Physical fitness is about more than what you weigh. The U.S. Department of Health designates 5 areas of fitness: body composition, cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. Keeping each of these aspects in balance will achieve the greatest level of fitness for you, individually, at whatever age and stage of life. The main way to do so is through regular activity — outdoor sports, recreation, and fitness center workouts.
If you’ve noticed the need for better fitness in these areas but aren’t sure where to start on the journey to improvement, we’d like to suggest practical ways to achieve balanced physical fitness.
Improving your body composition (a.k.a. reducing fat and increasing lean muscle mass) can’t be tied to any one exercise program or diet because it depends on your current fitness and goals. Not everyone wants to reach the single digits of body fat, but most of us can stand to lose a few pounds of it. The best way to decrease fat and build muscle is a combination of cardio workouts 3 to 5 days a week, strength training at least twice a week, and a nutritious, calorie-conscious diet full of whole foods. A personal trainer, fitness, or nutritionist can help you design a personalized program to achieve a healthier body composition.
Any activity that raises the heart rate and keeps it elevated will build cardiorespiratory endurance. Even though lifting weights at the fitness gym will increase your heart rate, activities that recruit more muscles will improve your cardio fitness more effectively. Increasing either the intensity or duration of the following activities will build endurance over time:
- Running (jogging) or sprinting intervals
- Bicycling or spinning
- Jumping/jump rope
- Stair climbing
- Bodyweight exercises like burpees, jumping jacks, etc.
- Team sports that require running and jumping such as basketball, soccer, hockey, etc.
Muscle endurance allows you to place demands on your muscles for longer periods of time. This includes both static positions and repetitive movements. As you might guess, the best way to improve muscular endurance is to lift weights or use resistance machines (although long-distance cardio events like marathons and triathlons build muscular endurance, as well). The key to building muscle endurance with weights is not to increase the amount weight you’re lifting, but the number of reps you complete. To achieve this, choose lighter weights.
Another great way to improve muscle endurance without equipment is through bodyweight training. Pushups and pullups are two of the most popular and effective (no wonder the military still uses them!). Other bodyweight moves that build muscle endurance include the plank, v-up, triceps dip, Superman (for back strength), squat throw/thrust with a medicine ball, and tuck jump.
Brute strength is something closely tied to our image of fitness. Strength isn’t just useful for bench pressing or power lifting; it’s also practical for everyday life situations. Improving strength requires lifting heavier weights at fewer reps or increasing the resistance on a weight machine, but it must be done gradually to avoid overstraining your muscles and causing injuries.
It’s also important to note that lifting heavy weights will not bulk women up. Most women don’t have the testosterone required to achieve the look of a bodybuilder without extreme measures. The heavier your weights, the more muscle you will build; the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism and fat-burning ability.
Flexibility is an area of fitness many of us neglect because there are fewer visible results (versus decreasing body fat or building muscle, for instance), but it’s vital to staying healthy and injury free. In addition to stretching at the end of your workouts, consider adding flexibility training through yoga, Pilates, or other stretch routines to your fitness gym schedule at least a few days a week.