Fitness - The most basic measure of your fitness is the way your heart performs. The heart is a muscular organ whose contractions pump blood around the body and deliver the oxygen it contains (which enters the body through the lungs) to your muscles. Like all other muscles, the heart needs a constant supply of oxygen to function. Unlike other muscles, however, the heart has to work all the time to sustain life. Since it is a muscle, you can train your heart to improve its performance. The way to do this is to increase the amount of work your muscles are doing, by starting to jog, for example.
To meet the increased demand for oxygen from the muscles, your heart has to pump more blood around your body, so improving the efficiency of your heart also has an effect on your lungs, circulatory and respiratory systems. This type of training is known as aerobic (meaning using oxygen). Over time, as you train your aerobic system, your body becomes more efficient at taking oxygen from the blood. As this happens your heart starts to beat more slowly and strongly; because it has to do less work to achieve the same results.
Many people who decide that they wish to be fitter do so because of the obvious benefits to their heart, lungs and circulation. The other major benefit of aerobic work, however, is that it boosts your metabolic rate, that is the rate at which you burn food for energy. If you follow an aerobic training programme and eat sensibly, you should also lose body fat.
Not all activities depend on the efficiency of your body's aerobic system. The muscles themselves contain reserves of energy which can be called upon for short bursts of activity (running to catch the bus or train) or for some sporting activities - sprinting, for example. Your muscles work in this way for between 10 and 30 seconds before fatigue sets in: your muscles start to become heavy (this is due to the build up of lactic acid). This type of activity is known as anaerobic (meaning without oxygen). All exercise of high intensity and brief duration uses the body's anaerobic system. Depending on what you are looking for from a fitness programme, you can choose to train your aerobic or anaerobic system, or both. If you want to run a marathon, concentrate on aerobic work. As your heart and lungs start to work more efficiently you will be able to run for longer distances before you become tired. Other aerobic activities include stepping, dancing, roller and ice skating, cross-country skiing etc.
If your aim is to sprint or hurdle well, play tennis or squash or power lift
(the major anaerobic activities), concentrate on boosting your ATP (adenosine
triphosphate) reserves and your tolerance to the build up of lactic acid by
short sharp bursts of activity. In this way you increase the time before your
aerobic system comes into play.
If you want to improve both systems, put together a cross-training programme of activities of both types.
It's easy to say "I want to be fitter": most of us say it often. Defining fitness, however, is more problematic. For a start, there are many different kinds of fitness. A marathon runner could not go five sets any more easily than a tennis champion could run a marathon. Yet both are supremely fit. Fitness also means different things to different people. Some of us do want to be fitter to play a sport, or we have a fixed ambition (to run a marathon, or cycle round Europe for example). Many of us, however, simply want to feel better, to look good, have some energy left at the end of the day, be emotionally stable and have some fun. We don't enjoy being overweight, tired and under constant stress!!
Fitness training can help you on all these levels. It will make you a better
sports player, if that is what you want, but it will also cut down your body fat
in favour of muscle (so you may lose weight) and tone these new muscles, thereby
improving your appearance. It will give you strength and stamina, help you relax
and improve your ability to sleep. Taking regular exercise increases your speed
of movement and helps your coordination and concentration. Finally, it promotes
the feeling of wellbeing that only comes from doing something by yourself for
Overall fitness - There's three main components to overall fitness, there's aerobic endurance; strength (often divided into muscular strength and muscular endurance); and flexibility. We all tend to be good at one or two of these (with flexibility the most neglected area), but your aim should be to reach a good standard in all three, and in every part of your body.
Aerobic exercise is vital: a strong, healthy heart and efficient lungs are the
foundations of a fit and healthy lifestyle. In later life, will you be able to
play with your grandchildren, or run to catch the train? Heart attacks do not
always happen to others and although many people recover from them, their lives
are never the same again.
Working toward strong muscles does not mean that you have to be muscle bound. Muscular strength and muscular endurance mean good support for your skeleton and improved posture. These factors alone will stand you in good stead as you get older. Healthy strong muscles also give your body shape and tone.
Flexibility will keep you mobile as you age. It is a sobering thought that the
majority of mobility problems suffered by elderly people could have been
You may well have discovered the reasons why this multiple approach is so important without being aware of them. Women, in particular, attend aerobics classes and fail to see a difference in their body shape. This is because there is not enough all-round fitness development in aerobic dance classes. To change your shape, a programme that combines aerobic and strength training is necessary
Men, on the other hand, play a weekend soccer or rugby game and in time are plagued by knee and hamstring problems, largely because they do no flexibility work. Stamina and strength are only part of the overall picture: you must also stretch.
A word of warning - whatever your major aim, don't neglect the other
components of fitness: a whole-body approach is important. The aerobics
programmes include complementary strength exercises: use them. And, as you
strengthen a part of your body, stretch it too.
What Does Fitness Mean? - To some people 'fitness' means not being
ill, while to others it's a question of how long it takes them to complete a
For the elderly, it could mean the difference between independence and dependence. However, due to extensive research into all areas of health and exercise, it is now possible to assess an individual's level of fitness and design an appropriate exercise programme to suit their specific needs. But it's important to remember that fitness levels are relative to the individual. What may be a good level of fitness for one person may not always be right for another, hence the term 'personal fitness'. Everyone can benefit from leading a more active lifestyle and in doing so increase his or her personal fitness level.
What Constitutes Total Fitness? - Total fitness is made up of several
components. To evaluate your total fitness you need to consider your physical,
mental, and nutritional health status and your social and emotional skills
management. All these factors have a significant effect on each other and
contribute to your overall wellbeing.
For instance, your overall health benefits will be greater if, in addition to taking up regular exercise, you also monitor your diet and give up smoking. But, equally, to fanatically embark on a strenuous exercise routine that leaves little time for other areas of your life could just be a mask for more serious emotional problems which would only become worse if ignored.
Physical components of fitness - physical components of fitness fall into two main categories. The first, health-related fitness, to the factors that affect your health and wellbeing, and this is what most fitness training programmes are concerned with. The second, skill-related fitness, relates to the skill-building factors which are often the focus of sports training programmes.
Physical Fitness Components :
Health-related Components: What They Mean
Body composition is the term used to describe the ratio of fat to lean body mass (i.e. everything that is not fat, including bone and muscle). This is not to be confused with body weight, which is the total weight of the entire body. By using universal guidelines, it is possible to measure body composition to determine the level of fat on the body, which is an important factor in health care. Body composition can measured by your GP or a health-care professional.
Cardiovascular endurance or aerobic fitness is the ability to maintain at least a moderate level of activity using the large muscles of the body (e.g. swimming, running or brisk walking) for a period of time - usually a minimum 15 to 20 minutes - long enough to produce beneficial changes to the heart, lungs and circulatory system. The healthier and more efficient the lungs and associated blood vessels, the easier it is for the individual to achieve even the minimum level of aerobic fitness.
Flexibility is how much range of movement an individual has in each of
the joints. Having appropriate flexibility enables you to perform everyday
activities safely and efficiently, e.g. touching your toes, reaching for the top
Muscular endurance is the capacity of a muscle or a group of muscles to maintain or repeat a movement for a set period of time without getting tired, e.g. how long it takes before your arms tire when you are vacuuming the stairs.
Muscular strength is the amount of force exerted by a muscle or a group of muscles, e.g. how much weight you can lift or push. Muscular strength is not necessarily equal throughout the body. For instance, the arms may be weaker than the legs, or one arm may be stronger than the other.
Skill-related Components: What They Mean
Agility is the ability to rapidly change direction or weight distribution (e.g. moving from foot to foot) while retaining control and is dependent on speed, balance and coordination, e.g. moving about easily, reaching, bending, twisting or turning while cleaning the house or chasing the dog. Balance is the ability to move about or stand still without swaying, stumbling or falling over.
Coordination is the ability to perform a sequence of a range of movements accurately, rhythmically and with appropriate timing, e.g. continuously hitting a ball with a racket as in tennis or squash.
Power is the ability to perform an action with both strength and speed, e.g. being able to swing a bat or racket with force and speed.
Reaction time is the ability to select and decide quickly on a physical response, e.g. jumping quickly back from the road as a vehicle splashes through a puddle
Speed is the ability to move as fast as possible, e.g. running.
It's All Trainable - The components of fitness are very much like the components of a car. The
better the condition we keep them in and the more protection we give them, the
better their performance.
All of the above fitness components are to a greater or lesser extent trainable - in other words, we can improve each of them through a certain amount of regular exercise.
A balanced exercise programme aimed at improving all-round fitness should include each of the above health-related fitness components. A sports-oriented programme, where the aim is to improve a player's skill at that particular sport or group of sports, is more likely to focus on the skill-related factors.
However, the two categories can overlap. In an all-round fitness programme
certain skills are bound to improve as a by-product of the workout. For example,
the main focus of an aerobics class is cardiovascular conditioning, yet the
nature of the activity - involves a certain amount of agility and coordination.
Equally, a sports-oriented programme will also improve aspects of health-related
fitness as a result of the sports-type skill drills. The greatest improvements
however, will naturally occur in the aspects of sports that are focussed on most
We Are What We Do - The more fitness training we do, the more physical skills we will develop along the way and, equally, the more sports we play, the more we will hone our skills and increase our level of fitness. This is what the experts call specificity training, which means that people who, for example, do strength training will get stronger, people who run will improve their cardiovascular attributes etc. Specific adaptations are caused by specifically induced demands.
As we develop specific skills from frequently playing a specific sport or carrying out a specific activity, at the same time we will also develop specific fitness benefits. For example, body-builders who regularly lift heavy weights will become very good at lifting heavy weights because they will train their muscular strength, but they may not be able to run very far or for very long and therefore have poor cardiovascular fitness. Equally, marathon runners who are 'aerobically' fit as a result of regularly running long distances may not have much muscular strength and therefore not be able to lift a great weight. Furthermore, marathon runners won't necessarily be comfortable with short sprints, because their muscles will have trained to cope with running long distances.
On the positive side, our bodies generally respond well to exercise - indeed they thrive on it - and adapt to new challenges very quickly, which is why it is important when planning an exercise programme always to start at the level that is right for our ability and to progress at a suitable rate that keeps both our minds and our bodies interested.
While running a marathon or entering the next Olympics or even the local tennis
tournament may not be on your personal agenda, improving the quality of life and
making the daily grind less of a grind ought to be on everyone's list.
Regular exercise may not turn you into an overnight star of track or field, but it should enhance your ability to do the things you either have to do or want to do.
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