Anthropologists suggest that ‘man’ probably walked for 6-8 hours a day much like the period we may work in today’s Western culture. Much of the body design is geared towards walking, with short bursts of high energy (running or fighting). Exercise is necessary to maintain physical as well as psychological well-being. During exercise the body burns up stress chemicals that can inhibit concentration and it has been demonstrated that exercise can enhance creativity and reduce depression.

Western culture has provided an abundance of food and this, combined with our natural survival instinct of storing food in our body, leads to a tendency to obesity. Our ancestors had to work hard to produce, gather or catch their food and calorific input and output seemed to balance. Nowadays this is not the case and with the advent of telephones and take-away food we could exist with very little physical demands.

The outcome of all this is a need to exercise. As a general rule the male metabolic rate, at rest, uses up approximately 2,200 calories and the female approximately 1,700 calories. If you consider that a bowl of cereal and two pieces of toast with butter and marmalade replace up to 800 calories, and a prawn cocktail, meat and two veg followed by an apple pie with cream can add up to over 1,500 calories, you can see that we are generally out of balance. To redress this, we need to exercise.

The best form of exercise

There is no best form of exercise! Everybody should find their preferred technique and enjoy it. Daily exercise is preferable but three or four times a week is acceptable provided that it is of the right sort. Half an hour a day or 3 hours per week is a sensible goal. ‘The problem with exercise is that it is hard work, is time consuming and there is no immediate benefit.’ If I were to ask an individual to do anything that included these three factors, should I be surprised if there is a reluctance? These three objections are in fact an indication of misunderstanding exercise rather than appreciating the truth of the matter.

Exercise should not be hard work. The amount of time spent on exercise should not interfere with lifestyle and, provided the right exercise is employed, it should be fun and thereby of benefit immediately. Let me try to point you in the right direction.

What is exercise?

Exercise is defined as muscular exertion for the purpose of preservation or restoration of health or the development of physical prowess or athletic skill. This occurs through many mechanisms, both physical and psychological.

Physical benefits

Exercise burns up calories. The body is extremely good at taking in what it needs and it is only when we consciously fight our own instinctive ability to balance our physical exercise with our food intake that exercise can be harmful. By staying within certain boundaries, as described below, exercise controls excess.

When we exercise, our body uses up stress chemicals such as adrenaline and Cortisol. Too much stress created by our daily life is thus taken out of the system benefiting health as a whole. Exercise also produces the body’s natural opiates known as endorphins and enkephalins. These reduce pain and create a sense of well-being, even euphoria, and benefit the body as a whole. The heart beats faster and the respiratory rate increases because of the demand by the muscles for oxygen and nutrients. Other parts of the body, especially the vital organs, benefit from this increased flow of oxygen and nutrients, thereby establishing a greater level of health and longevity. The heart strengthens and the body’s blood vessels become more open. Fat and cholesterol are actually reduced and obesity avoided. Many other metabolic benefits are derived, some of which can reduce the chances of conditions such as stroke and high blood pressure.

Psychological advantages ‘Look good, feel good’ is most accurate. Our body and self-image are extremely important in directing our confidence, which in turn helps us to achieve. This simple argument alone supports the encouragement of exercise but in fact the production of the body’s natural opiates and the reduction in adrenaline and other stress chemicals has a profound effect on our state of mental well-being. Depression is alleviated, anxiety is reduced, addictive tendencies are transferred and sleep patterns are corrected.

Choosing an exercise

The benefit of exercise will only be noticed if around 30 minutes of a suitable standard is undertaken at least three times a week. This is strictly for maintenance and if you are trying to improve your level of fitness more exercise is required.

The exercise chosen should raise the heart rate to a level of approximately 75 per cent of the individual’s maximum heart rate. This is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. A 20-year-old should exercise to a level of 75 per cent of 220 minus 20, which is equal to 150. A 60-year-old should reach a heart rate of about 120. Heart rate should not exceed 80 per cent of the maximum level.

Exercise needs to be enjoyed, otherwise enthusiasm will wane rapidly. Those who are competitive by nature will benefit from competitive sports. Those who are not, should choose non-competitive pastimes. Brisk walking is not likely to strain the body, but is time consuming and it may not take the heart rate to its optimum level, but if an enjoyable environment can be found then an exercise-paced walk may be most stimulating and relaxing. It is better to aim at an exercise that fits in with the individual’s lifestyle. A mother may benefit by taking her young children to the swimming pool. A busy professional might find 20 minutes on the local gymnasium’s treadmill quicker and more convenient.

Do not forget exercises such as dance and cycling which can fit into your entertainment or travel sections of the day. Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and techniques learnt in a local aerobic class can be used in convenient breaks in the working schedule at home, in the office or whilst travelling. A small floor space can act as effectively as a thoroughly equipped gymnasium once the techniques are understood. Ten minutes three times a day may not be as beneficial as a straight half-hour, but it is better than nothing. Twenty minutes each working day supplemented by 45 minutes at the weekend can transform a body within a month.

A gym instructor will be able to set a suitable programme, and specific machines or gymnasium techniques such as Pilates can help an individual to reach fitness at a rapid rate.

Swimming is heralded as the best form of exercise and, for those who enjoy it, it probably is. It is not weight-bearing and, provided that there are no neck problems, it rarely puts a strain on any part of the system. Swimming, more so than other exercises, helps to control breathing and can be very useful in lung disorders such as asthma.

The body is very much geared towards survival. If weight reduction is necessary then the body will do its best, provided that it is not fed incorrectly. Removing fats and carbohydrates completely will dramatically lead the body into thinking that it is deficient and it will therefore go into storage’mode. The next time any amount of fat or carbohydrate is eaten it will be swiftly converted into fat storage. The biochemical adage is that ‘fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate’. To break down the fat stores requires energy. In fact, two units of energy are required to release six units of energy stored in fat. If we do not feed ourselves with a certain amount of carbohydrates then fat stores will not diminish. The body can convert protein into energy, but this is not as easy as carbohydrate conversion.

Exercise should be divided into two categories.

Meditative exercise

Clearing the mind while exercising allows a balance of the mind-body connection. The body automatically does this as it supplies oxygen to the active muscles, thus decreasing the availability of oxygen in the brain. It is difficult to concentrate or be creative through exercise therefore. On a busy day when our consciousness spends most of its time from the neck upwards, the strain and mild pain that the body should feel when exercising allows the consciousness to move down and distribute the Qi. Techniques such as Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, martial arts, calisthenics and simple stretching release blocked energy whilst exercising the muscles. (To stretch a muscle group, a joint must be extended or flexed and this is only created by the work of an opposing, contracting muscle group. Exercise!)

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is a term coined to describe the increased utilization of air. For aerobic exercise to be most beneficial the heart rate should not exceed an individual’s age plus 100, and the respiratory rate must not prevent the ability to answer a question. Of course, both of these parameters will be exceeded in a competitive moment or if pushing the body to achieve a new limit of endurance, such as might be expected from professional athletes, but for the rest of us, exercising within these parameters is wise.

I am a great believer in eliciting expert opinion initially, but this is not necessary. A sensible programme starting, if you are unfit, with a brisk walk is perfectly acceptable. Any sport, competitive or otherwise, should be considered but do not go back to five-a-side football when you are 40 years old if you have not played for 20 years. The mind will remember your previous abilities but the body will have a markedly reduced capability. Any such desire should be reviewed by a coach or gym instructor and a certain level of fitness should be achieved first.

I think that modern gymnasiums are excellent starting points, with their electronic gadgetry combined with basic weights and floor exercises. Any gym instructor will set up a suitable programme that should leave the new exerciser feeling that they have achieved and want to do more. However, it is wise not to carry on but instead come back tomorrow.

Weight-bearing exercise (especially for women) because of its anti-osteoporosis effect, must take up some of the week’s exercise. Floor exercises (most commonly used for abdominal and back strengthening) and swimming are excellent forms of exercise and should be considered a part of the programme, but only a part. • Like so many things in our lives, getting motivated and remaining enthusiastic are often the hardest parts. Have a look in the mirror. Are you satisfied? Visit your preferred health carer and ask for a basic assessment. Are you jeopardizing your health? Can you keep up with your friends/children? Ask whatever question it takes but initiate a decision to reach an optimum level of health.

Choose a date upon which you will start. For the week prior to this, cut out as many bad habits as possible: smoking, drinking and overeating should be reduced, if not stopped, and a healthy diet initiated.

Ensure that rehydration is at the top of your list by drinking at least half a litre per foot of height per day.

Establish a routine and be as disciplined towards this as one is towards the work routine.

Do not put pressure upon your work or social time. Exercise within your acceptable parameters.

Partake in an exercise that is enjoyable. If none obviously fall into that category, look around and ask friends for their opinion. Golf may be boring until you have a go. Pop into a local gym and try the various machines or resurrect an old school sport if possible. Experiment with different exercises.

Half an hour a day or 3hr a week is an optimum amount of time to be spent on exercise. More should not be considered until a peak of fitness is reached.

There is no preferred time of the day to exercise and each individual should choose by instinct the period of day that suits them. It is not wise to exercise within Ihr of eating because the body is in assimilation mode.

If you have a competitive nature, make a plan of what you want to achieve or take on individuals of your own calibre. Do not overestimate your abilities. Fitness will come quicker than you think and will remain longer if you achieve a high level more slowly.

Do not hesitate to use a professional guide or teacher initially. Never feel embarrassed about asking a physical fitness instructor about setting a plan. They too have their masters.

Regardless of what exercise is chosen, have a lesson or two in yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi. They will enhance your abilities in any sport by improving your balance and strength and, more ethereally, helping to control Qi. Enjoy both meditative and aerobic exercises.

Start slowly and build up. As with anything, stop whilst you are enjoying the event rather than pushing yourself through a pain barrier. This is a sure way to remove the enthusiasm and feel degraded.

Stretching before and after exercise is extremely important. The before bit is well-established but even experienced athletes underestimate the importance of stretching after as a ‘warm-down’. Keep warm and do not rush the post-exercise shower or bath.

Do not exercise in a state of dehydration. It is better to drink one pint of water approximately 40min before exercise and the same amount over a period of Ihr after exercise.

The meal taken before exercise should be predominantly carbohydrate and light.

Only wear absorbent natural materials when exercising.

Use bodywork techniques such as Shiatsu and massage regularly, especially through the initial weeks of starting an exercise programme.