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How Fitness Affects Wellness

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. Hi, Alex. How are you?

Alex Adams: Very well, Anshu. Thank you very much for having me on.

AB: You’re welcome. So, I’ll start by introducing you a little bit. So, just to introduce Alex. He’s a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer. He has a number of very impressive qualifications. He has an incredible grasp of the human body, of nutrition, injury and accident rehabilitation. I can vouch for that. He’s helped a lot with injuries. He’s also the education director at Performance Plus, where he’s responsible not just for training clients, but also for training his colleagues, which says a lot. Welcome Alex, to this chat. Thank you for being here with us.

AA: That’s a very nice intro. Thank you.

AB: You’re welcome. So, I will start by asking you, what is wellness to you, Alex?

AA: I think it’s all-encompassing, it’s beyond the physical, it is also the emotional and kind of psychological aspects of being well and healthy, which plays into and comes from both physical activity as well as I guess you would call self-care and taking time to actually improve your health in other areas. So, thinking about nutrition and lifestyle and sleep and what not. But to me wellness is the combination of all of those factors.

AB: Okay. And how would you describe fitness?

AA: So, fitness is the physical embodiment of the wellness element and it’s really the ability to do everything that you want to be able to do in daily life, and that is different for everybody. So, fitness can’t really be defined as one thing. For some people, it’s running a marathon, for other people, it’s lifting a heavy weight. For other people, it’s just getting around and playing with the grandkids. So, it is specific to the person, but it’s the ability to do all of those things without becoming exhausted prematurely or becoming injured because you’re not conditioned to doing those things in the first place.

AB: Okay, and is fitness and exercise important in feeling healthy and well? And why do you think that it is?

AA: Yeah, absolutely. My life is based around fitness of all kinds. But for everybody that I’ve ever come across, it’s been a huge part of their mental well-being in terms of self-esteem, self-image, how positive they feel on a day-to-day basis, which is a bigger part of the wellness picture, if you like. The ability to do everything in day-to-day life that you want to do, that’s really important for everybody.

AB: Okay. And tell me, what kind of exercise do you normally recommend for your clients out of all these confusing areas of exercises that there is?

AA: Well, it varies. So, my client base ranges from 20-year-old weightlifters to 70-year-old females. Postmenopausal bone density in the average client doesn’t really exist, so it’s very specific to the person. But in general, a combination is always better than very specific, by which I mean everybody will benefit from doing a little of everything. And then the degrees of that will vary from person to person, depending on their goals and their kind of sporting hobbies or lifestyle factors.

AB: So now, can you tell me what is the difference between high intensity and low intensity exercise?

AA: Absolutely, so high intensity first is most simple to define. I guess it’s anything which requires a heart rate above about 70% of your maximum and high intensity.

AB: And maximum being?

AA: So, the maximum being, as an estimation, it’s 220 minus your age. So, the younger you are, the theoretically higher maximum heart rate you can have and still be functioning and safe and the reverse being opposite. True as well. But the idea being that with a high intensity interval program, which is different to just high intensity, which could last however long, but high intensity intervals require peaks and troughs, so we’re looking for spikes in the heart rate above 70% of that maximum and then troughs which comeback down well below that 70%. So, we allow adequate recovery between bouts of high intensity. So, when you see that high-intensity interval training mentioned you are looking for: does the work-to-rest ratio really allow it to be high intensity or does it become all very moderate intensity just through the nature of the program? In contrast to that, low-intensity exercise sometimes known as LITs, where we’re talking about low-intensity, a steady-state exercise where the heart rate remains at a more moderate percentage of your maximum, so somewhere around 50% to 60% for an extended period. In those types of exercise scenarios, we’re requiring more time. So, to get the same benefits and to feel the effects of that, we just have to do it for a bit longer.

AB: So, in terms of pros and cons of both, are there any cases where you’d say just do this or just do that, or give us an idea of what you think are the pros and cons?

AA: Occasionally, yes, I think the biggest con to lower intensity exercise is just that it takes so much time. So, if you can work it into your lifestyle in a way that it doesn’t require you to go to the gym to do it, for example, heading to the gym to run for 30 minutes at the same pace versus actually just swimming or cycling or doing some form of activity that gives you other benefits, like mindfulness or escape into nature or whatever it is. Or simply walking for an hour a day in your commute rather than doing an exercise bout. So, that tends to be more beneficial for my clients. And then the cons, I guess, of the high intensity are that some people aren’t really ready for it. So high-intensity exercise can have a high impact as well. So, we do have to consider a person’s bone density, their age, their hormonal status in that as well. But it’s not something they can never do, it’s something that perhaps they have to train towards being able to do. And the risk of injury, if you haven’t prepared for it, is a little bit higher.

AB: In high intensity?

AA: In high intensity.

AB: So, would you recommend if someone is venturing into a new high intensity program, they should do it with a coach? By the sound of it?

AA: Yes, or at least under the guidance of someone who has done it from a similar position that they were in. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be a trainer. There are apps like we’ve discussed as well in the past. Things like the Couch to 5K is designed for those people who have been sedentary and want to get into some form of steady state running. In my opinion, it needs a little work. There should be a longer phase of preparation to be able to just go and run. But there are ways to do it without a coach. A coach is probably just the most time efficient way of doing it because they’ve learned from all their mistakes in the past. You get the latest research and you get the most effective methods that have worked for other people as well.

AB: So, when you’re trying to work out— what is best for a client, what is the process you go through? How do you recommend what you make them do?

AA: Well, it will always start with a face-to-face consultation, so identifying their limitations, whether that’s limitations on time, physical limitations, injury history, and then I will assess them physically as well. So, we’ll have a look at how well they move, and how athletic their history has been, often giving us an insight into what they’re likely to want to do as well. People who have done no sport ever in their life tend to have a little more kind of trepidation about pushing into something that’s particularly high intensity very soon. So, that can influence my decision as well. But largely it will be, are they physically capable of the higher intensity stuff, and if not, we typically will start with the lower intensity; whether that’s through lighter resistance training, body weight training or just some form of steady-state cardio.

AB: Okay, and what is your view on interval training, which is also something which is being talked about so much today?

AA: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit overused in terms of planning the 45 minute class around high-intensity training. Like I was saying, the peaks and troughs idea only really works if you monitor the heart rate or if you use very specific time periods and you have to really allow for that full recovery between bouts. And what you will see in the fitness industry is more of a sort of sales approach where everything’s sexed up a little bit. So, you have the word high-intensity banded around to make it seem harder. But harder doesn’t always mean more effective. So, you do have to have a slightly intelligent approach to what is really high intensity and what is an adequate recovery period to allow you to do those multiple times. Otherwise, like I said in the beginning, it just becomes a steady state at a higher percentage of your heart rate max.

AB: So, you’re saying high intensity interval training and then recovery and then back to high-intensity?

AA: Exactly, yes. So, high-intensity interval training and the stuff that the research is based on is very much about a very high maximum heart rate and then a very low recovery period. And that process repeated for however long you can keep maintaining that high intensity, which isn’t really that long. So, an interval training session might only last 20 to 25 minutes, whereas you can have a high intensity where it’s maybe 75% of your heart rate max, but it just lasts the entire time. So, that would be high-intensity training, but it’s no longer interval training.

AB: Right. So interval training— can you tell us the difference?

AA: Interval training again, could be high or low intensity, but it is with a planned work-to-rest ratio. So, you have peaks and troughs in your heart rate and the benefits of that are essentially far quicker improvements in fitness. You’re improving your ability to recover between high-intensity work. You can, theoretically if you do it right, burn more calories than you would do when you’re doing a steady state or low-intensity exercise.

AB: Also, I didn’t know you could do low-intensity interval training because I’ve only known high-intensity interval training. 

AA: You can. So, an example would be if you were to do a walk-jog. So, in the early stages of preparing to run distance, you might walk for a minute, run for a minute, and typically you won’t get to an intensity that is considered high. So, that would be a lower-intensity or moderate-intensity interval session. And it still has its benefits and it’s appropriate for some people, for sure.

AB: Okay. And is it good for weight loss or not?

AA: The easy answer is that it depends. It is good for weight loss in the sense that you can create a calorie deficit through doing it and that a sedentary person who did no exercise before and then goes on to do that is actually then getting a benefit and therefore burning some calories. And so that is useful for you.

AB: Okay. Alex, you know, in today’s world where a lot of people are exercising from home post lockdown and a lot of people are using home apps, how do you recommend they go about that?

AA: I think safety at home is probably the biggest consideration. Making sure that the kit you’ve got, if you’re required to use any, is appropriate and hasn’t been in the garage for 20 years and then you know it’s going to cause you an injury. So, that’s the biggest thing. Things like flooring surface, making sure that you are not in the socks on your kitchen floor and going to slip all over the place. I see more injuries from people doing stuff on their own with apps than any other cause of injury. Especially post-lockdown. So, I think it is selecting something that’s very appropriate for you. So, not getting something that’s totally new, [and that] you’ve never done before. I know that companies like Les Mills were putting lots of free content out and you could sign up and do almost any class. But if you’ve never done a high-intensity workout and then suddenly you go jumping around the living room, you’re likely to hurt yourself. So, I think that’s a good consideration as well.

AB: Okay. And also, you’re saying that don’t use an old kit. So, when you’re talking about old kit, are you talking about shoes?

AA: It could be shoes, but even if you’ve got dumbbells or weights, kettlebells, that kind of stuff, the quality of what you’re using should be at least safe. It doesn’t have to be brand new or expensive.

AB: Right. But you have to make sure it’s safe. That’s very good advice because very often you don’t have a thing. You think a dumbbell is a dumbbell, how can it be wrong? But that’s very good advice.

AA: Since we went into lockdown, I’ve seen a few people using their parents’ old weights from the garage and benches that are falling apart and things like that. So, it has definitely come up.

AB: Okay. Do you have any advice you’d like to give them regarding training… fitness?

AA: Yeah, I do. I think it’s very fashionable to pick one genre and stay in it, but the evidence is there for all of these types of exercise. Having a benefit from yoga to high-intensity intervals on a Peloton, there are a lot of options available to you, and enjoying it and actively partaking in it is far more important than what the latest magazines say are the best way. It’s better to be doing something every day than to only ever do the best thing.

AB: Okay, thank you. How do you rate core exercises?

AA: We’re talking about things like planks, side planks, stationary, bracing exercises, if you like; where you’re learning to control your spine and being able to transmit force through your limbs. Technical sense, then there’s not a lot that can go wrong. You have to find a roughly neutral position and spend time there. So, there are duration-based, relatively safe, straightforward, and pretty easy-to-follow along YouTube videos or apps. If we’re talking about things like crunches, cable with chops, there’s more moving parts, there’s more factors involved where technique matters a little bit more. So, then a coach would be probably useful in that sense.

AB: Okay. And core exercises come under strengthening and conditioning, correct?

AA: Yes. So, strength and strength endurance. And both are important to the overall health of your spine and your ability to maintain a decent position when you’re doing other sports as well.

AB: Okay. Is there any exercise that increases metabolism?

AA: All exercise, any kind of movement will temporarily increase your metabolism. The energy expenditure you get from movement is kind of universal. Hints of interval training, specifically high intensity interval training, tends to have a longer period afterward where metabolism is raised, but so does resistance training. Resistance training is probably the quickest way to increase your calorie expenditure during the time you’re not training anymore or when you’re recovering from that training.

AB: Okay, and what is a good thing to eat? I know this is your favorite topic— nutrition before a morning workout.

AA: Yes. It depends a little bit on your goals. If you are aiming to be as strong as possible, then you will want to have some food. However, if you are only concerned with body fat reduction, for example, then you could get away with training in a fasted state where you haven’t eaten anything at all. Either way, I would suggest hydration. So, water or you potentially could do something very basic like have some caffeine as well. So, a small coffee has been shown to help improve performance in your exercise and therefore your outcome as well. But really it comes down to a little bit of personal preference, whether you feel you’re able to work hard or whether you start feeling sick if you’ve eaten too much. So, for myself, I could have a four course meal and then go and train, and I wouldn’t be suffering. But other people have a banana and they start to feel nauseous halfway into a training session. So, there’s a bit of how good and quick your digestive system works as well.

AB: And I also think you were very particular about what one eats after the training. Correct? So, do you want to talk a little bit about that?

AA: Absolutely. For me, it’s primarily based on how quickly you want to recover. So, things like protein shakes or just eating protein post-training, it’s very beneficial in terms of helping you recover from training, along with some carbohydrates. Again, depending on your goals and your body fat, then you might want to change the ratio of protein to carbohydrate. But both have a benefit. The difference is that shakes act a little bit quicker, they digest faster, and therefore you recover marginally quicker as well. But the important thing is that you’re getting enough water and protein post-training.

AB: Right. And a lot of people are vegetarian, or people are even turning vegan these days. What kind of protein do you recommend for them? Lentils are enough?

AA: It’s difficult. You can certainly get enough protein on a vegan diet. That’s been shown even with research. But the question comes down to are you planning your diet well enough? Are you measuring the protein content well enough? So, I think that generally supplementation is important for vegans in that sense. And a lot of the vegan protein powders now are actually pretty good. They used to be horrendous, I’ve taken a few of them.

AB: Yes, the taste is horrible.

AA: Yeah, but they’re getting better. And I do think there’s a move towards plant-based protein sources anyway.

AB: Okay. It’s essential to include high-intensity workout into your weekly routine, or would yoga and Pilates be considered enough?

AA: It depends entirely on your goals. I would suggest yoga and Pilates both, although they might be difficult and you might have tough sessions throughout the week, but they aren’t going to be high-intensity in the way that interval training is. So, you don’t get the same fitness improvements in terms of cardiac effects where your heart literally becomes more efficient and things like your respiratory rate and the efficiency of your lungs, it would have to be a little bit dependent on your goals. So, if that wasn’t important to you and you were already very fit, then absolutely yoga and Pilates is going to be enough, providing that also gets you as strong as you want to be.

AB: So, we talked about, I remember when I was training with you, we also talked about something very interesting to get the heart rate up and to get your metabolism up— which was really really cold showers. You know that.. the HOF method, the Wim Hof method. Do you want to elaborate a little bit on that?

AA: Yes. I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert on the area, but I have listened and read some information on it. The idea being that, whether it’s cold or heat stress, it has an effect on the body, and our bodies are always trying to maintain homeostasis. So, anything that takes us away from our normal resting state is a stress to our body, and we have an adaptation normally to that. So cold… prolonged periods of cold therapy have been shown to have great effects on our health generally, as have things like very hot saunas and heat stress. They have an effect on our aging process, and through a couple of different genetic factors, they actually help keep us feeling slightly younger for longer. So, the immediate effects of something like cold showers and beginning to control our breath and the respiratory reaction to diving into cold water, that’s also been shown to be good for our health. And the kind of nasal breathing and breath control that someone like Wim Hof talks about is now being kind of more and more purported to be beneficial.

AB: Right. Your recommendation for a protein powder brand, please.

AA: Yeah, off the top of my head, Motion Nutrition is pretty good. They tend to do the plant-based ones quite well, so they’re worth checking out.

AB: So, when you find out the base would you recommend one above the other? Like, would you say Pea protein is better than some other protein?

AA: Not necessarily. I tend to like to vary which proteins I use. If you’re taking the same thing everyday for years, you can become almost intolerant to certain things. So, you want to get variation.

AB: That’s very true. That’s a very good point you made, Alex. I also find that you become intolerant if you’re taking the same thing.

AA: The same way and you need to vary your diet. You would need to vary the protein you take. 

AB: Okay. What is the order of exercise that you’d recommend? Weight first or aerobics first?

AA: Mainly based on your goal, but primarily I would go weights first for most people. The idea being that you don’t want to be tired when you’re about to try and lift as heavy as you possibly can. So, if your goal is getting stronger and you want to prioritize the strength training element of your workouts, and if you can go as far to split those elements up and train strength on one day and then your aerobic fitness on another day, that would be a step further as well.

AB: Fantastic. And the last question for you: are body weight workouts as effective as actual weight, as using actual weight?

AA: I have seen people get very strong with bodyweight training, but it tends to be strengths that are only then useful for moving your own body weight around. For example, you look at gymnasts and they are incredibly strong athletes, they tend to not do a huge amount of weight training other than the resistance of their own body.

AB: Wow. Okay.

AA: But that doesn’t always transfer to everything else. So, a combination would be the best option where you use your body weight for some exercise and you become what we call strength that is relative. So relative to your body weight, but also improve your maximal strength using external loads as well. It depends a bit on your goal, but it can be done. You have to be pretty smart about it and a gymnastics-based coach or a calisthenics coach would be the person to see in that scenario.

AB: Okay, so are Theraband and various other resistance bands effective in toning and creating strength?

AA: In the beginning, yes. If you are relatively untrained, you’re not particularly strong and you find resistance that the bands provide you challenging, then yes. But like anything else, we adapt quite quickly to it. So, they quit quite quickly, like when we train with body weight, we have to progress. So, you would need varying degrees of resistance or the ability to double the band and use it in a way that makes it harder as you progress. So yes, in the beginning, but they have a shorter shelf life because there is a finite kind of resistance to them.

AB: Thank you so much for being here.

AA: Thank you so much Anshu.

AB: Thank you for organizing your day around this chat. Thank you.

AA: My pleasure.

AB: Great, thank you. Bye-bye. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoy the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.