Not so long ago, exercise programs were limited to variations on the basics: jogging, walking, team sports, such as basketball or football, and, if you were lucky enough to have a pool at home or at a health club, swim a few good lengths. Even exercise machines tended to only simulate the same activities. Treadmills, stair climbers, stationary bikes, and ellipticals were a bit like the hamster wheel version of trying to enjoy the outdoors, indoors.
The emphasis was on discipline and going as long and as hard as a beating heart would allow. Pushing to utter exhaustion and stumbling out with sweaty clothes were good signs. But times are changing, and with an exploding obesity epidemic at the hands of the nation, contributing in part to a growing health insurance crisis, it can only mean good things. The obesity rate in Texas alone is 27%, 3 percentage points higher than the national average.
This isn’t to say that a tough, sweaty workout isn’t in order. Especially for young people and healthy joints, strenuous training sessions can bring incredible benefits. But in the past fifteen years, new research methods have shown that increased endurance and reduced risk of certain diseases – such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and diabetes – and improved muscle strength, loss of fat, lower stress levels, and better overall health can be achieved by exercises such as qigong, interval training, yoga, and physical-based, interactive video games, such as Dance Dance Revolution.
Texas is also realizing this need for varied exercise options, and cities like Dallas and Austin are nurturing thriving yoga studios, Pilates classes, and martial arts academies.
These may all seem familiar options to the young adult audience in Texas, but just over a decade ago qigong master Chunyi Lin couldn’t attract half a dozen students. Now he runs his own center in Minnesota, traveling the country teaching workshops and teaching full classes of sixty or more at a time. “Qigong [has been] growing like crazy in the United States in recent years…People want to be more proactive with their health care.”
Americans are turning less and less to their individual health insurers to hand them lab prescriptions and are increasingly taking control of their own health through preventive care, including stress reduction techniques.
In addition to cardiovascular fitness, the ever-growing health-conscious population is striving for longevity, reduced stress and general mental and physical improvements. Let’s face it: Americans are stressed. People in Texas, and the rest of the nation’s population, are beginning to realize that stress alone causes a large portion of a person’s mental and physical problems.
Qigong, a broad term for various types of energy-based practices, is growing as at least a partial solution to this problem. Using slow, measured movements and deep breathing, this ancient Chinese physical art has shown evidence of reducing pain and inflammation, increasing focus and concentration, improving immunity, lowering stress levels, and providing better general well-being. Yoga, an even more popular practice, offers a range of workouts – from sweat-inducing, muscle-cramping regimens to measured, deep-breathing sessions suitable for all ages.
Interval training is also coming back to the market. After a brief period of popularity in the 1990s, the exercise program seemed to fade, kept alive by segregated professional athletes and specialty fitness chains, such as Curves. Interval training alternates between short bursts of high-intensity activity and slower stints with less energy. After short interval cycling workouts spread over two weeks, a 2005 double-blind study found that 75% of subjects increased their endurance by 100%.
Another study this year found that, after two weeks of similar training (which included seven interval workouts), the practice improved participants’ cardio function by 13% and their ability to burn fat by 36%. According to Talanian, the study’s lead author and an exercise scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, the results were similar for all fitness levels — from the sedentary borderline to the dedicated athlete. That means that almost anyone can do it and can expect tangible results within a few weeks.
Interval training seems to work so well, in part because high-intensity bursts recruit new muscle fibers, while low-intensity periods allow those muscles to rid themselves of waste products created during the workout. Contrary to popular belief ten years ago, this method actually increases endurance by a greater percentage than regular high-intensity training sessions. Such relatively fast, tangible results keep most athletes training.
Consistent workouts not only mean you feel and look better, but also increased immune function, which translates into fewer illnesses in the long run. Athletes aren’t the only ones who love it; health insurance companies too.
“Any exercise that recruits new muscle fibers will improve the body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates and fat,” says Ed Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin.
The only real guidelines? Higher energy bursts should raise the heart rate to 80 to 85% of optimal performance, and the lower energy periods should never be long enough to lower the heart rate to resting levels. Interval trainers should always warm up first, allow 24 hours between sessions to give the body time to recover, and never attempt the program if you are over 60 years old or at risk of heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular disease without your doctor’s approval. a qualified physician.
Technological trends cannot be ignored either. As usual, children lead the way. Dance Dance Revolution, an interactive Japanese video game that appeared in the Asian market about a decade ago, is now recognized as such a popular, effective, and entertaining workout that more than 1,500 US schools are expected to integrate it into their curriculum by 2010. in the face of a growing obesity epidemic.
Recent studies in Houston and Dallas revealed alarming obesity trends in children under 18, and schools in Texas are now considering revamping their physical education programs in response. Dance Dance Revolution can be an intelligent option: Using a foot touchpad and on-screen prompts, participants learn increasingly intricate, increasingly faster dance moves. The game can be played individually or in competition, which appeals to a wider audience. You don’t have to be particularly athletic or competitive to participate; the only requirement is the willingness and ability to move on command.
“I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t rush in here for basketball,” said Bill Hines, a physical education teacher in Morgantown, West Virginia, where the game was integrated.
So maybe workouts don’t have to be that much work. With variety and open-mindedness, anything that gets a body moving, raises a heart rate, or lowers stress levels is worth a try. And it can even be a rewarding cultural experience. Qigong, martial arts such as aikido and jujitsu, and ashtanga yoga classes can increase more than just fitness awareness levels. Who knows, you might even get a discount on that health insurance premium over time… And don’t worry, pronunciation guides are usually included with the lesson.
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