Middle age woman walking for fitness

What does it mean to be healthy?

What is health? Great question. But more importantly: What does it mean to you to be healthy? I think it’s a very valuable question to ask, especially if you are considering making some lifestyle changes to move yourself in a healthy direction. 

There’s a standard dictionary definition of healthy: Showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being; being free from disease (From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).  And the World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

I read these definitions and I think “Yes, that’s not wrong.” But I also think that on a personal level, this can be much more specific. For each different human being, being healthy might mean:

  • Decreasing the medication you need to take
  • Moving without pain or restriction
  • Waking up without feeling tired
  • Feeling good after eating a normal meal
  • Having the energy to get through your day without dragging

And of course, many other things could be “healthy” for someone. All of these do fit into the official definitions above, but as we get more personal with our own definitions, they become more meaningful and therefore more motivational.

Making “healthy” personal

If you aren’t sure what healthy might look like for you, there’s a quick thought exercise you can undertake to shed some light on it: 

First, pretend you are the healthiest version of yourself. This is a perfect world situation, so just for the moment, forget about all the things that might be holding you back from perfect health right now. Don’t worry about running around after the kids, a job with too many required hours or high stress, or a partner who just doesn’t like vegetables. Let your imagination run wild and really get to know this Healthiest You. 

Once you’ve spent some time with Healthiest You, you’ll have a better idea about what they might do for: 

  • Eating and drinking
  • Exercise or movement
  • Work time and relax/unwind time
  • Stress management
  • Sleep routines
  • Anything else that boosts your health

This is a great starting point for planning. It gives you clarity around what “healthy” actually means for you, and it helps identify some starting points to start moving in a healthy direction. Not bad for a few minutes of thinking!

Why soft tissue work is important when you exercise

Soft tissue work, or care, as I like to think of it, means looking after the muscles and other tissues that help you move. This is a key ingredient in getting fit without getting injured. And it’s not just for athletes or gym junkies. Even if your workout routine is a low-key walk after dinner, you can benefit from looking after yourself. 

What is soft tissue?

In this instance, the soft tissues I’m referring to are the muscles and the connective tissues surrounding them, called fascia. These tissues support stable joints, help us maintain joint and posture alignment, and create movement. When they are tight, they can also limit movement, mis-align joints, and trigger pain responses. 

I talk about both of these together, but muscle and fascia are two different types of tissue. Both can get stiff from prolonged tension, such as being stuck in one posture or position for an extended time, or prolonged load, like hours of working out every day. When soft tissues are stiff, it means that movement can’t happen as well. 

What is “stiffness”?

Let’s take a moment for a quick refresher: When muscles contract, they pull on bones, which creates movement at the joints. A single joint movement can count as exercise (like a bicep curl), as can more complex movements like a squat, where many joints work together. Fascia helps transmit the force of the pull from one contracting muscle to another, or through another set of joints. Together, soft tissues that are pliable can contract, relax, transmit force, and perform these jobs with ease. 

Back to “getting stiff”: Muscles that are under tension for an extended period of time can end up staying partially contracted. This means they won’t actually relax OR contract well, so the “pull” on the bones is less efficient and productive. Prolonged tension can also change how stiff your fascia is. This can have a huge impact on overall soft tissue tension and stiffness, because fascia is EVERYWHERE. It surrounds: 

  • Individual muscle fibres (strings of individual cells)
  • Small bundles of fibres
  • Larger bundles of fibres
  • The whole muscle
Each of the structures pictured here are covered by fascia, which blends into the tendon and also covers the bone. It’s everywhere!

The layer surrounding each muscle blends into the layers surrounding other muscles or anatomical structures, which can “spread” tension even farther. Fascial stiffness anywhere in the body can impact how easily the muscle can contract and relax. 

The “soft tissue work” referred to is the treatment of these tissues so that they stay pliable, with what we call good tone. This can be done as self-treatment with foam rollers, trigger point balls, roller sticks, etc or you can see a remedial massage therapist, physio/osteo/chiro for manual therapy. Both do the same thing – use pressure or stretch-strain on the tissues to stimulate a decrease in tone.

Why does any of this actually matter? 

Beyond feeling tight, which is generally unpleasant, stiffness can cause short and long-term problems. When you’re stiff, your movement changes. It might be so subtle that you don’t even notice it. Over time though, stiff tissue can get increasingly tight, since noticing means not changing its length. In turn, this can start changing how you move. This is one way people develop compensation patterns that can lead to injury. 

Tension in any of the soft tissues can also impact joints in more isolated ways. Tightness can generate “hot spots” or areas of higher strain in joints where the attachment point pulls on the bone. Tension can also lead to poor alignment between joint structures, in turn leading to friction and potentially inflammation and pain.

The most important point: Looking after your soft tissue

There are a number of things you can do to look after yourself, including DIY options that are easily done at home, as well as sessions with a manual therapist. 

Small, frequent doses of “treatment” is the most effective way to keep your soft tissue feeling good. You can easily do this at home, making me a gib fan of DIY options. My general recommendations are spending 20-30 seconds on any sore spot before moving on, and doing this most days. If you have a lot of different muscles or sore sports to work on, try doing different spots on different days. For example, you could treat upper body spots on one day and lower body spots on the next. You can use a variety of self-massage tools, including a foam roller, a trigger point ball, a massage gun (also called a theragun), or a massage stick are highly effective for muscle tissue. Low intensity stretches held for several minutes per stretch is a great way to treat fascia. 

Last, but possibly the most effective: Go and get some hands-on treatment from a qualified professional. This is the soft tissue work that is more effective, both in terms of efficiency and how long it lasts. This may be remedial massage, physiotherapy (also called physical therapy, depending on where you live), or even some chiropractors or osteopaths, depending on their style of treatment. You’re looking for someone who can apply useful pressure (not to heavy, not too soft) in a way the creates a change in the muscle. Specifically, you’re looking for someone who can keep your muscles pliable and ready to move, without causing you too much pain in the process. It’s a huge help in keeping your body pain- and injury-free, and keeping you feeling good. 

Do I really need a personal trainer? 

Whether or not you need a personal trainer comes down to a few factors. One, how confident are you in being in a gym, or in designing your own workouts? Two, how much accountability are you looking for? I’d argue that with a bit of instruction (the internet is full of great resources) anyone can set up their own gym program. 

But just because you can doesn’t mean you’ll want to, and that’s totally ok! There are a number of reasons why hiring a personal trainer might be good for you. I would consider it if… 

You want some accountability.

Most of us have days where we don’t really feel like making an effort. A set appointment with a trainer often means we’ll turn up even when we don’t want to. And everyone always feels better when it’s done! 

You want some company.

If gym isn’t your thing, it can be boring. Someone tagging along and keeping you company can make it a lot more fun, especially if you get along really well. 

You want a plan. 

I have written a thousand gym programs, and yet I pay someone to train me. I just want to turn up and do the work. As an added bonus, having someone else plan for you means that it’s more likely your weaker points will be addressed; when we create our own workouts, we gravitate towards the things we’re good at. 

You’re looking for some guidance. 

Gyms, and especially the weights areas, can be intimidating when you aren’t used to them. A personal trainer can be your guide to the gym the same way you might hire a guide to go on safari in Africa. They can show you around, teach you the local customs, keep you safe, and generally help you learn to be more comfortable in a new environment. For some people, working with a trainer is the confidence boost they need. For others, it’s just a bit of insight into a new gym. When I worked as a trainer, I would occasionally have clients hire me for a session right after they joined the gym. They just wanted an indepth tour and to learn the how-tos for some of the more unusual equiment we had. That’s just fine! 

Guidance can also mean teaching. Your trainer should be teaching you to do things correctly. Eventually it will sink it enough to the point where you could do it on your own if you wanted to. 

You do better with a little encouragement. 

This goes hand in hand with wanting a little guidance. Sometimes you might not be sure you’re doing things right, or safely. Having a trainer with you can make all the difference, not only in you trying, but how hard you try too.   

Overall, personal trainers are generally great if you are healthy, not dealing with any injury (old or new), and not entirely sure what you want to do or how to do it. Everyone has their own reasons for working with a trainer. If that’s what it takes to keep you moving, go and enjoy!

Questions on: Side crunches & Reading during cardio

Ask your health and fitness questions here, and get answers that you can actually use. Whether it’s help with motivation, safe and effective exercise programs, or how movement can impact general health, you’ll find common sense info here.

Will side crunches make my waist boxy?

Nope! A “boxy” looking waist will come from shoulders and hips that are similar in width to your waist, not from any specific abdominal exercises.
If you want to create the shape of a smaller waist, focus on building muscle elsewhere, rather than losing size at your waist. Any exercises for your back, shoulders, and glutes will help create an hourglass figure. As an added bonus, an increase in muscle mass will help you keep your body fat percentage lower and improve your general long term health.

One last thing: If you’re worried about your muscles getting too big – don’t! It actually takes a long time to build big muscles. You’ll easily be able to stop when you’re happy with how you look.

Is it safe to read while I’m on a treadmill or an exercise bicycle? Could I fall off if I get distracted?

Lots of people read while they do cardio. It’s unlikely you’d fall off a stationary or spin-style bike, or elliptical machine. You remain in contact with the machine while you’re exercising. You probably won’t fall off a treadmill, either, though this a slightly higher risk option since you may have less contact with the machine and the belt could move you backward.

Personally, I don’t love reading while on a cardio machine, unless you’re aiming for a long, slow workout. Reading will make it more difficult to exercise at anything more than a low to moderate intensity. You’ll be distracted, and the reading posture will disrupt your movement pattern. However, there is a place for a long, slow, easy-ish workout in most programs. If your aim is to work at a 2-3 out of 10 scale for a workout 45 minutes or longer, reading while you’re at it won’t be too disruptive. For everything else, audiobooks are a great option!

Have a health, fitness, motivation, or exercise question of your own? Send it through here.

Podcast: Choosing a group fitness class

Love the idea of just turning up to the gym and not needing to think about what you’ll do? Group fitness is for you.

Whether you are looking for strength building, cardio fitness, better balance and flexibility, or almost anything else, gym classes have you covered. You can even find specialised classes like heavy metal yoga or roller-fit if you want to do something super specific.

But if you aren’t sure what you want to do in a class, the array of choices can be daunting. In this episode of the podcast, we’re tapping into Dave’s extensive knowledge of group fitness. He provides a simple, straightforward overview of different class types and formats so you can make a choice that you’re more likely to enjoy.

Have a listen and learn:

  • What you can expect from some of the biggest “brands” in group fitness
  • What is the difference between choreographed and freestyle classes, and the pros and cons of each
  • How different classes focus on different elements of fitness (e.g. strength, cardio, etc.)
  • How to get the most out of your class

Saving the best for last… We wrap the episode by talking about a really important point. Doing any class for the first time can be really scary. Some of us (yes, hello, me) are not coordinated and do NOT want to be seen doing it wrong. It’s so normal to feel like this, even if you’re a regular exerciser. Dave walks us through the steps you can easily take to make starting the class way less scary. You might even have fun! 😉

Group fitness really is it’s own world. But like any other sort of exercise, try it once and the second time becomes way easier – mentally and physically! Jump over to the podcast here and find out where group fitness can take you.

Introducing Common Sense Fitness

Common Sense Fitness, our (relatively) new podcast, is an audio version of this blog. Dave and I have (your hosts) have a driving desire to make exercise easier to start and easier to stick with, so you can get sustainable results. Our podcast takes on popular trends and long-accepted “how to”-s, takes away the hype, and lays out how you can make this information work for you. 

  • Want to know if you should do a specific type of workout? We can tell you who it’s good for. 
  • Interested in helping your body feel better? We’ll give you some ideas. 
  • Not sure how to pick a good gym? We’ve got you covered (and can let you in on a few secrets.)

If you’ve been wondering about anything to do with health, fitness, and wellbeing, send us an email. We love answering questions on the pod – it’s the best way to help people. As they say, if you have a question, chances are many others do to, so you’re doing people a favor. Nothing is too small or silly, so please don’t hesitate! 

The library isn’t extensive – yet. But we add a new show every week, and have some cool topics in the pipeline. And just like this blog, we’re more than happy to answer your questions about health, fitness, and wellbeing. Keen to check out Common Sense Fitness? You can find it here, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. 

About Dave and Erin, your podcast hosts 

Dave is a long-time group fitness instructor, qualified personal trainer, and running coach, as well as an avid runner/gym-er/and exerciser himself. He shares my drive to help people move better and feel better. One of the best things about Dave? He is super-amazing at making workouts fun and helping people enjoy themselves. 

And me? I’m Erin, an exercise physiologist and remedial massage therapist. This combination of work has helped me develop an in-depth understanding of how we move (or why we can’t!). I’ve been working in the industry for over a decade, and really get excited to see people start to feel better! The HealthFit Coaching blog is where I share the written versions of things we talk about on the podcast. If you’re keen to see your questions answered on the blog, contact me here.

a woman rolling an exercise mat

Use your body: Body-weight exercise for all fitness levels

Someone asked me what I thought was the best option for a quiet cardio machine. The first thing to mind? Using body weight exercise to make a cardio workout happen. 

Body-weight exercise is an excellent option for home workouts if you are space limited, don’t want a noisy machine in your place, don’t want to spend a lot of money, and would like to tick the box for strength training and cardio exercise in the same session. 

Your own body-weight  is great

Whether you are running or doing pushups, you’ve got one thing going for you: Your own body-weight. Most people don’t think about how much they weigh, at least in terms of resistance. Since we have muscles that are used to holding us upright and moving us around, we don’t have a sense of how heavy our body parts are. But when you are moving, you are moving all your weight around. You have a built-in gym! And many ways to use it.

Body-weight exercise is great for cardio and strength training

One of the reasons we don’t notice the weight of our bodies when we are doing normal daily activities is that our brain is good at minimising movement to conserve energy. This means that your movements will be as small as possible, without limiting what you’re doing. For example, imagine walking around and lifting your knees as high as your waist with every step. It’s unnecessary, not to mention pretty awkward! 

Many body-weight exercises require you to move through a much larger range of movement than you normally would. People often don’t realise that strength is range-specific, meaning that you only develop strength in the ranges of movement that you use. If you aren’t used to big movements – like those that might be required by your workout – they are automatically more challenging. 

To meet this challenge, your muscles have to contract more powerfully, which uses more oxygen. Your heart rate and breathing get faster to move oxygen to the working muscles. You’re all of a sudden in the “cardio training zone”. 

In addition, many of us don’t lift anything close to our body-weight in any strength exercise, so your weight can be a great strength challenge.

Body-weight exercise is easy to modify

If the challenge is too much, don’t worry! Body-weight exercises can be made easier or more challenging even though your weight doesn’t change, so you’re not stuck. Thanks to the magic of physics, you can increase or decrease the amount of work you do by making your movement more vertical or more horizontal. Changing your body position relative to your working muscles makes a big difference. 

For example, let’s look at a push-up. The standard push-up position has you hold your body parallel to the ground. The balls of your feet are the pivot point, and your shoulders and arms are moving the weight of your flat body – your whole height – up and down against gravity. 

But if you change the angle of your body by putting your hands up on a bench or table, you decrease the load by decreasing the length-of-body moving against gravity. The higher you go, the less you work against gravity. (There is a more science-y worded explanation of course. I suspect we are all more interested in the practical side of things.)

You can also change the challenge in other ways. Movement speed can make a huge difference to intensity: Move really slowly, or really quickly, and see how you feel. Don’t forget that controlled movement is key to safe exercise, regardless of speed. You’ll get more from a workout that doesn’t injure you; if you’re injured, you can’t work out again tomorrow. 

What’s the take-home message?

Body-weight exercise is a great option no matter what kind of workout you want. It can provide great cardio benefits, and will help you get strong. You can modify the challenge of the exercise by changing your body position, or changing your movement speed. Move your body, have fun, and see what happens. 

Strength training and heart health

I have a family history of heart disease. I’m currently 42, and as I’m getting older, I’m worried that I’ll end up with heart problems. Right now I don’t have any problems with my heart or blood pressure. My doctor recommended doing aerobic exercise to stay healthy, but I really don’t like cardio. Will lifting weights have a significant impact on my cardiovascular health?

Short answer: Strength training is probably not going to boost your heart health the way you’re hoping. However there is still benefit! Here’s why:

Your body adapts to the demands that you place on it. These demands can take the form of learning a new skill, increasing daily physical activity, or lifting heavy things. In particular, your muscles will get stronger relatively quickly when you start to make them work.

As well as being an very important organ, your heart is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, it will respond to increased stress (i.e. exercise) by getting stronger. In practical terms, this means it becomes more efficient at pumping blood, since it can move more blood with each heartbeat. This is useful since your body needs a minimum amount of blood to circulate every minute in order to keep living; More blood moving per beat means that your heart rate (the number of beats per minute) can decrease without problems.

Overall, there isn’t much research to suggest that strength training creates enough stress to improve heart health. Aerobic exercise – aka “cardio” – remains your gold medal choice for this. Don’t think that time with weights isn’t valuable for your heart though.

Strength training still benefits

There are still some benefits for heart health. They just are a little more indirect.

  • The most important molecule in your blood is oxygen. We can live with low levels of everything else, but without oxygen, we’re toast. Any time we move our body, our oxygen needs increase, as it gets used more quickly by your muscles. The more strenuous the movement, the more oxygen you’ll use and need. Strength training will make your muscles stronger (obviously!), and stronger muscles will be less stressed by daily activities. With less physical stress comes lower oxygen demands in everyday life, so your heart can stay in low-stress mode too.
  • Research has suggested that the actual structure of your heart will change with strength training. Specifically, the walls will become thicker (but not dangerously so), which allows a stronger “pump” action. Stronger pump means more blood is pumped per beat, and your heart can do less work (fewer beats) to move the same amount of blood through your body. We do know from the research that with regular and long term strength training, your heart rate will decrease, which is an easily observable effect of this.
  • Some research has also shown that blood pressure is reduced with regular strength training. It’s important to know that if you already have high blood pressure, you’ll need to modify your strength training program a little to make sure you don’t increase it during a session. Short term increases in blood pressure are common when lifting heavy things.
  • It appears that with regular strength training, the heart muscle itself will adapt to use less oxygen, again decreasing your overall demand.

The last word on strength training for heart health

Ultimately strength training doesn’t appear to provide enough stress to create significant positive changes in heart health. You really do need the ongoing challenge of sustained aerobic exercise, namely, a sustained elevated heart rate. This is what improves the majority of the factors that keep the heart healthy in the long run. You aren’t sentenced to running, cycling, or anything other form of cardio though. There are lots of other ways to use strength training exercises to keep your heart healthy, or you could look at some non-traditional types of cardio exercise. You might find it just as enjoyable.

Listen Up! (To our new health and fitness podcast)

If you want to hear my real and unfiltered opinions on all things strength, cardio, and other workout and health and fitness trends… You can now listen in.

My good friend Dave Harvey has been at me for ages to do a podcast with him. We’ve finally done it! So we’d like to introduce Common Sense Fitness. You can joint us anywhere you get your podcasts. We’ll be covering all the trendy things in the health, fitness, and wellness arenas and removing the hype so you can figure out A) if something is really worthwhile and B) if it’s going to fit you and your lifestyle.

We’re just ramping up, so the library isn’t extensive. But we have lots of topics in the works, including:

  • How to get through tough workouts when you’d really rather stop
  • Why you need a flexibility practice
  • How the way you breathe can impact the way you feel, look, and perform
  • Long term exercise habits and how you can avoid plateaus and always continue to progress
  • Eating habits and social situations
  • Some of the ways we self-sabotage when working towards big health and fitness goals

Plus a whole lot more. We’re also open to answering your questions, so feel free to send them though by contacting me directly here on the Contact page.

What started this all? Between Dave and I, we have more than 20 year’s experience working with people in all sorts of fitness and wellness settings. We’ve always talked a lot about the things we see on a regular basis, what works and what doesn’t. The biggest challenge we’ve seen people have? That getting started with health and fitness is incredibly overwhelming. Our goal is to take away the confusion and help you get (or keep) moving.

Listen up and subscribe for new episodes, and we will provide you with simple solutions to make health, fitness, and wellness more achievable for daily life. Find our podcast Common Sense Fitness right here, or anywhere else you get your pods.

Pineapples wearing sunglasses and party hat with balloons

New year resolutions: Why normal goals don’t work

A new year resolution is the pinnacle of goal setting. The glow of the holidays set up a rosy outlook on the new year, and aspirations are lofty. We’re relaxed, in great moods, and so optimistic about the possibilities ahead of us. The sky is the limit! But that’s part of the problem.

Some research suggests that 75-80% of people have given up on their new year resolution by mid-February. In my experience, that sounds about right. In large part, this comes down to two major, immediate factors here that mean many of our resolutions are not set up to succeed. If we can address these, we significantly increase our chances of making those resolutions stick!

Timing is everything

The start of a new year seems like a great time to make changes. New year, new me, right? Realistically, choosing the first of the year probably makes our desired changes a lot harder to stick with. The timing is off!

By the time January 1st roles around, we’ve have a solid three to five weeks of the holiday season and all the festivities that accompany it. That’s a lot of time out of routine, and for many people, that’s time spent indulging in food, drink, and sleep that aren’t normal for us. It’s not really typical of our daily lives. This can lull us into a false sense of “I have plenty of time for new things”, which quickly falls by the wayside as we get back to normal.

What to do instead: Tweak your new year resolution to match your “normal” daily routine. Take into account the time you spend working, commuting, doing chores and providing care for others. And remember to leave some time for hobbies and other things you enjoy. Does your goal, or the steps you need to take to achieve it, need to change in order for it to realistically fit into your days? Maybe you can make it smaller, simpler, or give yourself a longer deadline to achieve it.

(Goal) Size matters

Our culture is all about “go big or go home”. That’s cool, but actually hard to do. Here’s why: Big is overwhelming. It’s sometimes harder than we expect. Sometimes achieving big things is more complex than we realised. Most commonly, we just don’t know where to begin.

That’s not to say big goals are bad goals. In fact, big goals are usually the ones that get us excited. I mean, if you want to lose weight, losing 20kg (or 44 pounds) is way more inspiring than losing one, even though losing one is much more achievable and sustainable.

What to do instead: Break it down. Big goals just need a little extra thought and planning in order to be more easily achieved. There are many ways to break down your big goal into smaller, more achievable pieces. It can be as easy as taking the time you give yourself, and dividing that and your goal into smaller sections. By breaking things down, you get the positives both of something that doesn’t seem too big to accomplish. And you get a lot more “reward buzz”, my term for the feeling you get when you do what you say you’re going to do. Taking action can be as rewarding as the big goal itself.

Tweak ’til it’s right

You don’t have to throw out your new year resolution and start from scratch. Instead, sit down and spend some time considering the above points. If you’re going to keep working away at the goal you set on Jan 1st, it’s worth figuring out what you need to do to achieving it in small pieces, what actions will make those achievements happen, and how they are going to fit into your normal non-holiday life. It’s a different type of exercise, but like any other, very much worth doing!