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Walking

One of the simplest and most effective forms of exercise for burning calories and toning up the body is walking. Despite the benefits, there are still a great number of us who claim we haven't either got the time or the energy to get out and start walking. Research has shown that over the last few years it's not that Irish people are consuming more calories that is leading to health problems and obesity, but rather that they have become more sedentary.

Walking has many advantages. It does not require the purchase of expensive equipment or facilities (apart from appropriate footwear) and it can be enjoyed by all - young and old alike - at a time to suit each individual schedule.

For those starting off, a general guideline for time and distance is to walk one mile in 20 minutes. A fitter walker could walk one mile in 15 minutes, but it is better to start out slowly and enjoy the experience than to try to accomplish too much at the start.

Aim to build up your walk to the guidelines recommended by the Irish Heart Foundation of 30 minutes per day for most days of the week.

If you are unused to taking exercise and have lived a sedentary lifestyle for a long number of years, you must take things slowly when embarking on any new form of physical activity. A short daily walk is infinitely preferable to one long walk in the week and six days of inactivity!

Walking is also an excellent way of burning fat, and is strongly recommended by all the leading Irish and international weight-loss organisations. Since we all now live in a motorised society, we get fewer and fewer opportunities to exercise our limbs, and both our health and our physical appearance has suffered as a result.

If you are new to walking, a good idea is to devise your own walking programme over a period of time. First of all decide how many times a week you are going to walk and for how long. Combine 'casual' walking (i.e. a stroll through the park or to the local shop) with 'fitness walking' which is brisk walking outdoors or on a treadmill at the gym. The next step is to stick to your new programme and the result will be a leaner, fitter you!

Drink a glass of water before and after your walk and make sure to wear proper footwear. The importance of proper footwear cannot be emphasised enough. It is worth investing in a good pair of trainers with proper arch support and a cushioned sole. Remember that walking on a regular basis in ill-fitting and uncomfortable runners can do permanent damage to the soles of your feet and to your arches - not to mention your poor aching back!

Sli na Slainte

'Sli na Slainte' is the Irish phrase for 'Path to Health' and it is a unique exercise concept devised and launched in 1996 by Paddy Murphy, Chief Executive of the Irish Heart Foundation. The aim of the project is to make exercise more attractive and more fun by putting distinctive signs along walking routes around the country to mark one kilometre walked.

Since its launch over five years ago, the 'Sli na Slainte' concept has captured the imagination of local authorities and members of the public not just in Ireland, but in many parts of Europe as well.

'Sli na Slainte' signs are marked with a bright yellow sun and a human figure in yellow, blue and red, to signify the energy and vitality of life! The routes are all over the country, in housing estates, along canal and riverbank walks, public footpaths, alongside the sea and in woodland areas. Each sign is placed at a convenient one kilometre distance from the next and you can start and finish your walk anywhere you like. There are individual signs marking the beginning, end, direction and distances along each 'Sli na Slainte' route, but after that you, the walker, are in control. Enjoy it!

Cycling

Cycling is a great way to get fit, and it is also a cheap and cheerful exercise because the only investment you have to make to get started is a decent bike and a helmet.

Described as a low-impact exercise ('impact' refers to the amount of strain which is placed on the joints during exercise), cycling is an ideal form of exercise for those who suffer from knee or other joint problems.

With the ever-growing numbers of cars on our roads, one of the biggest concerns facing cyclists in this country is the whole issue of safety on public roads. A recently established body - the National Cycle Network - aims to have cycle lanes and marked paths opened all around the country to facilitiate those who wish to cycle in safety and comfort. Maps of their routes and of other cycling routes are slowly becoming available in bookshops and bicycle shops so watch out for them.

If you are new to cycling, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Ensure that the saddle on your bike is the right height. For safety purposes, your leg should be straight on the downward stroke of the pedal and your toes should only just be able to touch the ground when you stop pedalling.
  • If you are prone to back problems, avoid bending forward on your bike. Invest in an upright bicycle instead of a racing bike, and stop cycling immediately if you can feel any pain or strain in your back.
  • Cycle with a friend, or join a local cycling club (if there is one in your area). Cycling with other like-minded enthusiasts can be great fun, and you won't even realise you are clocking up the miles!
  • Always make sure to wear a cycling helmet, and dress in light, non-restrictive clothing and a proper pair of runners or cycling shoes. If you are cycling in the evening or after dark, ensure that you have proper lighting on your bike and wear reflective safety strips on your clothing so that you can clearly be seen by motorists or pedestrians.
  • If you would rather take up cycling in the privacy of your own home, why not invest in an exercise bike and get that body moving. The great thing about stationary cycling is that you can do it at any time of the day or night that is convenient to you - so instead of sitting on the couch to watch your favourite soap opera you could spend half an hour on your bike! Just think of all the calories you could burn up in that half hour.
  • Another option is to join your local Gym and pedal the pounds away on their stationary bikes. Some gyms in Ireland now offer a cycling programme to members called 'spinning' which is extremely popular on the West Coast of the United States.
  • 'Spinning' is like going on a cycling trip with a group of friends without ever leaving the gym! Basically, your gym instructor will take you on a cycle ride up and down hills by asking you to increase or reduce the resistance on your bike. The fitter you are the more resistance you will be able to withstand.

Swimming

If you are new to exercise and your body is badly in need of some overall toning, then swimming is an ideal form of exercise to take up. It is probably the only form of exercise which tones every part of your body at the one time and gives you a total aerobic workout.

While swimming, the body is working against the resistance of the water so you have to work 12 times harder than if you exercise on dry land, so you burn up calories at a faster pace and will gain a leaner and more well-toned appearance much quicker than with other forms of exercise.

Another major advantage of swimming is that it is one of the most gentle forms of exercise available. The buoyancy of the water acts as a cushion for the muscles and joints, so it is an ideal exercise right throughout pregnancy, for those who are recovering from injury and for overweight people who are taking up exercise for the first time.

While your whole body gets a total aerobic workout in swimming, different strokes work on different parts of the body. If your aim is to burn fat, concentrate on the crawl. The back stroke is ideal for toning the upper body, especially the inner arms, while the breast stroke is ideal for those hard-to-tone inner thighs.

Swimming uses up the same number of calories as jogging, but is much less stressful on the body.

But what if you can't swim and feel it is too late to learn now? Well, why not take up water aerobics? This form of exercise is now available at leisure centres and public swimming pools all around the country and can be participated in by everyone - young and old alike - and there is no need to be able to swim to take part.

Water aerobics literally means aerobics in the water. Participants engage in a series of exercises in the water with the help of a fitness instructor. Many people find it easier to exercise in water than in a gym because the water absorbs over 80% of the stress and strain on their joints and bones. Another major advantage for those who are overweight is that, since most of the exercises are done underwater, nobody else can see your body moving, so there is no need to feel intimidated!

Dancing

Dancing is one of the most enjoyable ways to get the body moving and to meet new people, but sadly not enough of us engage in this form of exercise anymore. Dancing is a great way to give the body a total aerobic workout and to burn up calories for those who are trying to lose weight. One of the major advantages of dancing is that it is so much fun that you won't even realise you are burning calories and toning up. Many of us find exercise hard work, but with dancing all the work is taken out of the exercise session to be replaced by fun!

As well as being a great workout for your heart and lungs, dancing is a fantastic fat-burner. It also improves posture and co-ordination, and is one of the best natural remedies to beat stress and depression.

Since dancing is all about having fun and 'letting go' it releases inhibitions and makes us feel less conscious about our appearance. While we are enjoying our dance session we are also improving our overall appearance, so what more could we ask for?

While dancing in the privacy of your own home is to be highly recommended, it is an even better idea to join a dance class if there is one taking place in your area. There are many forms of dancing from salsa to belly dancing to line dancing, so you are bound to find something to suit you.

Salsa dancing is currently very popular with the proliferation of Latin American music artists in the popular charts. While we may not all aspire to looking like the models who appear in Ricky Martin videos, we can certainly wiggle those hips and do the basic turns and twirls which are part and parcel of the infectious Latin beat. Although line dancing has waned somewhat in popularity, it still provides the body with a great aerobic workout as there is plenty of leg raising, toe-tapping and hip swivelling.

Another option is belly dancing, and the good news is that you don't even have to bare your midriff if it is not fit to be displayed in public! Just wear some loose, comfortable clothing and a scarf around your hips to emphasise those groovy pelvic movements!

If you cannot find dancing classes in your area, then take yourself along to the local disco or country and western hooley and bop the night away! You will probably never complain about exercise again.

Aerobics

Aerobic dancing first became popular in the late 1960s and is now an integral part of fitness regimes throughout the Western world. Aerobics was at the height of its popularity during the Jane Fonda 'go for the burn' workouts in the 1980s, but thankfully, things have calmed down a bit since then and modern aerobic workouts are not nearly as gruelling. Nevertheless, aerobics is still a tough workout and is not a suitable form of exercise for those who are embarking on exercise for the first time after years of inactivity.

Typically, an aerobic session consists of a full hour's workout set to music and under the guidance of a trained instructor. It begins with 5-10 minutes of stretching and warm-up routines, peaks with 20-30 minutes of target heart rate dance and then winds down with 20 minutes of muscle-stretching exercises on the floor (known as body sculpting) and 5-10 minutes of cool-down exercises

As with all other forms of exercise, it is essential to wear proper shoes for aerobics. Specially-designed shoes for aerobics are available, which provide the necessary arch and side support needed, and also have cushioned soles that allow for the many twisting and turning movements which make up an aerobics programme.

As it is a high-impact form of exercise, aerobics is not suitable for people who suffer from back problems or who have problems with their joints or bones. It is not suitable either for those who are very overweight or unfit because of the strenuous nature of the sustained dance routines.

Many people tend to shy away from the idea of engaging in complicated and strenuous dance routines in the company of scantily-clad, svelte young bodies in a gym, and prefer instead to engage in an aerobics routine in their own livingroom with the help of an exercise video. A word of warning though - there are good and bad exercise videos, so it is a case of 'buyer beware'.

Never engage in an aerobic workout which does not provide for a proper warm-up and cool-down period and keep an eye on your heart rate while you are engaging in strenuous dance sequences. If you feel any pain or strain anywhere in the body, and most especially in the feet, stop exercising immediately and do not resume until the pain has gone away.

Aerobics may give you the type of body you have always dreamed of, but it is not a form of exercise that suits everyone. If you find that you enjoy engaging in an aerobics workout a couple of times a week you will probably never suffer from a weight problem. On the other hand, if you simply hate the whole idea of aerobics, then just search around for some other form of exercise - there is definitely something out there to suit eve

Stretching

Did you ever notice how you feel much better after having a big stretch? The truth is that regular stretching is very good for you. Not only that, but over a period of time, stretching can actually make you look leaner and slimmer by making your muscles longer, more toned and more flexible. Stretching is also a great stress-beater because it releases all that tension and tightness in the muscles, especially those in the neck, shoulder and back area.

Many leisure centres now offer classes in stretch-based exercises such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates. These are becoming more and more popular as a means of taking 'time out' from our increasingly-stressful lifestyles. In these classes, the emphasis is on relaxation and listening to the body, so the stretches are performed without music and in a very calm and peaceful atmosphere.

Yoga: This one of the most popular forms of relaxation exercise. The word Yoga means 'union'. Yoga postures are said to unify the mind, body and breath so that they work together as one. There are many different types of Yoga, but all of them are based on gentle exercises that make use of slow, controlled movements to stretch and tone the body. A feeling of well-being and relaxation is induced in the body, and the good news is that those hard-to-tone areas like the stomach, bottom and thighs will show tremendous improvement with the regular practice of Yoga.

Tai Chi: This an ancient Chinese techique based on the balance of energies that flow through the body. It is often referred to as 'Meditation in Motion' as it aims to promote a spiritual tranquility along with increased mental and physical energy. Tai Chi consists of slow, flowing movements to relax the mind and body. Like Yoga, the emphasis is on performing all the exercises slowly and gently and in a calm and peaceful atmosphere. It is suitable for people of all ages and all levels of fitness.

Pilates: Not unlike Yoga, Pilates is another form of relaxation exercise where the emphasis is on strengthening, realigning and balancing the body so that it performs in complete harmony. It teaches good breathing techniques, and makes participants more aware of their own body through a series of slow, controlled movements. Pilates claims to improve total fitness, posture and appearance and again it is suitable for people of all ages and all levels of fitness. Why not give it a go if there are classes in your area. There are also some good books and videos on the subject.

Skipping

Skipping is a fun way to get fit and also provides the body with a great aerobic workout. One of the best fat-burning exercises around, skipping is an exercise that almost all of us enjoyed immensely as children but why did we ever put those skipping ropes away? If you are very overweight or very unfit, it is not a good idea to launch full-scale into an exercise programme which is exclusively based on skipping. Skipping can be quite strenuous (especially for unfit adults!), so the key is to take things slowly. Start today with five minutes of continuous skipping and gradually build-up your speed and stamina to at least 20 minutes per day after two to three weeks. Skipping can be combined with other forms of exercise to give the body a total aerobic workout, but bear in mind that it is a high-impact exercise so it is not suitable for those with joint and bone problems, or for those who suffer from back problems. It is also unsuitable for pregnant women and elderly people. If you have children in the house, they are bound to have a skipping rope lying around so pick it up and make use of it. Better still, get the children involved and all of you can have a brilliant exercise session - and a lot of fun as well!

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