Adding Fun to Fitness

Remember the joys of recess in elementary school, when you’d escape the confines of the classroom for the delights of jumping rope or playing dodgeball? You didn’t think of those physical activities as exercise, you thought of them as fun.

Then adulthood arrived and, for many of us, staying active became another job we had to accomplish. We logged miles around tracks, on sidewalks, or in the gym. Much of the time, we exercised because we knew we had to in order to stay healthy, not because it was fun. That’s why people listen to music or watch TV while working out—it helps the often oh-so-dull time pass more quickly.

Shaking things up

While traditional activities such as walking or running might be your most practical choice for sustaining the activity level you need regularly, there are loads of alternative fitness choices that can give you the same physical benefits with an added shot of fun. Think jitterbugging or judo instead of jogging.

Switching some of your regular exercise time over to such alternatives (or using them to finally get started on an activity plan) can keep your interest up and your body moving. “I think some folks see those fun activities often as a gateway to becoming more physically active, helping people find things they enjoy,” says Kathleen Y. Wolin, ScD, a researcher on physical activity and obesity and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery and Siteman Cancer Center, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO.

Wolin believes that alternative sports or fitness endeavors “help people realize that physical activity can be fun and not just another task on your list of things to do.”

She points out that she knows many experts in the field of exercise research—”people who are meeting the recommendations (for physical activity) day in and day out, week after week, year after year”—who include fun activities in their regimens regularly. “For me, it’s playing tennis one day a week,” Wolin says. “I have a really good time doing it, so that’s my fun thing. I can’t play tennis every day because it takes too much time, but I love that I can fit it in once a week.”

Dodgeball for grown-ups

Childhood may be long past, but you can still enjoy some of its pleasures. Consider dodgeball: the game is now played by adults across the United States. Rubber-coated foam balls make the sport safe and fun for virtually everyone.

Played with teams of six on a volleyball court, today’s dodgeball relies on group effort more than individual skill. “You can come in and start playing. You don’t need to be a top athlete,” says Catrina DaCosta, director of dodgeball, skating and hockey at The Gym at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Coed dodgeball teams at DaCosta’s facility have players ranging in age from teens to 50s; elsewhere, there are senior leagues for older players and all-women’s teams. The National Amateur Dodgeball Association (www.dodgeballusa.com) can help you start a team or find one near you.

But can you really get or stay fit with a children’s game? “Dodgeball is fabulous exercise,” DaCosta says. Team members run, catch, throw and, of course, dodge. “It uses every muscle of your body,” she adds. It’s a social sport as well, which increases the fun factor.

According to guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), playing dodgeball is rated as a moderate intensity activity, similar to brisk walking at a pace of 3 to 4.5 mph or bicycling at 5 to 9 mph.

While we’re reminiscing about schoolyard play, try jumping rope as a fun way to build cardiovascular strength and improve coordination. Be sure to wear cushioned aerobic or cross-trainer shoes, use a light rope with foam handles and keep your knees bent and your jumps low. The CDC and ACSM rate jumping rope as a vigorous activity—the same category as running, step aerobics or playing singles tennis.

DaCosta is a big proponent of all sorts of alternative fitness activities. “In-line skating is a lot more fun form of exercise” than many traditional ones, she says. She teaches adults to skate in the gym and then gives them the opportunity to skate on streets, in parks and along paved trails around Atlanta. DaCosta takes her skating fun one level higher: she plays roller hockey two to three nights a week.

She also loves salsa dancing, which she describes as “a lot faster than any tango, with a lot of spinning and footwork… It’s a full workout.” Best of all, you don’t need a partner.

Both in-line skating and folk or ballroom dancing—when performed at energetic paces—are rated by the CDC and ACSM as vigorous intensity activities.

There are many more possibilities for fun fitness endeavors you might want to incorporate into your exercise schedule. Try juggling, fencing and trampoline play for moderate intensity activities or water jogging, rock climbing and clogging for more exertion.

Alternatives meet a wide range of interests and abilities. Belly dancing, snowshoeing, synchronized swimming and even badminton can help you attain your fitness goals.

Achieving recommended activity levels

That’s important because new guidelines from the ACSM and the American Heart Association, published last month, updated physical activity recommendations for healthy adults aged 18 to 65. The organizations also issued recommendations for adults 65 years old and above as well as those aged 50 to 64 who have significant chronic conditions (such as uncontrolled high blood pressure) or physical limitations.

Getting a fitness boost from fun activities may keep you going strong, enabling those recommendations to become realities.

The guidelines for healthy adults advise:

  • A minimum of 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise, five days a week or a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous activity, three days a week.
  • Daily amounts may be achieved in units of at least 10 minutes each.
  • Such activity is in addition to light routine daily tasks, such as grocery shopping, or moderate/vigorous tasks that last less than 10 minutes.
  • In addition, on two non-consecutive days each week, adults should perform activities that benefit muscle strength and endurance, such as resistance training.

Older adults, and those with limitations, have modified versions of those recommendations. They are also advised to pursue activities to build flexibility and balance.

When you follow the guidelines, fun exercise—whether moderate or vigorous—can help your fitness efforts succeed. “The challenge is, are you doing them in a sustained way?” Dr. Wolin says. Going to a club, dancing for a three-minute song and then sitting down to sip a drink won’t provide the benefits you need.

“If you’re out there dancing for 20 to 30 minutes, or even for 10 minutes, that’s great and that counts,” says Dr. Wolin. “You’re looking for something that gets your heart rate up and that you’re doing for a sustained period of time.”

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