Do you push yourself too far? Are you the kind of person who never feels completely satisfied unless you’ve given it your all? Think you can run faster, train for longer or get further next time?
It’s in the human psyche to believe that the harder we push ourselves, the fitter we become –but are there instances when pushing ourselves becomes detrimental to our health? Does running an ultra marathon make you fitter than someone who runs a steady five miles every day?
Over-exercising can have a negative impact on our bodies and lead to complications later on in life. Take as an example women who over exercise without taking on enough calories and end up increasing their risk of osteoporosis. For both sexes over exercising can lead to excruciating stress fractures and wear and tear can mean needing joint replacement surgery.
Those who restrict calorie intake in an effort to increase muscle tone may instead just be losing fat and muscle which will negatively impact their health overall.
But there has to be some benefit of taking on these fitness challenges surely.
Why climb a mountain? Answer: Because it’s there. So the same can be said of ultra marathons, marathons, swimming the channel, anything that will push us further than we’ve gone before. The advice remains that you only tackle extreme physical challenges if you are at the very peak of fitness. For anyone who hasn’t trained sufficiently, running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or exerting themselves beyond normal capacity can be more dangerous than you might anticipate. It can, in rare cases, even cause death.
So is there an optimum level of exercise we should be striving towards? This has been hotly debated time and time again. There are schools of thought, including that of the World Health Organisation, that 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day of the week is enough to maintain a minimum level of fitness. But many keen sports men and women will say this is just nowhere near enough.
This is also the view taken by members from the American College of Sports Medicine, who are concerned that the advice to take 30 minutes of exercise could be misconstrued to mean activities such as a gentle stroll to the car. They say that to be healthy you really need to break into a sweat while you are exercising.
Interestingly researchers at Queen's University, Belfast, found that walking for half an hour on just three days a week gave similar fitness and blood pressure benefits to walking for 30 minutes five times a week, so the messages are certainly mixed.
Professor Paul Gately, professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University, has said that it is very difficult to give "one-size-fits-all" advice.
He says: "People who are very overweight would have to do an hour of exercise a day just to maintain their weight if they aren't going to change their diets."
And Dr David Haslam, of the National Obesity Forum, asks whether it is realistic to expect people to do two weight training sessions each week.
"I'd rather see healthy habits built into daily life - gyms aren't a sustainable habit for all," he said.
If there is any one answer to what is the best fitness advice, then it would probably have to be that it is important to push yourself in terms of exercise, in order to break into a sweat and to give benefit to your cardiovascular fitness but to not tip the balance to start causing damage to your joints, ligaments and muscles.
Health and fitness has to be measured on an individual basis. One man may have the stamina and speed to complete an ultra-marathon, whereas another may be better off running a half marathon. Both have high levels of fitness, it’s just whether or not you have the mental strength as well.
Whenever you decide to push yourself to the next level, it’s important to listen to your own body. You’ll know if you’ve overdone as your body will hurt and sometimes it’s worth getting the advice from your GP as to whether you are physically fit enough to achieve your goal. It is particularly important if you’ve suffered from heart problems, obesity, or had joint problems.
Diet is important as well when you’re exercising to the extreme. If you’re burning more, then you need to put more into the tank. It’s totally unrealistic to think that you can go further on the same amount of fuel. For the best advice it’s wise to see a nutritionist who can talk you through the best foods to eat and guide you on how many calories you should be taking on every day.
No one out there is going to tell you to stop striving for more, bigger and better, but keep your goals realistic and then you won’t be disappointed – or worse, injured.
by Kath Webb
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