Activity Questions & Answers
A lot of your advice for physical activity seems geared toward beginners. I'm very fit. Surely I can increase my exercise by more than just 10% a week?
--HB, Lexington, KY
Actually, it's not recommended. Because of your level of fitness, your 10% is larger than a beginner's 10%. For example, if you were both runners, a beginner running a mile a week should only increase the following week to 1.1 miles. If you were aleady running ten miles a week, you would increase the following week to 11 miles. So you'd both increase 10%, but one of you is adding a tenth of a mile, the other is adding a mile. This is because most people who are fit enough to run 10 miles have enough muscle mass to tolerate a one-mile increase, but the beginner would be likely to injure himself or herself if trying to increase by the same absolute amount.
These are guidelines, not hard and fast. If you have been increasing at a faster rate, perhaps you are genetically blessed and this is safe for you. Or perhaps you have simply been lucky so far to have escaped injury. Or perhaps you have a nagging injury that you have been ignoring, which is not recommended -- it will get worse without rest. There are also people who will be prone to injury even when limiting themselves to 10% increases, who may need to be patient and increase at only about 5% a week. In general, the faster you increase your physical activity load, the bigger a chance you are taking on injury.
I'm in lousy shape, but would love to take an active vacation hiking in the mountains. Is this an out-of-reach fantasy for me?
-- GS, Denver, CO
Not at all. But you will want to plan in advance. In fact, such planning is a great way to motivate your commitment to a regular physical activity program, because contemplating your vacation reward can be very enjoyable. Decide where you want to go and with what group (as one possible connection, we offer a link to Travelocity, which has an active adventure page, on our Links page), then contact your vacation planners and see what they recommend in terms of what shape you will have to be in and any special exercises they recommend. You will probably want to plan your vacation for the following year to give yourself plenty of time.
In general, for hiking you'd do something similar to the following. Of course, the first thing to do is to work out your physical activity plan on paper, then always get your doctor's approval before increasing your level of activity. The more out of shape you are, the more important it is to contact your doctor. Once cleared for this level of activity, buy some good walking shoes -- not necessarily hiking boots yet, because you will probably wear out these first pair of shoes before your trip. Then start by walking at a moderate pace as far as you comfortably can. Moderate means you breathe a little hard or sweat a little bit, but you could carry on a conversation. Your initial distance does not really matter, because you have time to reach the distance you need for your trip. Walk this distance at least three times your first week. The next week, increase your distance by about 10%, less if you injure easily. Walk the same number of times as the previous week. Next week, increase another 10%. If you will be hiking for many hours a day on your trip, then obviously this is not a distance you can practice regularly before then. But let's say you'll be hiking ten miles a day. Then you would increase your distance as above until you are hiking for about an hour, if that is all the time you can spare.
Increase speed: Once you arrive at that one hour a day, three days a week schedule, maintain that schedule, but gradually increase your speed, by about 10% a week. Eventually, you can probably walk fairly comfortably at a speed that allows you to complete five miles in about an hour, which will allow you to hike your ten miles in about two hours on your trip.
Increase carrying weight: At the point at which you can maintain that pace over that period of time (five miles an hour), now you need to start training yourself to carry a pack. This is the time to buy the pack you will use on your trip. Ask the salesperson to show you how to adjust it for the best ergonomic fit. Start by carrying it empty or with a very light load, while you walk at your five mile an hour pace for an hour. Then increase the weight by 10% a week, until it is as fully loaded as it will be on your trip.
Add varying terrain: Finally, walk at your hiking pace with your fully loaded pack while adding some hills to your walk. Gradually increase the number of hills you walk or the amount of time you spend in the woods, simulating the hiking conditions you will encounter on your trip. Once you start walking off road, it will be time to buy the pair of hiking boots you want to wear on your trip. If your trip is in the mountains and you don't have any mountains or many hills in your area to practice on, you may want to get to the trip site about a week early, to give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude. Alternatively, start with some relatively less strenuous trip so that you learn how well you adjust to conditions such as altitude and humidity, and can plan accordingly for future more strenuous trips, as you work up to them.
Plan complementary activities: There are other activities you can mix in with these, such as lifting weights or aerobics classes on your days not hiking, to build associated complementary muscles. For example, if you find your hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the upper leg) are strengthening quickly, you probably want to work your quadriceps (muscles in the front of the upper leg) and abductor/adductor muscles (muscles to the sides of the legs) on alternate days. This better supports the knees and other lower limb joints, for less likelihood of injury. Check with a certified fitness trainer at your local gym for more advice regarding proper weight-lifting and muscle strengthening, and/or e-mail us with specific questions.
On your Activity page, you mention organic, pesticide-free gardening as a pleasant way to increase activity. What is organic gardening exactly, and what are its advantages?
--WG, Cincinnati, OH
Organic gardening generally refers to gardening with all-natural ingredients, not adding manufactured chemicals to your garden. Chemicals added to gardens usually are for fertilizer and pest control.
Chemical fertilizers generally contain concentrated levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and may be produced by mining areas that would otherwise contain fertile soil for growing things. Meanwhile, our own kitchens produce "trash" that can be used to make compost. A simple compost pile can make use of kitchen scraps and many weeds, which you would otherwise throw away or dump into the water system where they can cause problems. Throw these things in the compost pile, and create "black gold", providing nutrients for your plants to thrive. A compost pile just needs a little dirt for the microbes it contains, then they will start to process your scraps, to break them down and make the nutrients available for your plants.
Please be aware that NOT ALL weeds can go into a compost pile!! Some are so stubborn, they don't break down even there, and will re-infest your garden! But one weed that can be thrown into the compost heap successfully is the ubiquitous dandelion leaf. Throw away flowers and roots, but dandelion leaves are excellent sources of nutrition! So if you can't bring yourself to eat them, feed them to your plants!
Pesticides, of course, are used to keep weeds and bugs at bay. One of the best ways to take care of weeds is to pull or dig them up by hand -- time-consuming, but it burns calories and encourages you to stretch! Just be sure to provide plenty of support for your back, and as you start to tire, take plenty of breaks. The next best way to defeat weeds is to have plenty of healthy plants. They will fill in the garden niche and help keep weeds out. Mulching also helps keep weeds down. This is probably where organic gardening gets most labor-intensive -- but this is also where it probably provides the biggest fitness benefit! As you become more serious about your organic gardening efforts, you can buy books to identify "good" weeds (all or parts of which can go to the compost pile - or the salad plate!) and "bad" weeds (too invasive, throw them out), and sorting through them rather than spraying them will ensure you are using all the resources available to you for the best garden possible!
What about insect control? There are many herbs that can be grown interspersed among flowers, vegetables and fruit, that will help deter bugs and can be used to flavor your meals, too! Many varieties are colorful and have pretty flowers of their own, so herbs serve many purposes! You can also feed the birds; they eat bugs in addition to birdseed, so will help keep the pest population down. A garden without chemicals will attract spiders and bees and keep them healthy, and they also play a role in eliminating pests. If all else fails, books are available to tell you how to eliminate particular pests organically, but I grow herbs and feed the birds and allow the occasional large spider web, and have never needed anything else. So these methods really work!
Any other organic gardening questions? Please feel free to e-mail us!
I have osteoarthritis in my knees. I've been using a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement, but now I see that there is a G/C supplement that also has MSM. Is it a good idea to also take MSM, and what does it do?
--SK, Miami, FL
MSM is short for methylsulfonylmethane which, according to the manufacturer of the product you're investigating, is a natural source of sulfur (8)*. The evidence for its efficacy as an aid in arthritis is somewhat limited, but initial results appear promisng. While some researchers found no difference in sulfur between healthy and osteoarthritic joints (5), other researchers have shown a lower level of sulfur in arthritic joints compared to healthy ones (6,7), with the lowest levels of sulfur in the most arthritic joints. It therefore may make sense to provide additional sulfur to arthritis sufferers in the hope that they may be able to use this supplemental sulfur to improve the quality of their joints. There is some evidence that sulfur provides arthritis relief by improving antioxidant protection (2). In rheumatoid arthritis, however, sufferers have been found to have trouble processing sulfur (1,3,4). Therefore, check with your doctor regarding supplementation, particularly if you have rheumatoid arthritis, but you may find MSM helpful.
*Numbers in parentheses refer to articles listed on our References page.
For those who may be unfamiliar with glucosamine and chondroitin, they are naturally occurring substances that may be necessary to build healthy joints. Chondroitin levels have been discovered to be lower in the joints of older adults (3), and supplemental amounts of these substances have been found to be reasonably effective in minimizing the effects of arthritis (1,4,5,6). The main significant side effect discovered so far has been the potential for supplemental glucosamine to raise blood sugar (7), which can cause problems for diabetics and those who are glucose intolerant. Also, glucosamine is usually extracted from shellfish shells and chondroitin from cow cartilage (8), so if you are allergic to shellfish and/or cows, you should probably avoid these supplements. Like most supplements, the information on side effects is somewhat preliminary since people have not been taking these for very long. Likewise, the beneficial effects of these products are still being investigated; for example, one study has found evidence that glucosamine may help reduce wrinkles (2), but this is very preliminary. Therefore, as with all supplements, we recommend talking with your doctor before trying them. Their intended purpose, however, is to help rebuild the joint, not simply relieve the pain as with anti-inflammatories, and therefore they may be a helpful adjunct to standard arthritis therapy.
This page was last updated on 04/23/03