, then slow down a little, this will help ensure that you don’t end up exercising too hard to reap the specific benefits we are looking for when walking (especially on more challenging terrain such as going up steep hills).

Another convenient way of assessing your pace is you ought to be capable of making conversation consisting of whole sentences without have to gasp for breath every few words. Again, if that is not possible for you, do slow down a bit.


Using a Heart Rate Monitor

If you use a heart rate monitor (or HRM app) you can get a bit more precise with monitoring your level of effort, whether you feel this is worth doing or not is a personal choice. Be free to skip the equations below if you do not intend to use a heart rate monitor.

To get the most out of walking while using HRM technology you will want to work within the range of 60-75% of your maximum heart rate (MHR).


Maximum Heart Rate

To make heart rate monitoring work for you, you will firstly need to know your maximum heart rate. There are tests you can perform to accurately find your personal MHR, however these physical tests are very intense and carry a significant risk in performance, particularly for those who are deconditioned.

Luckily, there is an alternative that will work for our purposes. Firstly you can estimate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by:

  1. Multiplying your age by 0.7
  2. Subtracting that number from 208

We will use the example of Kate who is 30 years old, to demonstrate the working:

  1. 30 x 0.7 = 21
  2. 208 – 21 = 187

Therefore Kate’s estimated MHR is 187 beats per minute.

Next we will need to figure out our target heart rate for our low-intensity walking exercise. A method that I find to be quite accurate for doing this is known as the heart-rate reserve (HRR) method.


The Heart Rate Reserve Method
1. Find your resting heart rate.

Do this by taking a heart rate measurement whilst still in bed, first thing in the morning. Look for an average over a week where you do not feel unwell or overly stressed, as resting heart rate can be altered significantly by illness and stress. Remember Kate from above? When she did this she discovered her typical resting heart rate to be 65 BPM.

2. Find your heart rate reserve.

Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate to find your heart rate reserve. Kate’s works out like this: 187 – 65 = 122 HRR

3. Multiply your HRR by the upper target heart range: 75%.

Kate did this: 122 x 0.75 = 92 (rounded to nearest whole number).

4. Add your resting heart rate back to the figure in step three.

For Kate this is: 92 + 65 = 157 BPM

5. Figure out the lower limit.

Figure out the lower limit as well, using 60% in step three (and use the result of that to work step four).

Kate’s goes like this: 122 x 0.60 = 73, and then 73 + 65 = 138 BPM


Therefore Kate’s target heart rate range of 60-75% is 138 to 157 BPM which she can now monitor as she walks, via her HRM device.

If you are going to use heart rate monitoring go ahead and work your own personalized range out.


Replacing Walking with Other Moderate-Intensity Activities

Walking is the most convenient and least expensive option for getting in daily moderate-intensity activity to cover the first seven factors of being Physically Fit for Life. Walking is also a low-impact and generally low-risk activity to engage in. All of which are reasons that I highly recommend walking as the top choice of moderate-intensity activity.

There are of course other options available; other rhythmic activities such as cycling, jogging and swimming are viable alternatives to walking. Although ultimately not quite as convenient or safe as walking, these alternates can serve our purpose, particularly if you personally happen to get greater enjoyment out of one of them in comparison to walking.

If you choose one of these alternate options, just remember to keep the intensity moderate and if you are measuring heart rate, keep it somewhere between 60-75% of your predicted maximum.


A Reminder of the Benefits of Moderate-Intensity Exercise

Bring into a personal optimal range:
  1. Aerobic base system fitness (central and peripheral adaptations to moderate-intensity exercise
  2. Speed of recovery from intense exercise
  3. Immune function and ability to endure stressors
  4. Stress levels, relaxation and mood,
  5. Energy levels, and general quality of life
  6. Sleep patterns
  7. Body fat mass (via calorie utilization during exercise)


Dealing with the Remaining 9 Factors

In the next part to this series of articles we will consider the nine remaining factors of being Physically Fit for Life, those that wont be significantly addressed by performing moderate-intensity exercise. If walking is akin to a repetitive jab, then the subject of the next post is the big right hook!

6 responses on "Physically Fit for Life"

  1. Hi Simon
    I would have to agree with some form of activity and walking is definitely a good idea, or some equivalent activity. On the other hand, what happened to the idea that if you perform HIT 1 or 2 times per week that is all that is required to produce the same if not better health benefits than one would get from steady state cardio, plus the strength benefits. Which i understand to be the most important. This is unless you particularly want to do some low intensity activity because you enjoy it. Now unless I misinterpreted your blog, it would almost sound like your pre scribing steady state cardio. Im not saying we shouldn’t do steady state cardio but that has not appeared to be the general message from the HIT community. Maybe I’m off track here. I’m just being devils advocate and throwing in a conversation.

    • Great Devil’s Advocate question Jon!

      Let’s take a look at it…

      High Intensity Strength Training performed 1-2x per week confers many impressive CV benefits, centrally and peripherally. High Intensity Strength Training can stimulate wonderful physiologic benefits as well as psychological ones too. High Intensity Strength Training will be the focus of the next article in this series, so stay tuned for that ;-).

      What I think is likely fantasy is the notion you make mention of in your comment: “… (HIT) is all that is required to produce the same if not better health benefits”. Firstly, who performs HIT in true isolation and then does no other physical activity whatsoever the rest of the week? Pretty much nobody. The question then becomes does that physical activity the person performs outside of HIT have any benefit, no benefit or is it even detrimental?

      You can always try it for yourself (not recommended though)- for a week do your HIT workouts as usual but minimize all other physical activity at all other times: drive when you can walk, if you have dogs hire a dog walker, take the elevator rather than the stairs, spend all available spare time on the couch or in bed. If you have a job that is physical you will need to take the week off… literally attempt to do nothing physical other than HIT. You can probably already see how ridiculous this reductive line of thinking actually becomes.

      On another week do your HIT workouts, and then also go about your life as you usually would, and if that doesn’t spontaneously include being rhythmically active at a low-intensity level for 20 minutes, once or twice a day add that in. Keep a diary over both weeks of how you feel physically, how your muscles feel, what your energy levels are like, what your mindset is like, motivation, general wellbeing etc. Then recall your experiences of each week, look back over your diary and discover which approach was better for your general wellbeing.

      The 7 factors that I mention in the article above are the core reasons that low-intensity physical activity is a positive, is beneficial, in addition to HIT. It is even possible to make the case for an individual being able to, and advising that they are regularly performing low-intensity physical activity in the manner I mention in the article, even before they begin engaging in a HIT program.

      Perhaps it is the formalization of this low-intensity physical activity as presented in the article that may upset a few. I can agree that ideally there would perhaps be no need to formalize low-intensity activity, no need to give it a name, no need for timed amounts or rules of heart rate percentage. However in the world in which we live today sometimes informal rules are required to keep many of us on the right track.

      • Hi Simon
        I totally agree with your answer. Hope you didnt take my conversation the wrong way. I was merely making conversation. As you know I prescribe cardio (for want of a better word) for clients every day as I am in the cardiac rehabilitation business. I would never personally advocate just HIT for anyone, unless they had a very physically demanding job where HIT would be a great add on so to speak. Even then doing some deliberate walking would still be beneficial.

        My point was really bouncing off interviews etc I’ve listened to from the states from some of the big players in HIT. The thing that always seems to come across is their dislike for steady state cardio, which is really low intensity exercise. I’m not big on treadmills and the like myself, but if for what ever reason thats the only way I can get someone to be more active on a regular basis, then I feel they should do it.

        Steady state cardio doesnt produce the benefits of HIT but it does produce the benefits you mention. I can confirm that because I see it every day at work with patients who exercise with us. I see how there quality of life improves after they exercise for a few weeks. Just for the record, around 400+ people train at our rehab facility throughout Monday, Wednesday & Friday, 200+ on Tuesdays & Thursdays and about 40 on a saturday morning. So I’m no stranger to the steady state low intensity exercise. Our facility Action Heart is the biggest cardiac rehab centre in Europe. We also handle every kind of GP referrals.

        So the thing I wanted to mention was, when watching some of the videos of HIT instructors in action they appear very often to be carrying a little extra body weight which doesnt look great when your trying to convince people of all the benefits of HIT. Do you think this could be because they are not generally active enough other than HIT? By the way you don’t look like that on your videos.

        Well I’ve talked enough considering I’m just making conversation.

        Let me know your thoughts.

        • Jon,

          Great to read your thoughtful reply, it is clear you have valuable insight and contribution to make on this topic, based on a wealth of real world experience. It is great to hear of the work you do and the improvements you help your patients achieve.

          Your follow-up question is a complex one as any answer to it has to factor in genetics, hormonal levels, lifestyle/activity levels and nutritional habits of the individual, at the very least.

          I will say that a standout personal trainer will be doing the best they can to optimise their own physique and wellbeing. They are, whether they like it or not, a walking billboard for the service they offer to some extent.

          Looking at the possible difference that brisk walking or the equivalent can potentially make to physical appearance I will work through my own example here. I walk at a brisk pace for 25 minutes, two times a day: a total of 50 minutes of “low-intensity” exercise. Based on Polar’s Smart Calories technology in my Polar M400 HRM I burn ~530 calories over those 50 minutes. That is ~400 calories more than if I just spent that time sitting/standing at my desk typing during those 50 minutes.

          I do those walks everyday of the week so that means at the end of the week I will have burned an additional 2,800 calories more than if I didn’t do the brisk walking- nearly an extra day’s worth of food calories! To answer your question yes the walking can have an impact on my body fat, so long as I don’t eat up the deficit with extra intake of food!

          Note that all of this is in addition to the calories I burn during HIT workouts including their post-workout energy usage and effect on the metabolism, which will have a greater impact per unit of time invested, when compared to the walks.

  2. Is there an advantage to 2×25 minute walk vs 1×50 minute walk? I’d like to “get it done” in one session. Or is the idea to maintain the mental benefits through the day by going twice?

    • If there is any advantage to 2×25 minute walks it is that the activity is spread over the course of the day, which may have physiologic and mental benefits. Ultimately it is preferable that you do what best fits your lifestyle, you personally prefer and can integrate into your life over the long-term.

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