Survival of the fittest
Research suggests that nearly a fifth of young men in the US could be too unfit to fight for their country. Is it about time you turned the gaze onto your own fitness levels?
After New Year it's inevitable that the mind turns to the enduring question of getting back in shape. Are you fit? Are you fit enough? What should you do to ensure that next year sees you in tip-top condition?
First of all, it's worth remembering why being fit is a good idea. When you're fit, you have more energy, you feel better, you certainly look better, aches and pains are less frequent, hangovers less painful and jokes about your beer belly disappear.
Plus of course, you are far, far less likely to fall ill. In fact, there are very few health issues in which "regular exercise" does not feature as a fundamental preventative measure.
A question of sport?
Are you fit? You may still be playing football once a month or maybe now you have a round of golf every week. You walk a lot. Every now and again you may go for a run. But are you fit?
"It's difficult to say whether you are fit or not. There is no cut-off point," Peter Baker, the director of the Men's Health Forum, says. "But the aim is always to become fitter."
Dr Nick Webborn, a medical advisor for the National Sports Medicine Institute, explains that there is a range of tests that measure exercise tolerance from walking tests to step tests to intelligent treadmills that tell you how you have performed. However, he explains, "Most people can tell whether they are fit when they go shopping or walk up a hill and feel tired or puffed out."
Both men agree, though, that a minimum level of exercise is essential. The present guideline is 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, dancing or swimming, five days a week. "Exercising at this level, no matter what your age, will improve your health," says Peter.
Taking the first step
So if you want to be fitter, what should you do? The best solution would probably be to join a gym or a keep-fit class, of which there are thousands all across the country. There's almost certainly one at your local sports centre.
By signing up to a class, you gain expertise, benefit from facilities and, perhaps most importantly, develop a routine that is essential if you are to maintain a fitness programme for more than a couple of weeks. You'll be shown what to do, how to do it and someone will be on hand to make sure you're not over- (or under-) exerting yourself.
But if you decide to take charge yourself there are various points you need to bear in mind. "Simply the most important exercise is cardiovascular such as walking and running," says Peter. "But start off slowly. Anyone who is a couch potato for five years and then jumps up to do a five-mile run is an idiot."
Dr Webborn agrees. "You need to set realistic goals," he says. "If you've done nothing recently go for a brisk walk. There's no point jogging if you can't go for a brisk walk." But of course, many people do. "The problem with New Year is that everyone has been inactive, sitting and eating and then they go to the gym, they go too frequently, they get sore, it hurts and they stop."
You should also do resistance training such as weights to improve your muscles and strengthen your bones. You don't need to use weights, you can use your own body weight, for example by doing press-ups.
Running away with yourself
Whatever you do, warm up first and be careful not to overstretch yourself too quickly or you risk causing real damage, warns Peter. Plus, of course, you are less likely to continue exercising, defeating the whole point.
Both men accept that the very idea of exercise is a "turn-off" for many people but they stress that that a decent level of fitness can come from type of moderate activity. Dr Webborn suggests taking the dog for a walk or going dancing as alternatives to the gym. "The important thing is for it to be fun or you won't keep doing it," he says, explaining that ideally exercise would become like brushing your teeth - something you do out of habit in order to have a positive effect on your health.
Peter Baker provides some practical advice. "People can find all sorts of ways of exercising with seeing it as such. Getting off the bus a stop early or walking to the station. When you add that up over a few months or a year, it can make a lot of difference."
And over time, that difference means you'll be healthier and maybe add years to your life.
Men's Health Forum
National Sports Medicine Institute
Keep Fit Association