The easy way to a better body

The days of gruelling aerobics classes are over. Slower and gentler workouts could be a better route to fitness, experts say
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Leaping about in a G-string leotard sweating like a pig in front of a mirror to thumping chart music may not be the best route to a perfect body. Many health and fitness experts now believe that "going for the burn" with high impact exercise is outdated. They believe the aerobic obsession - born in the early Eighties with the help of leg-warmers, sweat-bands and television fitness queens such as the Green Goddess and Mad Lizzie - is well and truly over. Instead, the way forward lies in much less physically exhausting and low-impact exercises such as pilates and yoga. Some are even suggesting that as little as a 20-minute session once a week may be all you need to stay fit.

Leaping about in a G-string leotard sweating like a pig in front of a mirror to thumping chart music may not be the best route to a perfect body. Many health and fitness experts now believe that "going for the burn" with high impact exercise is outdated. They believe the aerobic obsession - born in the early Eighties with the help of leg-warmers, sweat-bands and television fitness queens such as the Green Goddess and Mad Lizzie - is well and truly over. Instead, the way forward lies in much less physically exhausting and low-impact exercises such as pilates and yoga. Some are even suggesting that as little as a 20-minute session once a week may be all you need to stay fit.

Although we all know that having a firm bum and flat stomach is still important, things have moved on. Nowadays, we look for all-round well-being as well - and that means exercising the mind as well as the body. "People are looking for a bit more of a holistic approach to exercise and nutrition," says Lynne Robinson, author and pilates expert. "We all want to think more and understand more about what we are doing and why - pilates is seen as the thinking person's exercise."

Celebrity endorsement - by stars such as Madonna, Sting, Gwyneth Paltrow and Geri Halliwell - has obviously added to the credibility of these disciplines. Madonna has said that yoga totally changed her life, and who can argue with a woman in her forties who looks as fit as she does? But it's not only celebrities and posh people with loads of cash who are getting the benefits. The holistic approach has now gone mainstream, and practically every gym timetable in the country has started to offer some form of pilates or yoga-based activity.

And it's not just airy-fairy types who use pilates as part of their fitness regimes. Lynne trains the England cricket team and other sports players such as footballers.

Natasha Knight, a fitness consultant and studio co-ordinator at the YMCA in Hornsey, north London, believes the shift from traditional aerobic exercise classes is appealing to wider range of people. Classes are no longer being completely dominated by young women - men and older people are also getting involved. Static classes such as body pump, power max (both light weight-lifting to music) and spinning (cycling on a static bike) are becoming popular because they provide a cardiovascular workout with little movement off the spot and virtually no choreography.

"People of all ages are willing to take part in a spinning or a pilates class because there isn't the intimidation or competition from the people in the front row dancing up and down in their thongs," says Natasha. "More men are getting involved and exercise classes are no a longer purely female environment."

Natasha says women have realised that gentler exercise puts less strain on their bodies. "People are sick of the old fashioned, 'no pain, no gain' attitude," she says. "They've realised you don't have to kill yourself to get in shape. Women's bodies are not really designed for lots of thrashing about - they have boobs, and jumping around can be painful. There are lots of alternatives such as spinning which offers a high level of intensity and fat burning, achieves results a lot quicker and doesn't involve difficult choreography, jumping about and putting pressure on the boobs."

The modern perception of how often we should exercise is also changing. It was thought that you needed to do exercise for at least 20 minutes three times a week for it to have any effect, but Richard Winsley, a lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Exeter, says that any form of exercise even in short bursts is effective.

He says, "To get the health benefits from exercise you need to do about 30 minutes five days a week. This doesn't mean that you have to do 30 minutes all at once, you can break it up. For example, you could do 10 minutes walking to work then 10 minutes walking around shops at lunch time and 10 minutes walking home. Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes burns about 300 calories but for those who are heavily overweight or really busy it might not be possible to spend that much time in the gym, but they could burn the same amount of calories by spending 30 minutes walking to work or picking the kids up from school."

In the States this idea of "less is more" has been adopted in many gyms in the form of "super-slow" training. Super-slow is basically a form of weight-lifting, but instead of trying to push heavy weights several times, the emphasis is on going very slowly. Adam Zickerman, founder of Inform Fitness in New York has adapted all the machines in his gym so they can be used specifically for slow lifting. He says, "Weight is irrelevant, it's how fast you lift the weight that counts. Pushing three hundred pounds off your chest is no big deal unless you lower it up and down very slowly. The slower you lift the weight the greater the intensity."

With slow lifting each repetition should last around 14 seconds, instead of the average seven seconds. The idea is to create intense muscle burn, so even though the resistance is moderate, momentum is lost due to the length of time taken to complete the exercise to the extent where the weight becomes almost unbearable. At this point you are encouraged to sustain the effort for a further 10 seconds. Its disciples believe that pushing a muscle to failure causes physiological changes and when the muscle recovers a few days later the new tissue will thicken and need more sustenance. They believe that if you put on three pounds of muscle your body will need an extra 9,000 calories a month, so if you maintain your diet then the weight will start to drop off.

"People who do five hours of aerobics a week are wasting their time," says Adam. "Slow lifting takes a lot less time, is much safer and the results are greater, you can burn calories without raising the metabolism. Most of our clients are seeing the best results when they don't do any or only moderate cardiovascular exercise. We've helped people across the board, from those looking for major weight loss, to those with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. It can also help women with osteoporosis."

In Britain, however, many fitness experts are sceptical about the benefits of super-slow training. Dave Clark, a strength and conditioning coach for the Scottish Institute of Sport and a member of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), says, "There is no solid scientific evidence to support this kind of training and no way it could do what they are proposing. Something that claims to be good for everything is a gimmick. To get the best workout you need to have a programme that combines both cardiovascular work and weights."

So if you're still working that body, and feeling more virtuous with every aching muscle, maybe you're doing something wrong.

For more information about the British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences call the BASES office on 01132 891020

'Pilates Express -The Faster Way To a New Body', presented by Lynne Robinson and Pat Cash is available from Telstar, price £12.99

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