We’ve already established that for most of the desk-based population, physical activity has dramatically decreased now that many individuals have been working from home now for almost 18 months.
18 months is a long time. Enough time to see the cumulative effects of daily habits grow and take effect.
Take all the little pockets of pre-pandemic daily movement in the form of commuting, walking and climbing stairs and multiply that loss by 18 months. The newfound sedentary lifestyles are wreaking havoc on backs, necks, shoulders and general stress levels.
So with that in mind, I want to write a post today to discuss the effects of cumulative physical activity. On the flip side of the example above, the small changes you make daily over time to add movement into your day will have monumental effects on your health in the months to follow.
For those of you who really want to maximise your daily activity time, I have some ideas for you as you read on.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
The Gym Appreciation Society
The Scottish Government suggests a recommended 150 minutes of brisk physical activity in a week. Using that figure as a rough guideline, I’m going to focus today’s blog post, more specifically, on cardiovascular training in the form of walking and cardio equipment at the gym.
As a former scientist, I like creating experimental conditions that are easy to control and simple to recreate. And the gym is a fantastic training space to do just that. The data gathered from the machines can be recorded and used to chart personal progress as you build up fitness levels over the coming weeks and months.
If your fitness levels have taken a nose-dive, you can always alter the settings to make your training as kind and comfortable as your body needs it to be. Making things very accessible for all fitness levels.
And for those of you who have read ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear, you can use your cardio time to stack productive habits: perhaps listening to a podcast or working your way through online lecture material. But cardio time can also be used to listen to a playlist of your favourite tunes, or just zone out for 30 minutes.
Make it work for you.
To clarify, the main cardio machines at the gym are the:
- Stationary bike
- Rowing machine
- Stair climber
- Elliptical trainer
So here’s the plan: aim for 2-3 sessions of cardiovascular activity, with each session totaling 30 minutes.
You can choose to use a single machine (i.e. every session is a treadmill session), or you can mix it up (i.e. 1x treadmill session, 2 x sessions on the stationary bike).
Having established our equipment of choice, now we want to maximise the workload within that 30 minute period.
Movement variation: Heart Rate Variability
If you follow me on Instagram, the terms ‘movement variation’ or ‘movement variability’ come up time and time again. And that terminology is relevant here too.
Physical activity in the form of focused cardiovascular exercise provides movement variability to the cardiovascular system (heart, blood vessels and the blood). Adding variation to the speed, intensity, duration and load of a workout will determine how little or how hard the cardiovascular system is tested.
I like to use a couple of things here:
- The machine settings for RPM, speed and incline/intensity (depending on the type of machine you’ll be using)
- The pre-programmed machine settings (i.e. interval training, variety, rolling hills etc)
- A heart-rate monitor with an app for real-time visual feedback
I’m currently using the iCardio app with my Polar heart rate monitor. Even with a basic setup, you can get good quality, useable data that’ll help you build your fitness levels up.
The majority of real-time apps will show heart rate in zones as follows:
30 minutes can be quite dull if there’s no goal or variation to keep you engaged in the process. Now for the heart rate data: you can use the zones as areas to train within, which will determine the amount of exertion being placed.
- Doing a slow, steady continuous movement – Zone 2/3 will challenge your aerobic capacity but shouldn’t leave you feeling exhausted
- Wanting to test your cardiovascular system’s ability to work/recover/work? – interval training the highest intensity within Zone 4 and recover within Zone 2.
Here’s another opportunity for variation: use the pre-programmed machine settings to alter RPM, intensity and level of workload to keep your body challenged with new input.
Some examples from my own Training
This was a 30-minute workout on the stationary bike. I used the ‘variety’ setting that moves the intensity up and down every couple of minutes. I gave myself the challenge of staying within an RPM of 75-80, but if my heart rate got too high (note that little spike into Zone 4), then RPM drops to accommodate for the intensity and slow the heart rate down.
Here’s a crazy one! I was feeling full of energy and did a 60-minute workout on the treadmill using the pre-programmed ‘interval training’ option. Both speed and incline increased, and you’ll see that my heart rate goes up into Zone 4 (almost 5 on several occassions!) and recovers back down to the lower zones.
Once fitness levels start to improve, challenging your heart rate to rise and recover quickly is great for cardiovascular health. And that’ll be a full-body workout – the body has to work HARD to meet the demands of the intervals.
I was feeling full of energy on this particular morning, and it’s important to note how things are feeling. Push if it feels good to do so, but also be mindful if you’re exhausted. A slower, steady-paced session may be more enjoyable in that instance.
30 minutes of physical activity in a gym setting allows for lots of opportunities to change the input of the training and keep things interesting by altering:
- Equipment type
- Zone training
The aim here is to build a solid foundational level of cardiovascular fitness. This is important for physical and mental wellbeing, but it’s also a great way to maximise your dedicated fitness time during the working day by adding in more physical activity.
Remember, these 30-minute sessions all add up over time. Use your fitness time to do meaningful, quantifiable activities and your body will be thankful for it.
Interestingly, after a couple of weeks, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as the body’s capacity to do more increases, and the starting challenges become easier. It’s very rewarding!
2-3 of these cardio sessions a week are already 60-90 minutes of your 150-minute weekly exercise quota.
I have some ideas about the remainder of the time quota. But that’s for next time.