Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tips For Improving Fitness - The Military Health System Blog

Posted by: Staff

For Men's Health Month, Mike Caviston, director of fitness at the Naval Special Warfare Center, submitted the following piece on becoming and remaining physically fit. (Caviston was also the guest on a recent episode of our podcast, Dot Mil Docs. Click here to listen!)

The first thing to do is define the term fitness. We want to improve it, but what exactly is it? Essentially, it means being physically prepared for a specific job or activity. You might be a cross country runner, you might be a ditch digger, you might be a Navy SEAL—each of those jobs requires a certain level and type of fitness that is different from the others. Improving your fitness involves “training,” which is a lot like “exercise,” but more focused on improving your ability to perform a specific task rather than improving your general health (though good training will also lead to good health!)

Exercise scientists recognize some general principles and variables related to fitness and training. First, the Overload Principle tells us we need to work hard enough to challenge the body to adapt and improve. So we have to run a little further or lift a little more weight than we are comfortable with, or our hearts and muscles won’t have any reason to alter the status quo. At the same time, we don’t want to do too much or go too hard too often, which leads to burnout and injury. The Specificity Principle tells us we need to focus explicitly on the things we want to improve. Do we want endurance or strength? Do we want endurance for running or swimming? Do we want strength in the arms or legs? Or all of these combined? The adaptations we see are specific to the training we do. According to the Reversibility Principle, the gains we make aren’t permanent, and we have to keep using it or we’re going to lose it (we can maintain fitness with less training than it takes to acquire fitness, but if we stop training altogether we regress towards our starting point). The Individual Differences Principle reminds us that we’re all unique, both genetically and with reference to the amount of fitness we start with, so results we see from a particular training program will vary from person to person.

The variables we need to manipulate while training can be remembered by the acronym F.I.T.T., which stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type. Frequency refers to the number of training sessions per week; 3-4 times per week is recommended at a minimum, and up to 2 times a day for the serious, committed, experienced athlete. Intensity is all about how hard you work, and is directly related to the Overload Principle. Again, we need to work hard enough to stimulate gains but not so hard that we become injured or are unable to recover before the next session.

Different methods have been developed to measure intensity that include monitoring heart rate, breathing, or blood chemistry. A simple but quite accurate way to judge intensity is to make sure the effort feels “somewhat hard” (not “easy” or “excruciating”). The time spent training during a single session will vary depending on your goals and abilities, but somewhere between twenty minutes and an hour is a pretty good range in most cases. The type, or mode, of exercise you do needs to reflect the job or event you are preparing for (remember the Specificity Principle). For example, a swimmer might supplement training with a few land-based activities, but needs to spend a significant amount of time in the water.

Designing a training program doesn’t have to be especially complicated, but you should put a little thought into it, and bear in mind the principles and variables described above. You should make a training plan to accomplish your specific goals, taking into account your particular strengths and weaknesses, rather than stringing together a random collection of exercises with arbitrary targets. I recommend five simple steps to take before outlining a program:

  1. Decide what you are training for (example: a military Physical Fitness Test that involves push-ups, pull-ups, and running).
  2. Decide how good you want/need to be (will you be satisfied with achieving the minimal standards, or do you really want to blow it out of the water?)
  3. Determine your current fitness level (are you completely sedentary or are you already in decent shape?)
  4. Determine how much time you will be able to devote to training (the number of weeks until you will be tested, as well the number of hours per day/week you will realistically spend training).
  5. Take stock of the resources you have to train with (do you have a gym and a running track at your disposal, or will you be exercising in your garage and running through your neighborhood?)

A plan’s effectiveness should be measured based on how well it accomplishes your fitness goals and improves your ability to perform, not on how sore it makes you or whether it causes you to throw up. Of course we’d like to avoid injuries caused by training, but remember that training doesn’t come without risks. The only way to avoid training injuries is to avoid training – hardly an acceptable solution, especially for people for whom fitness may potentially affect survival, such as our warriors, police officers, and firefighters. But it is not appropriate for a warrior’s effectiveness or readiness to be compromised by an avoidable training injury, and the risks of training should always be outweighed by the benefits.

Aggressive training should always be moderated with intelligent programming. Probably the most common mistake made while training is simply attempting to do too much too soon (running too many miles, lifting too much weight, doing too many reps). A general rule of thumb is to increase your workload by no more than 5-10 percent per week. Slow, steady, continual progress is preferable to the one step forward, one step back scenario that results from re-aggravating the same injuries over and over without modifying the program. Learn proper technique, follow instructions, and don’t let ego get in the way by focusing on comparison with others rather than your own needs and abilities.

Posted at 2009-06-25 15:48:09 in Monthly Themes| Permalink

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