20 Fitness Tips That Really Work

Local pros share secrets for getting the biggest benefit from your workouts.
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1. Make exercise a habit. “First be sure it’s a daily practice, like brushing your teeth,” says Joan Pagano, a New York City–based fitness consultant and author of 15-Minute Total Body Workout. Consistency is more important than intensity at the
start; later you can always ratchet up the level of your workout if you need to.

2. Give it priority. There’s always an errand or an activity that threatens to steal your exercise time “just today.” Don’t let it! “The workout actually starts outside the gym,” says Ken Steadman, director of education for Fitness and Wellness Professional Services in Princeton. “That’s when you set the priority to get there. If you don’t schedule—and commit to—time to take care of yourself, your workout will get pushed off the priority list.”

3. Pick a goal. “People come in and say they want to lose their belly fat, tighten their arms, run a 5K—they have a lot of different goals,” says Christopher Blake, personal training manager at HNH Fitness in Oradell. “Instead, pick one goal and stick to it. Less is more—you’ll see results. But if you come expecting to change your whole body overnight, you’ll burn out and you’ll soon be gone from the gym.”

4. Consult a pro. Now that you’ve chosen a goal, it’s a good idea to ask a professional for step-by-step guidance on how to reach it, whether it’s to feel like an athlete again or just to be able to pick up a grandchild comfortably, Steadman says. That doesn’t have to mean signing up with your own personal trainer—many gyms include a few consultations with a professional in the price of membership.

5. Get your zzz’s. You don’t actually build muscle while working out, says Steadman; that happens during the rebuilding phase when you’re asleep. You need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted slumber: Banish sleep disturbers such as screens (computer, TV or mobile device) from your bedroom and block outside light that may be seeping in.

6. Eat right. Want to lose weight? “You can come in and bust your butt on cardio and lifting weights, but that won’t affect your overall body composition nearly as much as making positive changes in your diet,” notes Blake. “Weight loss is 20 percent exercise—and 80 percent what you put in your mouth.”

7. Pick a partner. Share your exercise goals with a family member or friend who will hold you accountable, Steadman advises. Enrolling in a structured group fitness class can also help keep you o8n t r a c k .

8. Use the great outdoors. The gym is fine, but a change of scene—when the weather permits—can refresh your exercise motivation. “Go to a local football field, run up and down the steps or around the track,” suggests Peter Toto, an exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer at the Chambers Center for Well Being in Morristown. “Or find a playground—that’s one of my favorite places to go with a client. You can find things to hang from or attach things to, and you can get a full-body workout.”

9. Vary your workout. “I often see people go on workout autopilot; they do X number of machines and Y minutes of cardio and they do it just the same way week after week,” says Blake. “But the body adapts to routines, so you’ll benefit more if you look for ways to tweak your workout and challenge yourself with something new from time to time.”

10. If necessary, split your workout. Don’t have the recommended 30 minutes daily in a single block for exercise? Feel free to break it up. “If you take 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon, that’s still a good 30-minute workout,” Toto says.

11. Go for intensity. “If your time is limited, remember that 15 minutes is time enough for a high-intensity workout that raises the heart rate,” notes Toto. It can be done at home, and you don’t need lots of space or equipment. The regimen can include squats and push-ups, as well as exercises with inexpensive resistance bands or a suspension strap system. (There are dozens available online, including the TRX and Jungle Gym systems.) Or find a DVD workout that meets your needs and pop it in for 15 minutes.

12. Put strength before cardio. “Devote most of your effort to strength training and do cardio lightly at the end,” Blake suggests. “Cardio results arrive quickly, but depart quickly too. Strength training takes longer to show results because you’re physically tearing down muscle and rebuilding it, but it’s the basis for reaching almost any goal, whether it’s running or getting rid of daily aches and pains. Plus, you can get a pretty good cardio workout from strength training, but you won’t get stronger just doing a lot of cardio.”

13. Align the spine. Plan to do weight lifting? Prepare with simple body-weight exercises like push-ups and squats to perfect your form, keeping your shoulder blades stabilized and holding the pelvis in alignment, Pagano advises. You’ll increase the benefit of your weight regimen and reduce the risk of injury.

14. Flatten that belly. Endless crunches won’t fix a belly bulge; you need to activate the deep abdominal muscles by hollowing out or “scooping” the abdomen. “Imagine zipping up a tight pair of jeans,” Pagano says. “That’s the move!”

15. Breathe through your nose. If you’re going for a cold-weather run, don’t be a mouth breather, advises Toto. “When you breathe through your mouth, your body temperature drops more quickly and your vessels and arteries constrict. The nose actually warms and humidifies the air, which makes the exertion easier for your cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.”

16. Take breaks during the day. If you sit for long periods at work, get up and walk around every 50 minutes or so, breathe deeply and allow yourself to get back to “neutral,” Steadman advises. “Sitting too long can put stress on your body,” he says, “and if you’re overstressed, you won’t get as much from a workout.”

17. Sip all day. The water bottle isn’t just for workouts. “One reason people get fatigued at work is that they’re losing more water than they realize while sitting under hot fluorescent lights, often in several layers of clothing,” says Steadman. Keep water at hand and sip—don’t chug.

18. Roll away soreness. Search the Web for "foam rollers" and you’ll find dozens of these inexpensive cylinders for sale, which look something like swimming pool “noodles.” Roll sore muscles along a roller for 20 to 60 seconds post-workout to help boost circulation and relax muscles—it works like a massage. “A little soreness after a workout is normal,” says Toto. “But being unable to stand comfortably or having your stomach hurt when you laugh or cough means you overdid it.”

19. Perspiring? Don't sweat it. "Sweat is a protective device. Heat in your body increases and you need to release it somehow, so you sweat to cool off,” Toto says. “As you get in better shape, you actually sweat more because your sweat glands become more active and efficient.”

20. Be curious. Got questions about exercise? Ask a pro. There’s probably an expert at your health club; you’ll also find them at hospital fitness centers such as HNH Fitness in Oradell (affiliated with Holy Name Medical Center), HackensackUMC Fitness & Wellness Powered By The Giants in Maywood and the Atlantic Health System’s Chambers Center for Well Being in Morristown. Also, you’ll find contact information for credentialed exercise specialists in your area at the American Council on Exercise website (acefitness.org).

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