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» Big Up the NHS

10 rules for getting fitter and leaner

Steve Smith

These rules are meant to be used in conjunction with a spread sheet which you can download here. Please read them carefully and consider whether this is right for you. Do not rush into it. To work this approach needs long term commitment and sustained effort. It is not a quick fix – it demands a significant and permanent change in your approach to exercise, food and life in general. Think about the rules for a day or two and if you are prepared to give it a try then print them out and sign and date a copy. It may help if you attach a recent photograph of yourself to remind you where you started from. This is your contract with yourself and you should take it seriously.

1 - First do no harm

Walking is the easiest and safest form of exercise but this programme will encourage you to progressively increase the duration and intensity of effort. You are likely to finish up jogging or running. Listen to your body and if it tells you it is not happy then do not push it. Minor aches and pains are normal for those starting exercise programmes for the first time but significant discomfort should be taken as a sign that you are overdoing it.

Almost anybody can undertake a walking programme safely but if you have any medical problems you should consult your doctor before starting.

2 - Learn to enjoy exercise

Most people who take little exercise will say that it is because they do not enjoy it. They find it boring, painful and demoralising. They languish in their flabby worlds convinced that exercise is not for them and telling themselves that they are happy. They are wrong.

Even small amounts of exercise will generate immediate benefits. You will feel happier, healthier and more alive. Exercise makes the body produce endorphins which give a natural “high”. As your fitness level starts to improve you will soon notice an increasing sense of wellbeing, vitality and confidence. The trick is to learn to enjoy exercise so that it becomes its own reward. It does not take long. The beauty of a walking programme is that anyone can improve their fitness with minimal pain and effort – at first. Once you have passed this first hurdle and started to appreciate the benefits of exercise there will be no going back.

You will soon start to appreciate that your walking time is an opportunity to do other things. It is your personal time away from the stresses of work and family. Use it to think, listen to music or the radio, inspect neighbours gardens and ponder the changing seasons. If you prefer company you can walk with a friend.

3 - Make enough time for exercise

Low intensity effort such as walking will burn calories and increase fitness but only slowly. Benefit takes time rather than effort, at least for the beginner. People drive to the gymnasium and spend 15 minutes thrashing an exercise bike but it does them little good. It would be much better to walk to the gym and back and spend the time there watching someone else getting into a sweat. At the start you will need to be prepared to give up at least an hour three of four times a week and as you get into the programme you will want to do more.

Try to use time which would otherwise be given over to inactivity. Those couch potato hours in front of the television in the evening should be first to go. Don’t give up energetic activities such as housework or gardening for walking.

4 - Measure accurately and record your progress

There is an old Yorkshire saying - “You can’t make a pig fatter by weighing it”. While undoubtedly true this misses the point that feedback is necessary to sustain genuine changes in what you do. Measuring your weight is helpful but changes happen very slowly and there are big day to day variations. Just following your weight can be demoralising – especially on those days when it goes up.  It is much better to follow a variety of measurements which can change quickly with increasing fitness. Resting pulse rate is a good example. You may see it decrease by 20 beats a minute or more in your first few weeks. You can also measure blood pressure, total body fat, lean muscle mass etc if you wish

You must record the time and distance you do each week as the central tenet of this programme is progressively increasing exercise intensity and duration progressively over time. All of these measurements can be stored in the diary and tables sections of the spread sheet. And you can follow your progress at a glance in the graphs section.

5 - Get the right kit

Walking requires no specialist equipment but I strongly recommend that you invest in a good pair of shoes. You will inevitably finish up power walking, jogging or running. Good running shoes are suitable for all these activities and I suggest that you start with these. Visit a specialist shop and get advice about the type which suits you and your walking style.  Correct footwear helps to prevent injury and improves posture taking the strain off all your joints. Keep track of the miles you do in your shoes using the log and replace them as they wear out. Even the best running shoes will lose support after 500 or 600 miles and will need replacing.

You will need some equipment to measure your performance. A watch with a stop clock is essential. Accurate measurement of distance can be difficult. Stride pedometers are not very accurate. Some people drive their route in a car but this is not always practical. The best method is to purchase a speed and distance walkers watch which calculates distance from satellite GPS systems but these are quite expensive. Alternatively many internet map providers offer a free pedometer service - see

Clearly a good set of bathroom scales is essential and many manufactures now include electrical impedance devices for measuring muscle mass and body fat at reasonable cost. Blood pressure monitors are available cheaply from most chemists.

6 - Push up you limits and set a long term goal

You should increase the amount and intensity of exercise you do each week at a pace which is comfortable for you. There is no rush to do this quickly. This is a long term process and doing too much too soon may lead to injury. You should not increase distance or speed by more than 10% in a single week.

As a beginner the phrase “no gain without pain” does not apply to you. You can make great progress without discomfort if you put in the time. Eventually you will want to push yourself through pain barriers for further improvement but don’t worry, you will know when that needs to happen and it will feel natural.

The best measurement to follow is calories burned. Watch your weekly total and try to increase it slightly every week. It does not take a genius to work out that this can be done by exercising for longer or exercising harder. Assuming you have other things to do in your life you will eventually have to go faster to keep increasing the calories burned.

The trick is not to allow your exercise levels to slip back – unless of course there a good reason such as holidays, illness or injury. The rate you increase activity is up to you and every person will depend upon your weight, age and motivation. Just keep pushing your limits. The day will come when you realise that you are actually fitter than most of the people you associate with – and that is a very good feeling. If you follow these rules it is inevitable that you will get there.

Some find it helpful to set a long term goal. This should not just be a target weight loss but something that is a significant milestone in your life. Mine was to run a marathon and I succeeded in this after 2 years on the programme. At the start I could not run more than a few hundred yards.

7 - Take exercise whenever you can and speed up your life

Look for opportunities to burn energy. Take the stairs not the lift, get off the bus a couple of stops early and walk the rest, park at the far end of the car park. The opportunities are endless.

Notice next time you are in a crowd of people in a shopping centre how quickly they walk. Thin people walk much faster than fat people. This is not just because they find it easier. They stride out and burn energy. They are thin because they are dynamic and energetic – not the other way round. Make a conscious effort to move more quickly.

8 - Watch your diet

If you are fat it is not just down to lack of exercise. You have an eating disorder and an exercise programme alone will not fix it. You should cut out excessive calories. Eat smaller portions and avoid fattening foods. There is no need to go on a strict calorie restricted diet – indeed this is bad for you and reduces your energy levels and exercise capacity.

Everybody knows how to eat well and if not there is plenty of advice available. It is not the purpose of this programme to tell you in detail what to eat. Just be aware that you will need to change your eating habits permanently to get the full benefit.

There are a couple of traps to avoid. Firstly do not reward yourself for taking exercise with extra food. Rather use exercise as a food substitute. If you feel an urge to eat between meals go for a walk! And finally one of the benefits of putting time into exercise is that it reduces your eating time. DO NOT WALK AND EAT AT THE SAME TIME. When you are people watching is the shopping centre you will see some people eating while walking – they will all be overweight.

9 - Consider other forms of exercise

Walking though enjoyable can become boring. As your fitness increases consider other low energy sustained forms of exercise such as cycling or swimming. Change them around for variety. You can still calculate the calories burned and add them to your log. Formulae for this are available on the internet.

10 - Commit for a year

If you follow these rules for a year they cannot fail to improve your weight, fitness and quality of life. After a year you will never want to go back and the changes will be permanent.

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