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    Mayo Clinic Q and A: 5 elements of a balanced fitness routine

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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: At the beginning of the year my resolution was to focus on fitness. I have never had a formal plan before, but I joined a gym. Do you have any advice on a variety of exercises or workouts a beginner like me can focus on, so I don't get bored immediately?

ANSWER: A well-balanced fitness training routine is essential for good health. For someone like you, who has not exercised a lot before, variety is important to keep you motivated. Luckily for you, there are five basic elements that you can focus on to achieve your wellness goals, whether at a gym or elsewhere: aerobic fitness, strength training, core exercises, flexibility and stretching.

Aerobic fitness, also known as cardio, is the basis of most fitness training programs. Aerobic activity is an essential factor because these exercises cause you to breath faster and deeper, which maximizes the oxygen in your blood.

Essentially, the better your aerobic fitness, the more efficiently your heart, lungs and blood vessels are at transporting oxygen through your body. And that makes it easier for you to complete routine physical tasks. There are many choices when it comes to aerobic activity, including walking, biking, jogging, swimming, dancing and water aerobics.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both. For instance, you could alternate periods of brisk walking with periods of leisurely walking or include bursts of jogging.

Strength training, or muscular training, is another key component to fitness. This type of training increases bone strength and muscular fitness, helping you manage your weight or lose weight, while improving your ability to perform everyday activities.

Aim to include strength training of major muscle groups into your fitness routine at least twice per week. Although most gyms offer various free weights, resistance machines and other tools for strength training, you don't need to invest in a gym membership to earn the benefits of strength training. Hand-held weights, or homemade weights, such as a plastic drink bottle filled with water or sand, will work just as well. Resistance bands are another inexpensive option. You also can try pullups, pushups, leg squats or abdominal crunches.

Core exercises use the muscles in your abdomen, lower back and pelvis. These exercises protect your back, and connect upper and lower body movements.

Core strength is key to a well-rounded fitness training program. Core exercises train your muscles to brace the spine, and they enable you to use your upper and lower body muscles more efficiently. A core exercise is anything that uses your abdomen without support, such as bridges, planks, situps, flutter kicks, bicycle crunches and fitness ball exercises.

To help you maintain balance as you age, make sure you incorporate balance training exercises into your workout routine. While balance exercises are good for all ages, they become particularly important the older you get since balance tends to diminish with age. Diminished balance could increase the risk for falls and fractures.

Anyone can benefit from balance training, given that it can help stabilize your core muscles. Try things like standing on one leg for increasing periods of time or activities such as tai chi to improve overall stability.

Last but certainty not least, flexibility and stretching are important aspects of physical fitness, and it's a good idea to include these activities in your fitness program. Stretching exercises increase flexibility, which makes it easier for you to perform many everyday activities. Stretching also improves the range of motions of your joints and may stimulate better posture, while relieving stress and tension.

You should consider stretching after you exercise, when your muscles are warm and responsive. As for stretching before a workout, you can warm up first by walking or exercising for five to 10 minutes before stretching. Ideally, you will want to stretch whenever you exercise to combat injury or joint pain, but if you don't exercise regularly, you might want to stretch at least two or three times a week to maintain flexibility.

Whether you work out at a gym, at home, on your own or with a personal trainer, your exercise plan should include these elements. It isn't necessary to fit each element into every fitness session, but including them in your regular routine can promote health and fitness for life. — Compiled by Mayo Clinic staff


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