Get Fit for Life

Learn how you can incorporate fitness into your routine —without judgment

It’s not the scale prompting Harlem resident Alana Beale to focus on her fitness; it’s the calendar. Her goal is to be “fit by 40.” She says, “Turning 40 will mark a new phase of my life—a time to be my best self.” For Beale, a marketing public relations manager at Google and the mother of two toddlers, “that means eating right, being healthier and more active, and, in the process, shedding a little baby weight too.”

You can’t tell by looking

Beale is right not to focus solely on weight loss as the key to being fit. Many people think being fit means not being overweight, but weight is just part of the picture. “Overall fitness also includes cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength, balance, and flexibility,” says Barbara Bushman, PhD, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Complete Guide to Fitness and Health. In other words, being physically fit is not synonymous with simply having a BMI (body mass index) that’s in the “healthy” range (18.5–24.9).

Simone Samuels, a body-positive fitness instructor and personal trainer, agrees. “It’s important to uncouple the scale, or weight, from the concept of fitness,” she says. “I call myself fat, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fit.” Dr. Bushman agrees, urging women to think about fitness on a practical, personal level rather than focusing on weight. “For me, fitness is my ability to do what I want to do and have fun doing it, whether it’s working in my garden or kayaking or biking,” she says.

Are you metabolically fit?

Much of the focus on BMI and weight loss stems from substantial research demonstrating that many people who are overweight (BMI 25–29.9) or obese (BMI 30 or above) are not metabolically fit. They are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes—all of which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke, and all of which disproportionately affect African American women.

But as with physical fitness, when it comes to metabolic fitness, you can’t tell by looking. Studies have shown that some people who are overweight or obese have normal blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels. Regardless of your BMI, seeing your doctor regularly can help you keep track of your numbers to make sure they’re in the healthy zone.

Benefits of exercise beyond weight loss

The good news is that physical activity is a boon to metabolic fitness. Research shows that aerobic exercise, as little as 150 minutes a week, improves blood sugar control and may help prevent type 2 diabetes in adults at risk—even if they don’t lose weight. If you’ve already been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a brisk walk or similar aerobic activity can improve your blood glucose control. Doing muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days a week also helps improve blood glucose. And if you have high blood pressure, exercising regularly can help lower it.

Exercise provides other health benefits as well. The authors of a 2020 study reported that women who walked about 20 minutes daily after completing breast cancer treatment had a lower risk of recurrence and of dying. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, helps keep bones strong and reduces the risk of osteoporosis and hip fractures. What’s more, regular exercise has been linked to better sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, and a lower risk of depression.

If all of those health benefits don’t get you out of your seat, there’s another finding, and it’s sobering: A 2018 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that about 10 percent of all deaths among 40- to 70-year-old Americans were due to inadequate physical activity.

Exercise: what kind, how long?

How much exercise or physical activity do you really need for health benefits? Here’s what the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends:

Move more, sit less. Everyone (even regular exercisers) should find ways to infuse movement into their day. For example, park the car a little farther away or march in place during commercials when you’re watching TV.

Get your heart pumping. You can take your exercise routine to the next level by adding moderate-intensity aerobic activities. The guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to boost your health.
A simple way to tell if your pace is moderate: You can talk but won’t be able to sing the words to a song. Shoot for 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity to gain even more health benefits. You’ll know you’re exercising vigorously if you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Alternatively, you can do an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activities.

What counts? For moderate-intensity activities, things like walking briskly, doing water aerobics, or riding a bike on level ground fit the bill. Examples of vigorous-intensity activities include jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or on hills, or playing singles tennis or basketball.

Strengthen your muscles. Give your major muscle groups (chest, back, legs, core, and arms) a workout twice a week. Doing muscle-strengthening exercises can help increase or maintain your muscle mass and strength for daily
activities, such as hoisting your bag into an airplane’s overhead carrier, lifting your toddler, or going up and down stairs. As you age, doing muscle-strengthening exercises can slow the loss of bone density—a risk factor for osteoporosis. “A lot of women overlook muscle-fitness activities,” says Dr. Bushman, “but they are a key component of a complete exercise program.” The good news is you don’t need to go to a gym. Exercising at home with weights or exercise bands and doing push-ups count too.

If you’re not meeting these recommendations, you’re not alone. Data show that just 53 percent of adults aged 18 and over met the US guidelines for aerobic physical activity, and less than 25 percent met the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. Data from a 2018 study also show that African American women were 20 percent less likely than white women to engage in active physical activity. “One reason is that we don’t see ourselves represented in the fitness world,” says Samuels. But that’s changing. Like Beale, a growing number of African American women are entering the exercise arena. And many are influencers like Samuels, who are determined to change the narrative that says Black women don’t exercise.

Ready, go!

So, what’s the best way to get started on—and stick with—a fitness program? These tips can help:

Set realistic goals. If you’ve been sedentary or haven’t been a regular exerciser, start low and go slow. Increase physical activity gradually over time to meet recommended guidelines. “Small bouts of movement can equal great gains over time, and that is a great place to start a health journey,” says Dr. Bushman.

Choose an activity you enjoy. As the mother of toddlers, Beale is always on the move, but to kick her fitness routine up a notch, she added a kickboxing class to her schedule. Kickboxing offers a good all-around workout that increases aerobic fitness and strengthens muscles.

Not ready for kickboxing? Try one of these activities instead:

Walking. Of all the ways to get fit, walking is the easiest. Walking briskly gives you a good aerobic workout, helping strengthen your bones and muscles. Other benefits include increased energy levels, improved mood and memory, and better sleep.

But do you really need to walk 10,000 steps to get the health benefits? A growing body of evidence says maybe not. For example, a 2019 study of women in their 60s and 70s showed that significant health benefits started at 4,400 steps daily and leveled off at 7,500 steps.

Similarly, a 2021 study found that walking at least 7,000 steps a day reduced middle-aged adults’ risk of premature death from all causes by 50 to 70 percent, compared to those who took fewer daily steps. Walking more than 10,000 steps daily did not reduce the risk any further.

Yoga and Tai Chi. These low-impact activities can help improve your balance, flexibility, and core strength.

Zumba. If you’re looking for a workout and love to dance, Zumba might be right for you. In addition to providing a high-energy aerobic workout, it also helps strengthen core muscles and improve flexibility.

Exercise with a buddy. Exercising with a friend or family member can motivate you to stick to your plan because you’ve made a commitment to someone other than yourself. Your exercise partners can also encourage you and hold you accountable if you try to cancel or quit.

Find the right fit. “Look for a gym or class that isn’t intimidating. Ideally, there will be trainers of all sizes and shapes,” says Samuels. “It should also be a place where you feel respected—there’s no body shaming and the focus is not on weight loss.”

Exercise for the joy of it. You’re more likely to stick to your physical activity plan if it doesn’t feel like a chore. “Focus on movement for the joy of it,” says Samuels. “I’m moving because it lifts my mood and I feel better.” DW


Beverly Lucas is a freelance writer in New Jersey.



The Rundown on Fitness Trackers

Want to stay on top of how much you’re moving? Consider using a fitness tracker. These devices monitor your steps and most have additional features, like tracking your heart rate and pulse and how many calories you’ve burned. But before you buy, answer these key questions:

  • What features do I want? A variety of features are available, such as GPS, sleep tracking, and the ability to interact with third-party apps.
  • How accurate is it? According to Wirecutter, an independent product recommendation service from the New York Times, “Many wrist-worn fitness trackers inflate all-day step counts, in part because they count certain arm movements as ‘steps.’”
  • Is it easy to use?
  • What’s the battery life?
  • How much does it cost?

Bottom Line: Do your research and consider your needs and goals before you buy.

— BL

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