Health and Well-being Exercise Science

Making the most of your workout

Exercise can be a wonder drug for the body. When done regularly, it can lower blood pressure and decrease your resting heart rate, ease anxiety and improve your mood, and increase your lung capacity. It can also boost muscle strength and endurance, improve balance and coordination, and strengthen your immunity. In short, the right exercise routine can transform your overall quality of life.

If you already fit exercise into your regular routine, you are on the right track—but are you getting the most out of your workouts, especially with limited time? The first question, according to Stephanie Wilson, director of Loyola University Chicago’s Exercise Science program, is to ask yourself why you want to work out in the first place.

“For everybody, it should be because we want to live longer, and moving is just a way of life,” said Wilson. But having goals and understanding how to achieve them is critical to success.

Wilson shares these tips for anyone looking to improve their routine or those just wondering where to start:

Make a plan before you go

Don’t just show up to the gym without a focus in mind. “People are always on a time schedule and they’re very stressed out,” Wilson said. “They’re going to allot 45 or even 30 minutes to go to the gym. If you plan it out before you go, you’ll get more completed during that time frame.” If time is tight, you might do 30-45 minutes of cardio on the treadmill one day, followed by resistance training the next.

Measure your progress

Is your goal weight loss? Toning? Improving your running time for an upcoming race? Wilson advises having a specific goal in mind that you can work toward. Write down your goal to further cement your commitment. Before you start, do a pre-measurement (especially if your goal is weight loss or toning) and then check again after six to eight weeks to see how far you've come.

Mix it up

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get 150 minutes of exercise a week for optimal health, which you could split into five days of 30-minute workouts. For a balanced routine, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends including a combination of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and flexibility. “Aerobic activity will improve the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, while resistance training will improve muscle strength and endurance,” Wilson explained. “Flexibility is another component of a workout to improve one’s range of motion.”

Warm up and cool down

Before starting your workout, do some dynamic stretches (such as jumping jacks, leg swings, or walking lunges) to warm up your muscles and increase your range of motion. “If you go into your workout cold, you might get muscle strain or soreness,” Wilson said. “The cool-down is also important because you want to bring your body down to its regular homeostasis state."

Break out of your rut

Do you have a habit of taking the same class or using the same cardio machine again and again? “Everybody finds their niche, and I fall into a rut sometimes, too,” Wilson admitted. “I would never tell someone not go to the gym if they’ve found something they love, but you have to mix it up because otherwise you’re not using other muscles. Your body eventually adjusts to everything you do.” Mixing it up doesn’t always have to be drastic, either. If you love yoga, simply trying a new style or a different teacher can be enough to get your body out of its comfort zone.

Add functional movements

That means doing exercises that strengthen your ability to do everyday activities. “Let’s say you do bicep curls. Why don’t you do it in addition to a squat?” Wilson suggested. “That way you’re incorporating a functional movement, and if you can combine your arms and legs into one exercise, you’re going to get more out of it.”

Give your body the right fuel—before and after

“Don’t go into your workout hungry,” Wilson advised. “It’s kind of like a car—if you don’t give it gas, it’s not going to run. It’s the same with your body.” Ideally, eat carbohydrates about two hours before your workout to provide an immediate fuel source, or grab a granola bar about 30 minutes before as a pre-workout snack. Avoid greasy, fatty foods, which can make you feel sick during your workout. Within 45 minutes of finishing your workout, follow up with a high-protein snack—such as a banana with peanut butter or a hard-boiled egg—to help with muscle repair. It’s also important to make sure you hydrate throughout the day, especially before, during, and after a hard workout.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

To get the most out your workout—and reduce your risk of injury—you need to use proper form and use equipment the right way. “A lot of times people don’t ask because they’re nervous or intimated, but I always encourage people to ask for help,” said Wilson. Use the instructors and staff at your local gym as a resource—that’s why they’re there.

Make it fun for the family

To keep yourself motivated and get the whole family involved, try signing up for a 5K as a family or spend time on the weekends playing tag or dodgeball with your kids. “It’s a good feeling because you’re bringing your family together and it’s also fun,” said Wilson, a mother of four. “That way you’re also not losing time with the family while still getting your exercise in.”

Include a day of rest

Sometimes there’s an urge to work out every day, but make sure to take time out to refuel and regroup. “Rest is important for your body to rebuild and repair itself,” said Wilson. “Rest is just as important as the workout.”

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