There can be little doubt that our bodies and minds benefit from regular exercise. What is not so easy to know is what type of exercise and how much of it is good for us.

We have to remember that exercise places stress upon our bodies, and some might argue that modern living already presents us with too many forms of stress without adding  a new one voluntarily. Indeed it is tempting to adopt this viewpoint after a hard and stressful day at work.  As Brendan Brazier in “The Thrive Diet” points out, however, exercise is a complementary stress because it stimulates renewal and instigates growth. The effect of exercise on our bodies is to break down muscle tissue, obliging them to regenerate cells more rapidly than when idle. He argues, therefore, that it is possible to create a younger body because an active body will be in a constant state of renewal and be made up of younger cells. In addition exercise causes us to produce sweat which helps clean the pores and improve our skin as well as detoxifying the body more efficiently.

There is also a whole series of other beneficial reactions in the body when we exercise, such as production of endorphines which enhance our mood, improved muscle tone, a reduction in body fat, increased strength to weight ratio, improved immune function, a strengthening of the heart leading to better blood circulation, clearer thinking and better sleep. The fitter we become the easier it is for us to perform everyday tasks as well. So no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there can be no denying that an optimal level of exercise is crucial to our well-being.

When deciding what exercise and how much of it to engage in we, once again, need to factor in the other aspects of our lives. If our work is largely sedentary, for example, then we will obviously need more exercise outside of work than someone who has a physical job. Another crucial factor, as always, is nutrition. As Brendan Brazier points out, if we are not giving the body the nutrients it needs to fuel our activities and to regenerate cell tissue, then exercise will be turned into an uncomplementary stress (see the Nutrition section or read Brendan’s excellent books).

Perhaps the most crucial factor, however, is our current state of health and fitness, and we would be well advised to make an honest assessment of where we are at and what our capabilities are, before embarking on any new fitness regime.

The growth in endurance sports such as cycling, marathon running, triathlons and Iron Man events has clearly demonstrated that our bodies, when in good health and well looked after, are capable of enduring and thriving on astonishing levels of demand. However, at the other end of the scale we must also recognise that bodies which are unhealthy or have recently suffered illness, may be desperately in need of rest in order to recover and restore harmony. As ever, the key is to be aware of what condition your body is in and try to achieve the optimal balance; to know how to rest and relax if that is what you need, or to gradually and gently increase your levels of exercise if you are ready for it.

As a lifelong and very active sports nut, I was only too aware of the joys and benefits of exercise. When reaching my forties I began to feel a gradual fall in my energy levels but still found it hard to relax, and continued to push my body to try to carry on as a I had done before. Even as I became more and more exhausted I refused to give up until, eventually, the chronic illness arrived and I had no choice but to rest. As you will see in other sections of this website, I believe my chronic illness was the result of a combination of factors, but my inability to listen to my body and know when to rest was certainly one of them. Even after hitting rock bottom, although I tried hard to obtain adequate rest and relaxation, sometimes my restless and enthusiastic personality would drive me to push myself further than the body wanted to go.

I strongly believe that a well nourished body will thrive on moderate to high levels of exercise until the last days of a long lived life, but that bodies like mine, whcih have been punished by malnutrition and neglect will need to rest and recover before being gently and gradually brought back up to those levels. The saying in sport “No pain, no gain” is true in the sense that we need to overcome sloth and lethargy and push our bodies beyond what is comfortable if we want to improve our fitness and health, but it can be dangerous if it causes us to push ourselves beyond our body’s capacity, particularly at times when it is having to cope with stresses from other lifestyle choices. It is not always easy to know where to draw the line and this is why it is crucial to listen to our bodies and learn to detect signs of whether they need to exercise or to rest.

I have found that a good starting point is to make the effort to have a least a short workout every day. Once the heart rate has increased to around 60% of capacity (there are now useful Heart Rate Monitors for measuring our heart rate) I am in a position to assess whether I need to take it easy or whether I can push myself into a longer or more demanding session. All other things being well, there is no reason why we can’t give ourselves a good hard workout every day and enjoy the great feelings of euphoria and other benefits of the adrenalin rush.

For those of you who are unaccustomed to regular exercise this may seem like a massive undertaking and very daunting prospect, but the hardest part is getting started and even this can be enjoyable if you remember to stay within your limits and increase your workload very gradually, as and when you feel ready. I can assure you that, once you get into a regular routine, the will power and discipline needed to get out there every day will diminish and you may even start to look forward to it! You certainly won’t regret it afterwards.

As all experienced sports people will tell you it is essential to do some stretching before and after vigorous exercise, in order to loosen up our muscles and lower the risk of injury, but stretching has many other benefits and is an extremely useful activity in its own right. Yoga has, of course, become very popular in the West in recent times but its benefits have been enjoyed in the East for millennia, where it was developed as a spiritual practice and as preparation for meditation as much as for its physical benefits.

I didn’t started practising yoga until my late forties but am now as supple as when I was a child and have been relieved of all stiffness in my joints. I would highly recommend it to everyone but particularly those who are not accustomed to exercise and those who are suffering from aches, pains and stiffness. There is likely to be a regular yoga class near you that you can join and, if so, this is probably a good option to begin with. A good yoga teacher will help to make sure you are following the postures correctly and not thereby putting undue strain on certain joints. They will also urge you not to stretch yourself too far. Please heed their words and resist the temptation to compare yourself with other members of the class. If classes are not an option there are now a multitude of Yoga DVDs and Yoga Book to help you get going, but again, please take it steady!

Whilst yoga or stretching are essential components of every fitness regime as they improve flexibility, muscle tone and blood circulation while helping us to relax and avoid injury, for all round health and fitness a wide variety of activities is ideal. This way we will exercise a wider range of muscle groups and develop stamina, strength and power. We are also less likely to develop injuries as a result of always putting strain on the same body parts.

If you are just starting, taking a brisk walk after your yoga exercises may be sufficient. At low levels of fitness even a 10-15 minute walk will be enough to get the heart pumping and trigger the positive reactions in the body. If you manage to do this every day (or at least most days) you will, no doubt, soon feel ready to increase the distance and/or speed of your walks and be enjoying the benefits of a healthier cardiovascular system even though some days will be more of a struggle than others. Before you know it you may even be developing an appetite for more vigorous exercise such as jogging. Whether walking or jogging it is, of course, important to invest in a decent pair of shoes which help to cushion the impact on our ankle, knee and hip joints. I bought a pair of New Balance Running Shoes as they are the only ones that I could find that are made in the UK and am very happy with them. Having said that, there is a movement of runners who believe that going barefoot is better for us (see “Barefoot Running Step by Step” by Roy Wallack and Ken Bob Saxton). Certainly if, like me you are fortunate enough to live by the sea, I would recommend walking or running barefoot on the sand at every opportunity, although it does get a bit cold in winter!

For me, being at one with the elements is one of the prime motives for running outdoors, but if you really can’t face the cold winter nights then a gym may be a more attractive option. As well as doing your walking or running on a cosy treadmill, you will be able to add weight training or circuit training to your routines and thereby increase your strength and power as well as your stamina. This can, however, be achieved without expensive equipment and in the comfort of your own home. Brendan Brazier in “Thrive Fitness” demonstrates a series of sensible exercises that we can do at home as circuits to improve all round fitness.

Other good options are cycling and swimming. Cycling is good for stamina and, unlike running, doesn’t place strain on the joints, but tends to develop strength only in the lower body. Swimming is an excellent all round activity as it exercises most of the muscles in the body without placing any strain on the joints. The down side for me is that the heavily chlorinated water of swimming pools is not the healthiest of environments and swimming outdoors in all weathers does require very high levels of will power!

Although I now enjoy and appreciate the meditative aspects of these activities, when I was younger I preferred to keep fit by playing sports whenever possible, as they were much more fun and also brought social benefits. All, of course are valid alternatives and will develop different aspects of our fitness, provided that they don’t result in long term injuries. For this reason it is worth thinking carefully about which sports to choose and making sure your fitness levels are sufficient to allow you to participate safely. Possibly, the wider the range of activities you choose to participate in, the greater will be the benefits to your all round fitness and health and the more enjoyment you will gain along the way.

So to conclude, here’s a quick check list of the route to optimal fitness, to help you on the way to optimal health.

  1. Assess your current state of health and fitness and set goals that are realistically in line with your current capablities.
  2. Make sure your body is well nourished to provide fuel and nutrients for rebuilding your cells.
  3. Resolve to do at least a short workout, or some form of physical activity every day that you can.
  4. Begin steadily and gently increase your workload day by day, week to week, as and when you feel ready.
  5. Make sure you also have good rest and relaxation every day to allow recovery.
  6. Try different activities so that you can enjoy greater variety and all round fitness.
  7. Notice how your mood improves, how everyday tasks become easier, how your skin improves,