I am not a sporty person. I’m a commitment-phobe when it comes to fitness programs, and find it irksome when a trainer points out physical flaws I should work on. But I nevertheless find myself working out for the most surprising reasons.
Eight months ago, I quit my job to travel 15 cities from Bandung to Bali on road over a month as a solo backpacker. I realised that extended outdoor travel off the beaten track meant that I needed to improve my stamina and endurance. So five months before my maiden voyage, I gradually got “in the zone” for cardio, swimming, and yoga. As I type this, I’m on a 10-day tour in South Sulawesi, having rode 900 kilometres on the back of a friend’s motorbike and 300 more to go. In the six months between my first and sophomore trips, looking forward to the next trip had been my main motivation for exercise.
Titania, a performing arts student, did not exercise because she looked “just fine” on stage and camera. Her attitude toward exercise changed when she enrolled in the voice performance class and encountered a challenging song for her exam. “My coach told me to spend half an hour on the treadmill or swimming pool every other day,” said Titania. “When this helped improve my performance, I felt that all the other benefits became a bonus: I got healthier, toned up, get better sleep, and eat better–not because I’m on a diet but because I respect my body more.”
Rebekah DeFord, a former personal fitness trainer who now teaches in an international school, said that in today’s computerised age, exercise becomes more important than ever. Instead of spending our days working physically like our bodies are designed to do, we sit before a desk and stare at a screen.
“That’s why in developed countries, a 30-year-old could have achy back issues that only 80-year-olds should have,” said Rebekah. “Whereas in developing countries, despite poorer diets and education, people have less injuries, stronger bodies, and better postures. Go walk down a kampung here somewhere, and you’ll find women carrying things on their heads. You need to be correctly aligned to make that possible.”
Rebekah has had clients coming in with different goals, but the one thing they have in common is that they need their postures to be corrected first.
“Slumped shoulders means that the neck is getting no support for carrying a 5-kilogram head. That’s why neck injuries are so common in developed countries,” said Rebekah. “Trainers can’t help clients work on their goals unless they fix the person’s posture first. But this can take years and many clients won’t do the work. They just want to do five sessions and look good, but it doesn’t work that way.”
Fixing one’s posture typically consists of balance and flexibility exercises. This is why yoga and pilates gained great popularity in the past decade.
Beyond that, clients’ goals may be varied, but basically fall into two categories: losing fat and gaining muscle. “Firming fat up is a misnomer. You can’t do that because fat and muscle are two different things. Men could have a six-pack underneath a beer belly. In order to ‘firm up’, you need to first take away the fat from the muscle, and then gain muscle,” said Rebekah.
Getting in shape is 75% about diet. “You can do all the workout in the world and still gain weight if you eat too much. If that’s the case, you’d have to be running for hours just to burn the calories from the food you put in,” said Rebekah. For instance, a twenty-something weighing about 50kg burns about 180 calories brisk-walking 80 flights of stairs in 20 minutes, but could easily consume the same amount of calories in two pieces of cookies with icing.
Gaining muscle can be divided into three goals: muscle building, strength, and power. These goals require different exercises. A person who exercises to prepare for a mountain hike does not necessarily want to build a bulk of muscles, but likely needs to develop a strong back, shoulders, and glutes. And before building muscle for that, he or she needs to first develop correct posture for proper support. Likewise, a performing artist’s interest may be to gain finer muscles that support elegant dance or theatrical moves, or help project his or her voice more powerfully. The artist too would need correct posture for stage presence and finesse.
“But even if you don’t want to gain or lose weight, 20 to 30 minutes of walking uphill to get your heart rate up and breathe hard is good for you. Do this three to five times a week, and you will stop getting sore as you get into the routine. And in the long term you will live longer,” said Rebekah. This routine does many things for your body.
It improves your immune system and makes you less susceptible to infectious diseases.
It speeds up your metabolism and helps you maintain a healthy muscle to fat ratio. This is especially important for women, because lower testosterone levels means that women lose muscle faster than men.
It prevents diabetes and heart disease. This is especially important for men, who tend to store fat in their bellies–unlike women who more easily distributes some it in “safer” places like the thighs and buttocks. In Indonesia, where much of the food is fried, diabetes and heart disease are common health problems.
It’s good maintenance for your joints and ligaments, which without exercise, typically tend to wear away with age due to habitual friction at the wrong angles.
It suppresses cravings for junk food and helps you crave for fresh and healthier foods instead.
“I find myself having more energy when I work out,” said Rebekah. “A lot of people think they don’t have time for exercise, whereas if they just made a little time for it, they actually can get more things done because of the extra energy. Exercise allows you to stay up later, and improves the quality of your sleep.”
“Exercising puts you on an endorphin high,” added Rebekah. “The hormones endorphin and dopamine are also known as the ‘happy chemicals.’ It’s a reason why people exercise.” And what’s not to love about living a happier life filled with more energy?