Spring is finally here in Muskegon, Michigan! Time for soccer games, picnics, camping, and trips to the beach. This is also the time that people start going outside to get their exercise again (unlike those of us who enjoy cross country skiing). Pulse-checking, moisture-wicking-shorts-clad, iPod-toting joggers seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately. Although there are many options out there to get fit through exercise, jogging is by far the most common. But what if the very exercise that started the "exercise craze" years ago is not as good for us as originally thought?
An old friend of mine recently emailed me, lamenting the fact that he can no longer jog because it hurts his back and feet too much. This guy is only in his early 30s but has been running his whole life. We spent years running track together throughout school (I ran hurdles and sprints and he did long distance) and he also participated in cross country for years, as well. He has stayed in pretty good shape throughout adulthood, but the years of pounding the pavement have finally caught up with him, like it has for many of my patients here at Zehr Chiropractic.
Jogging is widely regarded as the annointed go-to exercise for the masses. You don’t need fancy equipment. You don’t need a gym membership. All you need is time (a lot of time) and the gumption to do it. However, there is a dark side to long distance running.
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In addition to the hopes of increased aerobic capacity, a slimmer waistline, and more endurance, joggers are likely to also experience ankle, knee, hip, and back problems. Most interactions between a group of runners are likely to turn into discussions on preventing and relieving injuries. The big question is, if running is so GOOD for you, why do people end up worse off for doing so? What good is it to lose a few pounds if only to trade it for an early knee replacement? What is the point if you are laid up for days every time you “tweak” your ankle, hip, or back? Are you much better off?
If the high probability of acute and chronic injury wasn’t enough, there is even more to the story. Studies show that jogging isn’t what it’s cracked up to be in regards to the promises of weight loss and improved physical fitness. While it is true that your body burns more fat when doing slower, sustained exercise, the key to weight loss is not burning calories during the activity, but raising your overall metabolic rate to burn more calories ALL THE TIME! Studies show that excercise that incorporates shorter intense bursts of activity separated by periods of rest are far superior to activities that involve easier sustained exercise (like jogging) in regards to improving aerobic capacity, body composition, and overall fitness. So, it seems jogging is nowhere near the best option out there.
At the end of the day, I would still argue that jogging is still better than doing no exercise, but wouldn't it make sense to choose exercise that gets you results in less time, without promoting stress fractures, arthritis, and joint dysfunction?
Here are some great alternatives to jogging that allow you to improve your fitness in a fraction of the time (without prematurely aging your joints!).
I know. I know. The majority of females out there are programmed to skip right over any section of text that contains the words "weight" and “training.” Why? Because, for some reason, there is a myth out there that any woman who starts lifting weights will end up looking like an East German swimmer overnight, adding 20 pounds of unsightly bulk in no time. Not every woman wants the Serena Williams look, which I completely understand. What they don't realize is that the amount of muscle mass you put on has more to do with genetics and diet (and pharmaceutical enhancement) than it does training. Besides, most men (myself included) have a hard time putting on vast amounts of muscle mass quickly, even if they are training specifically to do so. For women, it is much more difficult. Sure, there are certain training techniques that are specially designed to put on "bulk," but you can only gain muscle mass by consuming more calories than you burn. So, unless you start crushing 10-egg omelettes and weight gainer shakes, you are most likely not going to look like a linebacker.
So, why is weight training crucial to any fitness plan? The reason is simple: intense exercise causes your body to have to adapt. Your muscles have to get stronger to make up for the increased demand. This raises your metabolic rate at rest, which means you’ll burn more calories all day long! Again, it’s not about burning fat and calories while you exercise, it’s all about burning fat while you’re at rest! Weight training forces you to literally build a bigger engine in your body’s cells, which means you need to burn more fuel (which will help you burn fat stores in your body). In addition, you'll be able to pick up your toddler with ease, open pickle jars like nobody's business, and you'll get that strong and lean look (as opposed to the emaciated marathon runner look).
Furthermore, weight training gives you great “bang for your buck.” Unlike jogging, you can get a great weight training workout in 30 minutes, if you stay focused. If you treat your time at the gym like a social event, it will take you considerably longer, so keep the rest between sets at a minimum! That also means less time checking out the hot girl/guy on the treadmill or finding the perfect track on your mp3 player for the next set, and more time sweating!
“But I thought you said running was bad for your joints?!” Sprinting is an entirely different animal altogether. When you are sprinting, you strike the ground with your forefoot, which is much less of a shock to your lower extremities that the heel strike which occurs during jogging. In addition, you take much fewer strides while sprinting, because you perform several short bursts at a time, instead of mindlessly pounding the pavement for 90 minutes straight. Again, when it comes to overuse injuries, the poison is in the dose. The toll on the joints while sprinting is minimal compared to jogging.
In regards to weight loss, sprinting is a lot like weight training. It is very intense, which means your muscles have to work much harder, again forcing your body to adapt more strongly, which will increase your baseline metabolism. Just like weight training, you can get a great sprinting workout in 30 minutes, saving time while saving wear and tear on your joints! (I'll share my workout method for sprinting later on in this post). Be sure to “work your way up.” If you haven’t gone for an all out sprint in years, start out running at a 75% effort before going full tilt. You should always have a five minute warm up before sprinting, followed by a brief cool down and stretching.
This is crucial to any well rounded fitness plan, because you can really mix it up and perform a variety of exercises with this technique. Variety is the key to any exercise routine because boredom is the number one reason people quit exercising (that with a lack of results, both of which are addressed with interval training). The idea of interval training is to perform short bursts of very intense exercise with a set amount of rest in between. My favorite method is the Tabata protocol.
Five minute warm up (which is a good idea for any training session)
8 sets of 20 seconds maximum effort exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest
2 minute cool down
The whole interval only lasts 4 minutes, but it will feel like the longest four minutes of your life (besides the parallel parking portion of your driving test).
Try to mix up the exercises that you perform while doing intervals. Stick with full body movements like air squats, push ups, kettlebell swings, burpees, deadlifts, thrusters, etc. After the 2 minute cool down, I will often repeat the process once or twice more. If I do 3 intervals, the whole workout takes 25-30 minutes total. You will feel like you ran a marathon afterward, without sacrificing your whole afternoon!
You can also enjoy Tabata intervals outside with a variety of movements. You can do Tabata intervals on a bike, running stairs in the dunes (for us West Michigan folks), jumping rope, swimming, doing plyometrics in your back yard, or sprinting. You can get apps for your Android or iPhone that has a Tabata timer that will give you cues when to start and stop during your interval. These apps will work while you’re listening to music so you can still jam to “Eye of the Tiger” while getting your Tabatas on!
One of my favorite workouts to do here in West Michigan is beach sprint intervals. Of course, our friends who live on the ocean can do this, as well. If it can help Balboa defeat Clubber Lang in Rocky 3, it can work for you!
Sprinting in sand is one of the most exhausting endeavours known to (wo)man. Sure, the focus is on the legs, but it is a whole body movement, which means that you're sending a very strong signal to your cells (which is going to help to raise your metabolism). I sprint as hard as I can for roughly 75 yards (remember, it's sand, so 75 yards will feel more like 150, more like 250 if you're facing a strong headwind). I take roughly a minute break (however long it takes to catch my breath) and do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat. After about 6-8 intervals (depending on how I’m feeling) I will do a cool down activity (a brisk walk, play catch with my boys, etc.) and then stretch. I will often find a spot to do some push ups to hit the upper body, as well. Then, I jump in the lake to cool off. There is nothing quite like it.
Remember to consume a post workout meal to help minimize the amount of soreness you feel after your workouts. You need to get some protein and some carbs down the hatch within 30 minutes of any strenuous exercise. Stay away from sugary, high fructose corn syrup-laden "sports drinks." Consume real food, if possible. If you really have to get your post workout meal in a shake, stick with whey protein (NOT SOY!!!) and blend it with berries or bananas (instead of processed sugar). Skim milk also works great as your protein source (that is, if you tolerate dairy well). The reason I advocate skim milk here is because you do not want to add fat to your post workout meal. Fat slows absorption (which is GREAT for every other meal because it prevents blood sugar fluctuations and controls hunger) but the nutrients need to get to your muscles and you don't want to slow that process down. And, of course, be sure to hydrate before, during, and after your workout!
You can weight train on Monday, do intervals on Wednesday, and sprint on Friday. On the weekends, just do something active that you enjoy (hiking, biking, rock climbing, chasing your kids at the park, take your furry friends to the dog park, etc.). In all, 2-3 hours per week is all you need to get in the best shape of your life! Who can't find 3 hours? Put down the gossip mag, unplug the TV, neglect your Farmville game. In addition to "working out," perform what I can "random acts of fitness." Park further away at the grocery store. Pound out 25 pushups in between clients. Take a brisk walk around the block after work. Do 50 bodyweight squats in between every load of laundry. Ahem....do your postural stability exercises your chiropractor gives you...ahem. It all adds up! If you are looking to get fit and lose weight without ruining your joints, there are a myriad of choices out there. Find some weights, some water, some grass, or some sand and get going already! Get inspired, get a plan, and get fit!