Mix it up for maximum results

Part 9 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Remember your resolution for March, which was to get some exercise - any kind of exercise - for 30 minutes, every day? How's that going? Now that half a year has gone by, this is a fine time to fine-tune that resolution.

This month, take a look at the kinds of activity you're getting. Is your exercise program balanced? Does it include a mix of aerobic exercise (for your heart), strength training (for your bones and muscles), and stretching (for flexibility and balance)? If you've been focusing on only one of these areas, start shaking things up and adding the other two to your weekly routine. Your resolution for September: walk, lift and stretch for a healthy, well-balanced body.

Walk, run, jump, dance, swim
Aerobic exercise - the kind that gets your heart pumping a little harder - builds the foundation for cardiovascular health and overall fitness. In March, I provided lots of ideas on how and why to include walking, bicycling, swimming and other forms of aerobic exercise in your life. If you've fallen off the exercise wagon, review your March resolution and recommit to it this month.

If you've been keeping up with your 30 minutes per day, shake up your routine this month by adding some interval training. Interval training means changing the intensity of your exercise for brief periods within your workout - for example, alternating between walking at a normal pace for 40 seconds, and then as fast as you can for 20 seconds. In one study, half of the participants cycled for 40 minutes at a steady pace, while the other half exercised for just 20 minutes, alternating between 12 seconds at a slow pace and 8 seconds at a sprint. Despite exercising for only half the time, the interval trainers lost more weight and more body fat.

Lift, push, pull, dip, curl
While aerobic exercise builds a strong heart muscle, strength training is important for all of your other muscles, as well as your bones and joints. Also known as resistance training or weight training, strength training increases your lean muscle mass. That extra muscle raises your metabolism, which is why muscular bodies burn more calories, even at rest.

If you belong to a gym, ask a staff member or trainer to show you how to put together a resistance-training program that works your five major muscle groups: the chest, back, arms, legs and core. Weight machines, resistance bands, free weights and dumbbells are excellent tools for working these muscles, but they're not required. You can get a complete strength-training workout at home by using your own body weight for resistance. Traditional resistance exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, chair dips, sit-ups, crunches, squats and calf-raises are all very effective ways to strengthen your muscles.

One of the nice things about strength training is that you get a big payoff from a pretty minor time investment. If you do the exercises consistently and correctly - that is, slowly and purposefully - about half an hour, twice a week, is all it takes to get toned up.

Stretch, bend, flex, pose, breathe
While the benefits of stretching before a workout are somewhat controversial, most experts agree that stretching after a workout can help your muscles recover with less stiffness and aching. And sometimes, dynamic stretching can be the workout.

One of the best ways to incorporate stretching into your weekly exercise program is to take up yoga. In addition to making your body feel great, yoga is associated with reduced stress, lower blood pressure and improved control of diabetes. An inexpensive video, some loose clothes and a few feet of carpeting are all you need to try yoga at home. Need more guidance? Sign up for a class.

As with strength training, it doesn't take hours and hours of yoga each week to see benefits. Try two 30-minute sessions a week, and see how you feel.

The pep talk

Yes, it does take a small time commitment to fit aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching into your weekly routine. But it's not that much time, and the benefits are so worth it. To list just a few: better weight management; improved mood; reduced joint pain; increased coordination and agility; better balance, flexibility and stability; lowered risk of falls, injuries and illness; greater ease in performing everyday chores; a boost in energy and alertness; a greater sense of health and vitality - the benefits go on and on. And you deserve them.

James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.