Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…

Normally I’m not really into tennis…

…but today I’ll make an exception. To be honest, until yesterday I was barely aware the Australian Open was on at all, and certainly had no idea of anyone’s progress. But then, at about nine in the morning, I walked into it on the TV. Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic, semi-final. Murray is two matches away from his first ever grand slam, but he has to get through not only the world number one, but also his arch-nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
Tennis isn’t really a huge thing for me- I quite like it as a game, I watch Wimbledon when it’s on, I know the basics, but ultimately I’m not that good at it and don’t care about it much. Nonetheless, Murray is a Scot, and as a reasonably patriotic quarter-Scottish Brit who’s fairly into his sport, I thought I’d try too keep track of the game as it went on.
As the day progressed, I had very little time to watch it- I caught a 20-minute patch of a few exchanged third-set games during which precisely nothing happened, dropped in at the start of the 5th set, and rushed over to catch the last two games. Not much, but enough to give me a vague insight into the game as it unfolded. For those who don’t know, Djokovic took the first set, but Murray played impressively to take the second and the third (in a tie break), breaking back on numerous occasions. Djokovic won the fourth set 6-1, Murray had to break back to draw level at 5-5 in the fifth, before conceding a break and the match. Final result: Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5.
To me, as the match went on, Murray was playing like, well, how he always does when up against stiff competition. I don’t know if it’s just  mine or the British nation’s collective pessimism, but one can never really be sure of anything when watching Andy Murray- you always get the sensation that he’s about to fire a shot into the net or overshoot. As I say- probably just mindless pessimism.
But, for all his imperfections, for all my worries, for all the cynics’ pessimism about how generally useless we British are at everything (for the record, I HATE those people), on that drawn-out Friday (and for Murray, Saturday), I was proud of him, proud of my man. Completely stupid, I know- I have no personal knowledge of or link with the guy, have a self-professed indifference towards tennis as a rule, and all in all have no real connection with him, let alone a reason to mentally refer to him as ‘mine’. In fact, the only reason I (and quite a lot of his other fans too I suspect) follow him is due to some bull-headed British national pride (my apologies to all Scots reading this, but at least I would refer to him as British if he were losing as well). But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make here. Murray made Djokovic work for his place in the final with every single gram of sweat and effort in his body- the match was almost 5 hours long, the longest match Murray has ever played, and I can attest to the fact that Djokovic spent the majority of the match looking completely knackered. Djokovic didn’t win that match- tennis won, Murray’s mental state won, his estimations and admiration won, sport won.
Sport can be a terrible, horrible thing. It can sometimes be dull, there can sometimes be meaningless thrashings, there can sometimes be horrendous foul play or downright cheating, and worst of all can be sport played solely to win, played solely for the ego of the participants. But sport can also be wonderful, beautiful. Murray’s match was an example of that. He showed us how to fail- with all the effort, pride and dignity of your proudest and greatest victories. There is sport at its best. Nigel Wray, owner of the London rugby club Saracens, famously takes the view that ‘sport’ is the wrong word- ‘teams’ is better, because it emphasises the importance of sport’s camaraderie, friendship, values and teamwork. Even a solo sport like tennis is a game far better played when the emphasis is skill and enjoyment, not just grinding out victories. Rugby is my sport for precisely that reason- it’s ethos and spirit, but any sport played in the correct way, with the correct mindset, is the reason for playing sport at all. Thank you, Andy Murray- you lost magnificently