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What's the right activity for me

Whoever you are, there's an activity for you. And just as getting fitter doesn't have to mean pushing yourself to the limits of your endurance, you don't have to be technically brilliant at a particular sport to derive pleasure and health benefits from it.

Some people hold back from getting fit because they feel self-conscious about their ability or body and want to find an activity they can do on their own, but organised classes and sports clubs can provide you with support and motivation, as well as a chance to make new friends.

If you're interested in football, hockey or other team sports, for example, many local clubs will have several teams of varying abilities, while there are plenty of aerobics or yoga classes specifically designed to cater for beginners.

You're never too old to learn to swim, or you can take classes to improve your technique if that's what's holding you back.

But many activities can be done by yourself, and require neither technical expertise nor much in the way of equipment or expense - just your willingness to give it a go.

Here are some of the best, easiest and most popular ways to start getting fit, as well as some suggestions for alternatives, plus organisations that get you started or put you in touch with a local club.

Walking

Most of us walk at some point each day but we do it far less than we used to the government calculates there's been a decline of more than 20 per cent in the number of miles walked since the mid-1980s.

But walking's the simplest and cheapest of all exercises, and making it a regular activity and focusing on the intensity or distance covered can greatly increase your fitness.

Walking improves the condition of your heart and lungs (cardiovascular fitness) and works the muscles of the lower body. It's a weight-bearing activity, so it may improve bone density, yet it's also low impact, putting less stress on the joints than some other forms of exercise.

Aside from the health benefits of walking, some of the country's most beautiful scenery can only be accessed on foot, so if you don't try walking, think what you're denying yourself. If you're a novice, go in groups or as part of an organised outing via a ramblers club.

Walking up hills expends more energy - even walking down again uses more energy than walking on the flat, but if you don't think you're ready for the hills yet, boost your fitness by walking just about anywhere.

You could try power walking in the park, for example: the idea is to walk at such a fast pace that it would actually be easier to break into a run. You burn more calories walking at this speed than you would running at the same pace.

If you do little activity at the moment, the following tips can help kick-start your walking programme:

  • Walk, don't drive, to the local shop. If you have a lot to carry, take a small rucksack.
  • If you have children, walk them to and from school as briskly as you all can manage.
  • Get off the bus or train a stop or two early. This will give you some extra daily exercise - and might even reduce your fare.
  • Take a walk during your lunch hour. Half an hour's walk after a meal will cut the amount of fat you store by using it to fuel your exercise.
  • Once a week take a longer walk along a completely different route to keep things interesting.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • Ramblers Association
  • Walking the Way to Health
  • Long Distance Walkers Association

Running/jogging

Running might just be the ultimate way to get fit: it's cheap, can be done anywhere, at any time and, most importantly, is very effective. There's really no difference between running and jogging, although jogging is often used to describe running at a slow pace. Whatever you call it, all you need is a good pair of running shoes and a little enthusiasm.

As long as you're healthy and take it easy to start with, anyone can run. If you have a history of diabetes, chest pain, angina, asthma, epilepsy, high blood pressure, have had recent surgery or are pregnant, consult a doctor first.

As a high-impact activity, running may maintain or increase bone density, helping to offset osteoporosis. But it can also put more stress on your joints than lower impact activities such as walking and cycling, especially if you're overweight. Again, if you're concerned, consult your GP.

As with all exercise, you must warm up first. Start by walking at a brisk pace, then gradually break into a slow jog. Run at a pace at which you can still hold a conversation, but which definitely feels harder than walking. If you're getting too breathless to talk, slow down or walk for a while until you're breathing more easily.

To begin with, aim to run/walk in this way for ten minutes in total. Do this every second or third day, gradually reducing the walking time and increasing the running until you can run for the full ten minutes.

At the end of each session, warm down by finishing with a slow jog or brisk walk until your heart rate and breathing have returned to more normal levels. Stretch while your muscles are still warm.

Next, start to increase the total duration of your run by a minute or two every third session, until you can manage 30 minutes three times a week. Even if you're feeling good, don't be tempted to increase your running time by more than ten per cent each week.

Many people are put off running because they find it boring. For this reason, it is important to get a bit of variety in your running. There are many different sorts of running road running, cross-country running, fell running (running in the hills), or you could run at your local athletics track, or even on a treadmill at the gym (though running on a moving treadmill uses less energy).

Other ways to stay motivated include:

  • Have a clear aim, such as competing in a local fun run or being able to run non-stop for an hour.
  • Be realistic. Don't commit to run a marathon in three months if you've never run before.
  • Think of yourself as a runner and make running a habit, just like cleaning your teeth. Think in terms of "when I go for my run" rather than "if I go for a run".
  • Keep a diary. Record your progress, the time of day, weather, how you felt, where you went and so on.

There are running clubs in most towns that welcome new runners of all ages and standards. Your fellow runners will be able to encourage you and can give you advice on appropriate clothing and other kit.

Want to know more? The UK Athletics website can help you to:

  • Find a running club

Swimming

Swimming is another popular way to start getting fit because most towns have a pool, it's still relatively inexpensive and you need even less kit than you do for running.

Most pools also offer lessons if you're a non-swimmer, or you haven't swum for years and want to improve your technique.

Swimming is a great way to tone up and trim down, because to swim you need to move your body against the resistance of the water. Just swimming a few lengths involves most of the major muscle groups, giving your body a good workout. And if you crank up the pace, you'll get a brilliant aerobic workout, too.

Swimming is also an effective form of fat-burning exercise: because you can swim at your own pace, slowly if you wish, you can keep swimming for long periods, and maintaining your staying power is a vital goal in fat-burning exercise.

The other big advantage is that water supports your weight and takes the stress off your joints, so you can put your body through a good workout without your knees, hips or spine paying the price.

Research shows that exercising in waist-deep water reduces the pressure on joints by 50 per cent, while exercising in chest-deep water reduces it by as much as 75 per cent. This can also make it a great exercise if you're recovering from an injury that means you can't run or play your normal sport.

However, while this is great if you have joint problems such as arthritis, it won't build up much protection against the brittle bone disease osteoporosis because it's not a weight-bearing exercise, so you make want to alternate swimming with other activities.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • Amateur Swimming Association
  • Scottish Swimming
  • Swimming Teachers Association

Cycling

Many of the short trips we make by car are ideal for a quick spin on the bike, plus you'll be helping to protect the environment. A staggering 70 per cent of all car trips are less than five miles. Even though most of us own bikes - there are an estimated 27 million across the UK - we just don't use them.

Some of the main benefits of cycling are:

  • A healthy heart. A major study of more than 10,000 people found those who cycle at least 20 miles a week are half as likely to have heart problems as those who don't cycle at all.
  • Weight control. Some research suggests we should be burning up at least 2,000 calories a week through exercise (actually far more than used by the recommended 30 minutes of moderately intensive exercise five times a week). Cycling burns about 300 calories an hour, so if you do it twice a day, the numbers soon add up.
  • It can be part of your routine. If you're worried about making time for exercise, why not see whether it's feasible to cycle to and from work, which would incorporate excellent exercise into your normal daily routine.
  • Because the bicycle supports your body, cycling isn't necessarily a weight-bearing exercise. This means it's good for people with certain bone and joint problems because it puts very little pressure on them, but it makes it less effective for protecting against osteoporosis.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • British Cycling
  • Sustrans: Get cycling
  • Bike for All
  • Live2bike

Dance

Dancing is largely an aerobic activity that improves the condition of the heart and lungs, as well as testing your balance. To dance for any length of time also requires muscular endurance and motor fitness.

Many people think they can't dance because they have poor coordination, but anyone can dance. The main purpose is to enjoy moving to music, so dancing is suitable for people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

As with most activities, it's a matter of starting gently and building up to the right level of activity. See if your local college, social club or leisure centre runs classes. As well as keeping you fit, something like a salsa class is an easy way of meeting other people.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • Danceweb UK

Football

It's one of the nation's favourite participation and spectator sports, but football is just one of many examples of team ball sports that are accessible to players of all standards.

Almost all towns and villages in the UK have football clubs that operate at varying levels, from social to professional. In addition, leagues are set up for the full game and five-a-side, and are organised through sports and social clubs, health clubs, sports centres, schools and even pubs.

Football is a multiple sprint sport requiring players to spend some of their time sprinting and other times running fast or slowly, walking or even standing still.

Varying degrees of fitness are required, depending on the player's position in the team, the amount of time spent on the field and the level at which the game is played, but a full 90-minute match, for example, demands high levels of aerobic fitness.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • Football Association: find a club
  • Scottish FA

Gym

The gym can be a good place to work on overall aerobic fitness and build muscle strength, or just somewhere to exercise on days when you can't face the cold or the rain.

Gym-based activities include aerobic exercise such as running, rowing or cycling machines, weight training, and classes, such as aerobics or aerobic dance. All ages and fitness levels are catered for and improvements can be measured and exercise programmes tailored to your needs.

Check your instructor is qualified to recognised standards, especially if you're weight training. Incorrect technique can easily lead to injuries or make existing problems worse. For advice, take a look at the Register of Exercise Professionals.

Some gyms can be expensive to join, but council-run facilities often offer a cheaper alternative where you can pay per session rather than shelling out for an annual membership.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • Register of Exercise Professionals
  • Fitness Industry Association

Racket sports

Racket sports, especially squash, have a great reputation for fitness, but beware: to play racket sports safely and prevent unnecessary injuries you need to be properly prepared - and already pretty fit.

Racket games, like squash, tennis and badminton, come under the heading of multiple sprint sports, which tax all the energy systems and require a combination of skill, stamina, strength, power and reaction time.

These are sports one should get fit to play, rather than play to get fit. Injuries and even sudden death have been associated with the high-intensity bursts of activity characteristic of racket sports.

The most likely causes are a lack of fitness and a failure to warm up and stretch before playing. Those most at risk are people who are highly competitive and often under a great deal of stress. These people should ensure they play regularly and often (at least once a week) and that they also train for the sport. They should also ensure they have enough time to warm up and stretch before playing.

Want to know more? Have a look at:

  • England Squash: find a club
  • Scottish Squash
  • Squash Wales
  • Lawn Tennis Association
  • Badminton England


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