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Tailor Your Routine to Match Your Fitness Goal

Any exercise is fine as long as you're moving, right? That's true if you just want to maintain basic fitness. But if you have a goal in mind, whether it's to prevent heart disease or burn more calories, all exercise is not created equal. Instead of just working out, you can work smart with an exercise regimen that helps achieve your goals more efficiently.

Here are a half-dozen workouts, based on the latest fitness research, to help with six common exercise goals:

Prevent heart disease

Regular aerobic exercise should be part of any regimen, but that doesn't mean you have to work hard all the time. Kuopio Research Institute of Exercise Medicine and the University of Kuopio in Finland report that low-intensity exercise can lower men's risk of developing heart disease by reducing levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is associated with the condition.

"Regular, low-intensity physical exercise, such as walking four to five times a week, reduced blood level of CRP and improved the function of cells lining blood vessels, " says Rainer Raurama, M.D. "This was especially true in men who are genetically susceptible to cardiovascular disease."

Researchers followed 138 men for five years. One group was assigned to exercise, while the others had the choice of whether or not to work out. Men in the exercise group had a 16 percent reduction in CRP, compared to a paltry 2 percent reduction among the other men. Exercise was even better for men who carried a gene that made them particularly vulnerable to heart disease. Those who worked out had a 49 percent reduction in CRP.

"In practical terms, the exercise level corresponded to brisk walking," says Raurama. "Our recommendation was to exercise four to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. In some societies, this might not even be considered a moderate level of exercise."

Improve your mood

If you don't want to exercise to improve physical health, consider what it can do for your mood. Regular exercise can be an effective antidote for depression. Studies at Duke University Medical Center have found just 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week can be just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression - even in the long term. After 10 months, 8 percent of patients assigned to an exercise group had their symptoms return, compared to 38 percent in a drug-only group and 31 percent in an exercise-plus-drug group.

Exercise created a positive cycle for patients - the more they worked out, the better they felt. For each 50-minute workout session, there was a corresponding 50 percent reduction in the risk of relapse.

A study from Northern Arizona University found short bouts of exercise can buoy anyone's mood. Cheryl J. Hansen worked with female college students, who exercised once a week for four weeks. The students pedaled on a stationary bike for 10, 20 or 30 minutes at a moderate pace. Ten minutes of pedaling was all that was needed to improve overall mood, increase vigor and banish fatigue. In fact, pedaling longer didn't offer additional mood benefits.

Burn calories

Regular moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise is a good start if you want to burn calories. Add resistance training, and you'll do even better. Pumping iron burns calories for up to two hours after the workout, according to a study from Johns Hopkins and Arizona State University. Researchers say adding weight training to a workout program could be especially helpful for women.

"Women who want to lose weight typically do aerobic exercises to raise their heart rate, thinking that's how they can burn the most calories," says lead author Carol A. Binzen, M.D.,C.P.T. "To get the maximum benefit, women need a combination of cardiovascular workouts and resistance training. Resistance training could have a more lasting effect on metabolism than aerobic exercise. It burns fat and increases muscle mass."

While cardiovascular exercise, such as running or aerobics, burns more calories during the workout, it increases the body's metabolism for less than an hour afterward. Resistance training, however, elevates metabolism for up to two hours after the workout is over.

Women enjoy an added bonus: Weight-bearing exercise, including resistance training, helps build and maintain bone mass. That can help ward off osteoporosis in the golden years.

Women who participated in the study did three sets of 10 repetitions of chest press, shoulder press, leg extension, leg press, seated row, latisimus dorsi pull-down, biceps curl, triceps extension and abdominal crunches. Weight training can be done two to three times a week, with at least a day off in between workouts.

Keep pounds off

As any yo-yo dieter can tell you: losing weight is easy, keeping it off is difficult. That's because metabolic changes occur after dieting. The good news is, low-intensity exercise can keep your metabolism up and help keep the pounds off.

Study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands focused on obese men participating in a 10-week diet program. One group followed the diet only, while another participated in low-intensity exercise four times a week during the program and for two weeks afterward. Exercise sessions consisted of cycling, walking or water running at 40 percent of maximum aerobic capacity.

Both groups lost the same amount of weight. But two weeks after completing the diet, men in the diet-only group had metabolic rate that was lower than before they started to diet. The metabolism of men who exercised experienced no post-diet dip in metabolism.

Battle boredom

Variety is the spice of a lasting exercise program, say researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It gets monotonous if you're doing the same thing over and over," says Christopher Janelle, an assistant professor in UF's department of exercise and sport sciences.

"If you vary the routine, there's a significant increase in enjoyment that leads to greater adherence."

Janelle proved this when he divided 114 volunteers into three groups. One group varied their exercise; another followed the same exercise for each workout; and the third had no set schedule or regimen. By the end of the eight-week study, 52 participants had dropped out and one was disqualified.

"There were significantly fewer individuals in the variable group that dropped out. We also learned from their answers that they enjoyed it significantly more," Janelle says.

It's easy to inject variety into your schedule, he adds. "If you work out at home, you can go for a run one day, do aerobics in the house another day and do something else the third day. You can even try to vary who you work out with, or whether or not your work out alone. And if you choose to go to a gym, there's so much to do that you can pick whatever you want that day."

Maximize time

Too little time is a common excuse for skipping exercise. If you just want to maintain basic cardiovascular fitness, consider the general recommendation to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate activity daily. That doesn't mean you have to do it all at once. Studies have shown several 10-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day is enough to stay in minimal shape.

But if you want to improve your fitness, take a cue from elite athletes and incorporate interval training into your schedule. Essentially, all that means is varying the intensity of effort during the workout. Instead of jogging for 30 minutes at a steady pace, alternate bursts of higher-intensity running with recovery jogs. Just about any aerobic workout lends itself to interval training. It can be done during a neighborhood walk, a swim or on any type of cardiovascular equipment at the gym.

Interval workouts not only maximize limited time, but they can help exercisers burst through a fitness plateau.

"The IT program can benefit almost any healthy person, from beginners to world-class endurance athletes. In fact, most athletes you see participating in the Olympics or other major events use some form of interval training in their own workout programs," says Joseph Nitti, M.D., co-author of "The Interval Training Program: Build Muscle and Burn Fat With Anaerobic Exercise" (Hunter House). "That's not bad company to be in."


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