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Five easy ways to achieve all-round fitness for beginners

There are lots of ways to improve your physical fitness during lockdown, whatever your age or starting point.

So why not start really working out now, so that you’re fighting fit and ready to emerge from the pandemic once normal life starts to resume?

Exercise is also a great way to lift your spirits if your mental health has suffered because of COVID-19. Physical activity produces endorphins, or feel-good hormones, that lift your mood, give you a sense of achievement and boost your self-esteem. 

What does all-round fitness mean?

Physical fitness has several different components and they’re all important.

Cardiovascular exercise improves the ability of your heart, lungs and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to your muscles. You build cardiovascular, or aerobic, fitness by doing activities that leave you a bit breathless, such as fast walking, jogging or dancing. The government recommends we do a total of 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, every week.

Strength training helps you maintain and build muscle and bone density – both begin to decline naturally after the age of 30. Strong muscles and bones help protect against falls and injuries as you get older. Strength training can involve exercises with dumbbells or just using your own body weight, such as push ups or squats.  However, any weight-bearing exercise, or exercise where you’re on your feet, is beneficial.

Flexibility work is important as it improves your range of movement, helps prevent tight muscles putting strain on your joints, and lowers the risk of injuries. Activities that involve stretching, such as yoga and Pilates, help you become more flexible.

Balance declines with age and this can lead to falls. Doing some form of exercise that improves balance can help prevent problems later on. Yoga and Pilates often include exercises that improve balance, and dance can help too.

Five ways to increase your fitness

1. Try mini workouts

Several short bursts of exercise can be just as effective as a longer session and will be less daunting if you’re not a fitness fan or haven’t exercised for a while. You’ll find plenty of free workouts online that take under 15 minutes, and there’s something to suit all ages and levels of fitness.

Lockdown favourite Joe Wicks, AKA The Body Coach, offers everything from low impact sessions to full-on HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions that get you fit fast .

Pamela Reif has scores of follow-along videos set to music, including ‘happy dances’ to get your heart rate up and 10-minute blasts that focus on toning arms, abdominals, bottom or back – an area that’s often neglected. And there’s not much chat so it’s maximum effort in minimum time. Just make sure you choose a range so you don’t just focus on one body area.

2. Step out for fitness

Walking has all sorts of health and fitness benefits, but power walking, or walking at a brisk pace, is even better. It has similar benefits to jogging but puts less strain on your joints. You can find lots of advice and videos on power walking technique online but here are some key tips to get you started:

  • Keep an upright posture and look ahead.

  • Relax your shoulders and swing your arms gently with elbows bent at 90 degrees.

  • Step onto your heel and roll your foot towards your toe. Your hips should move backwards and forwards rather than side to side.

  • Increase your pace by stepping faster, not by taking longer steps.

If you’d rather try running, the Couch to 5k programme is a plan designed for beginners. You gradually build up from a mix of running and walking to being able to run 5km without stopping over the course of nine weeks, although you can take things more slowly if you need to. The programme is available as a series of podcasts or as a smartphone app.

Getting fit in the outdoors comes with extra benefits too. Daylight boosts your mood and from around late March, exposing bare skin helps top up your levels of Vitamin D. It’s also a chance to catch up with a friend in a Covid-safe way.

Just remember that while walking and running are great for cardiovascular and bone health, they don’t do as much for upper body strength. It’s therefore best to combine them with some strength building exercises – perhaps a couple of online mini workouts a week.

3. Move to the music

Dance is a fun and motivating way to get fit, and you can find online classes featuring everything from street dance to ballet. It’s good for your mind too. As well as being uplifting, remembering sequences of steps and coordinating your arms and legs certainly gives your brain a workout. Here are some ideas:

  • If you’re a Strictly fan, you can learn the basics of your favourite dances on Oti Mabuse’s YouTube channel, either with a partner or on your own. How about a high-energy Charleston or a slow and moody tango that will challenge your balance skills?

  • Ballet provides a great, all-round workout that builds muscle strength, stamina, flexibility and balance. Silver Swans, a Royal Academy of Dance programme of free online classes aimed at the over-50s, is a good place to start, even for younger beginners.

  • Belly dance improves cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and core strength so why not give the NHS belly dancing for beginners class a try?

4. Stretch it out

Stretching and flexibility work is especially important if you spend long days hunched over a desk. And it doesn’t have to be a passive form of exercise – activities such as Pilates and yoga help build muscle strength and improve balance too.

  • Benenden Health members can access our range of free online classes provided by Vita Health Group. These include stretch and flex, and Pilates for beginners and intermediates.

  • You could also try Yoga with Adriene, a YouTube channel that gets glowing reviews. Classes include basics for beginners, yoga at your desk, and an 11-minute wake-up yoga session.

Remember that stretching should be done when you’re warm to avoid injury, so it’s a good idea to do some stretches after a walk, or other form of exercise. And it shouldn’t be painful. Stretching until you hurt can cause injury and is counterproductive, as an over-stretched muscle will automatically contract to protect itself.

5. Chores help you keep fit too

If you’re not a fan of formal exercise, the good news is that everyday activities such as gardening, housework and carrying the shopping can also help you get fit. And of course, the bonus is that you’ll end up with a pristine home and a gorgeous garden to enjoy in the summer months.

Energetic gardening activities such as digging or mowing the lawn can burn up to 200 calories in 30 minutes, while squatting and lifting gives your leg muscles a workout and clipping a hedge with shears will help tone arms. Read our article to find out about all the other wellbeing benefits of gardening. Household chores such as vacuuming, polishing the windows, scrubbing the bath and washing the car all count as moderate intensity exercise, so put on some fast-tempo music and get mopping.

You can find more fitness tips in our 50 ways to stay healthy while staying home article. And don’t forget to check out our full range of free online classes for members – there’s something for everyone, from chair exercises to weighted strength and balance, and from improving sleep to mindfulness.