Tag Archives: flexibility

Santa’s exercise plan for functional fitness and health

Since Christmas is only a few days away our attention is naturally focused on one person: Santa Claus. Have you ever wondered how Santa gets in shape for his yearly sleigh ride to deliver gifts to good boys and girls around the globe? Like many elite athletes, Santa does not publicly discuss his training or his fitness. There are certainly no published studies that report his one repetition maximum strength or his maximal oxygen uptake. Given this lack of information, I attempted to make an educated guess about Santa’s training, fitness, and health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

santa


By all accounts, Santa is overweight. While we don’t know his body mass index, he would probably be considered obese. Furthermore, he appears to have a large waist circumference, indicating a high level of visceral fat. This suggests that Santa is a high risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. This combination can lead to a heart attack and, possibly, death at a relatively young age.

But Santa has avoided this fate, and seems to be living a healthy life. His secret, no doubt, is regular exercise. There is good evidence that maintaining a high level of physical activity can “undo” some of the negative effects of obesity and can reduce the risk of death in people who are obese (and everyone else).

Like many athletes, Santa trains in the “offseason” to get ready for his annual Christmas Eve journey. Santa’s training likely includes endurance, strength, and flexibility exercises. In order to visit every home around the world in one night, Santa moves quickly. This suggests that he has a high maximal aerobic capacity as well as good endurance. This is a result of both high-intensity interval training and long-duration, lower intensity training, similar to what a marathon runner might do. Evidence for his good aerobic fitness is shown by the fact that he flies away from each home with a hearty “ho, ho, ho.” If he were out of shape, he would be too short of breath to speak, much less give such a robust farewell.

Santa must also dedicate training time to improving his strength. His sack of gifts is certainly very heavy and he repeatedly carries it up and down chimneys. In addition to traditional weight lifting, Santa probably also engages in plyometric training, which involves explosive movements that develop muscle power. Santa must also have good flexibility in order to squeeze through narrow spaces and move quickly without pulling a muscle. This is the result of stretching and, likely, other exercises such as yoga.

Santa is also educated about sports nutrition. The cookies and milk you leave for him are more than a reward for delivering gifts at your house. The carbohydrates (sugar) in the cookies help Santa maintain his blood glucose to delay muscle fatigue. Some research suggests that combining carbohydrates with protein is even more effective, so the glass of milk is a good addition. Of course, Santa could have a specialized sports drink, but that doesn’t make for such a good story.

We can learn an important health lesson from Santa. Even though he is overweight, through regular exercise, Santa has reduced his risk of health problems and maintained his fitness at a level that allows him to complete his necessary activities. Like Santa, all of us can benefit from being physically active, whether we are overweight or not. He would likely be healthier and be able to perform his job better if he lost weight, but I’m not about to tell Santa what to do!


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Stretch it out.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about stretching and flexibility. This is one aspect of  a comprehensive exercise program that you might be missing. Here’s why that is a problem and what you can do to start improving your flexibility.


 

The benefits of regular exercise include increased endurance, strength, and flexibility along with increased energy expenditure for weight loss and weight maintenance. These benefits will vary depending on the type of exercise you perform.

Endurance (aerobic) exercise will improve your cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance. These improvements allow you to exercise at a higher intensity or for a longer duration. Aerobic exercise like walking or jogging is also the most effective at burning calories.

Resistance training (weight lifting) will improve your muscular strength. The practical benefit is that you will have an easier time completing physical tasks at work or at home, something that is increasingly important as you get older.

Ideally, your exercise program will include a combination of endurance and resistance training. But there is another type of exercise that you should also include—stretching.

Stretching is an important and often overlooked part of an exercise program. Stretching exercises improve your flexibility and range of motion. This can help reduce back pain and muscle stiffness, improve your posture, and may reduce your risk of injury when you are active.

Here are some key points to keep in mind as you add stretching to your exercise routine:

  • Target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
  • Warm up first. The idea that stretching is a good warm-up before exercise is outdated. Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up first by exercising at low intensity for five minutes or, better yet, stretch after you work out.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 15 seconds. It takes time for the muscles to stretch and lengthen. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock or your watch. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is often sufficient if you hold it long enough.
  • Don’t bounce. While it might seem that bouncing would give you a better stretch, the opposite can be true. In extreme cases you could even damage the muscle making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
  • Focus on a pain-free stretch. You should expect to feel the stretch, but it shouldn’t cause pain. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Relax and breathe freely. Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching. This is especially important if you are doing a workout that emphasizes stretching, like yoga.

Yoga is one example of an exercise that results in improved flexibility as well as promoting stress relief. There are different types of yoga, some of which improve strength and endurance along with flexibility. Yoga classes can be modified to accommodate even the least flexible participants, so don’t be afraid to try it.

You may want to start by stretching at two to three times a week to improve and maintain flexibility. Exercises that target the major muscle groups should take less that 10 minutes to complete, so this can easily fit into other activities.

As with any exercise, doing more can yield better results. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you might want to stretch more often. And keep in mind that you can stretch anytime, anywhere — in your home, at work, or when you’re traveling.