Striking Gold

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Citius, Altius, Fortius” goes the Olympic motto in Latin. Translated, it means “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” That is what every Olympic athlete strives for — to be the best. His or her single-minded dedication, tremendous personal sacrifice and discipline are to be admired and emulated. It is not easy to drive your body to its limits.

Great athletes need the right genetic makeup, body proportions and physique. They can then be moulded for the job. Michael Phelps is 6 feet 4 inches tall, but has proportionately shorter legs attached to a long trunk, with giant size 14 feet that look and function like fins. Kip Keino, the Kenyan marathon runner, is only 5 feet 8 inches tall but has thin, long runner’s legs and a short torso.

In short, aspiring athletes need the correct genes and a supportive family and government. A genetically apt form and physique is wasted without the right training, nutrition, mental discipline and financial support.

This does not mean that we ordinary people cannot exercise and strive to be healthy. The human body has striated or voluntary muscles which function on demand. These muscles are either “fast-twitch” (white) muscles or “slow-twitch” (red) muscles. The white muscles contract rapidly and tire easily. They are good for sprinting. The red fibres are best for endurance sports as they have increased muscle power and are twice as efficient. With training it is possible to develop a particular muscle type, but a choice has to be made between speed and endurance. This is why a tall, strong, muscular and powerful human with more red muscle cannot move swiftly or manoeuvre as efficiently as a small, lean person with more white muscle.

Animals show this distinction in evolution. The cheetah has tremendous sprinting speed over short distances, but the horse has far greater stamina and endurance.

Once a particular muscle type has been trained, it is possible to excel in related events that have similar energy requirements. The same people will do well in the 100m and 400m sprints, the 110m hurdle and the long jump, but not in the 5000m event which requires more stamina. Tremendous torso strength is required to throw a shot put, hammer or javelin. These events require stocky athletes who may not be able to move fast and do well in sprints or jumps.

Everyone (particularly all Indians) should prioritise staying fit and exercising to the limit of his or her endurance. This means exercising one hour a day and trying to achieve the target heart rate (80 per cent of 220 minus age). This habit needs to be started young. Unfortunately, many school going children today are obese with a Body Mass Index (weight in kg divided by height in metre squared) greater than 25. However, it is never too late to start. Despite age, infirmity and illness, the body when trained and pushed is capable of miracles.

To start exercising, set a realistic primary fitness goal, and prioritise it as daily, monthly and lifetime goals. Decide if the exercise is to remain healthy, lose weight, contour the figure, improve cardiovascular status, control blood sugars, normalise blood pressure, for anti anxiety and anti depressant effects, to help work through fatigue or to compete in sports. The effort put in and the training will be different in each case. Targets will never be achieved without setting goals and if there is a tendency to procrastinate.

Regular exercise should include a 15-minute warm-up, a one-hour workout and a 10-minute cool-down phase to prevent muscle injury.

For the warm-up, do one or two pull-ups, spot jogging, skipping, push-ups and short stepping in place, gradually increasing the pace till sweating starts. Finish the warm-up with stretches. Slowly move the muscles, tendons and ligaments to increase flexibility. Stretch the Achilles tendon. Lunge from side to side and front to back. For each workout, pick and target a specific area that needs improvement. Decide ahead and fix a rotating timetable so that all the major muscle groups are exercised.

Muscles accumulate lactic acid during high intensity exercise. This needs to be removed during a 10-minute cool down process that involves walking and stretching.

Regular and judicious exercise can delay the onset of diabetes or hypertension by 10-15 years. It also increases breathing capacity and reduces the frequency of wheezing attacks in asthmatics. Body weight remains under control. Bones, muscles and joints stay flexible, reducing the pain of arthritis. Physically active people have better coping skills and are less likely to succumb to anxiety or depression. The feel good factor makes life pleasurable. The sense of achievement boosts morale. This in turn reduces illnesses, medication, the number of visits to the physician and hospitalisations.

As you start your exercise programme, remember each year of exercise adds approximately a year of life.

The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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