Exercise is an extremely beneficial lifestyle implement for a variety of reasons. Not only does it increase bone density, build lean muscle tissue, and burn fat, but it also increases muscular strength, promotes cardiovascular health, and even improves mental health.
Ideally, exercise should be used as a proactive and preventative method for reducing the risk of early onset health conditions and diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Yet, it can also be just as effective as a reversal management and additional treatment strategy for medical conditions under the supervision of a health professional.
In what follows, we’ll be detailing the importance of exercise for cardiovascular health, sharing several exercise modalities and strategies for accomplishing just that. More specifically, we’ll discuss the importance of increasing heart rate during exercise and why monitoring heart rate is key for safe and effective exercise.
The prevalence of cardiovascular disease alone is profound, impacting nearly 83 million Americans annually; that’s upwards of 7% of the United States population ages 20 and above. Further, nearly 50% of all Americans live with at least one associated risk factor.
Comprising heart disease, stroke, and associated conditions, cardiovascular disease has several risk factors, signs, and symptoms, ranging in severity from mild to severe.
The leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and smoking. Of these most common causes, several are attributed to poor lifestyle decisions, inclusive of a poor diet and physical inactivity.
To combat the risk of heart disease and to improve overall heart health, then, establishing a regular and consistent exercise regimen in combination with a healthy diet is imperative.
The Importance of Exercise for Heart Health
It’s no surprise that exercise is a generally healthy practice, both for the heart and body. While many understand this as fact, not many understand why or how exercise is so beneficial on a physiological and biological level.
Through the act of intense exercise and physical activity, the muscles being used uptake oxygen from the blood. With increased exercise, these muscles will extract oxygen more efficiently from the blood, and this results in reduced need for additional blood to these muscles.
The reason that this is notable is that these exercise effects will eventually reduce overall heart rate and blood pressure. The exercise also reduces the release of stress hormones, thus further reducing the burden on the heart.
In order for exercise to truly be effective, however, effort and intensity are required in combination with commitment, dedication, and consistency. Similarly, there are superior ways to exercise, and these will be discussed next.
High-Intensity Interval Training
HIIT is a popular training methodology that utilizes high-intensity efforts in collaboration with short rest periods to elicit a unique stimulus shown to burn more calories in less time, requiring only 4-30 minutes of exercise to see results.
Withstanding its caloric expenditure benefits, high-intensity interval training is also incredibly beneficial to cardiovascular health, promoting weight loss, reduced stress levels, and improved blood biomarkers (heart rate and blood pressure) in the process.
Targeting no particular muscle during its implementation, HIIT results instead in a full body workout, helping build strength across all muscular tissue, including the most important muscle in the body; the heart!
Resistance Strength Training
Primarily accomplished through resistance training via weightlifting, strength training seeks to build lean muscle tissue through strategies such as hypertrophy, progressive overload, and time-under-tension to increase overall muscular strength ultimately.
While it’s important to build strength across the entirety of the body’s muscular tissue, focusing first on the largest muscles of the body (i.e., the legs) will produce the most immediate and noticeable results.
Contrary to popular belief, strength training isn’t only superior at building strength and size but also at burning fat as well. By increasing the intensity of each strength training session, more calories can be burned, more weight can be lost, and more strength can be gained. The ultimate outcome, then, is both a stronger and healthier body and, more importantly, a stronger and healthier heart.
Whether on a stationary bike or along the open road, cycling is a beloved cardiovascular activity, not only for its sheer enjoyment and effectiveness but because of its generally low-impact nature on both the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the body.
Increasing both strength, cardiovascular health, and overall fitness capacity, particularly of the legs, cycling is a markedly beneficial exercise.
Because it’s primarily a lower body workout, however, and with the option of “cruising” rather than giving 100% effort, it’s important to seek out cycling routes that involve intensity and difficulty to experience the true benefits. The most beneficial routes include higher elevations and hilly terrains.
Like cycling, swimming is a superior exercise modality for those seeking low-impact environments to reduce the risk of injury while increasing overall fitness capacity via strength building and cardiovascular improvements.
Again, similar to cycling, swimming can also be a leisure activity. It’s important, then, to seek out challenges via increasing duration, increasing intensity and effort, and implementing a variety of swimming techniques.
Contrary to popular belief, increasing heart rate is the single best way to improve overall cardiovascular health and strength, and swimming accomplishes this goal extremely well.
Monitor Heart Rate
While implementing a regular and effort-based exercise regimen is certainly the first and most effective step to improving heart health, it’s also important to monitor heart rate to ensure that safe and optimal levels are being reached.
Measuring heart rate not only gives insight into fitness capacity and current heart health status but also acts as a road map to achievement in a safe and optimal manner.
Ultimately, the goals of cardiovascular exercise should be to achieve a gradual increase in heart rate during exercise, achieve heart rate variability throughout the exercise, and eventually achieve a lower resting heart rate to promote overall heart health.
Back pain is among the most commonly endured injuries, with lower back pain defined as the most common musculoskeletal problem globally. Ranging from mild to severe, back pain has a lifetime prevalence rate of 65%.
With several ways to treat and manage back pain, it can be difficult to decipher which to pursue as a means of initial action. Whichever path is chosen, however, movement via exercise and stretching at some point of the process will be a necessary intervention to manage or prevent such pain and discomfort.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing all things back pain and how to prevent it from occurring in the first place. More specifically, we’ll be sharing insight into some of the most common causes of back pain, the most effective treatment and preventative exercises to combat back pain, and the importance of exercise and stretching for building back strength and resilience.
A main reason that back pain is among the most commonly endured injuries and the most common musculoskeletal complication globally is that it can occur in multiple scenarios and circumstances. Some examples of these scenarios include poor posture, obesity, inactivity, heavy lifting, overtraining, and subtle but sudden everyday movements.
The back is very vulnerable to injury. Even the simplest actions can trigger an inflammatory response in some area of the back. In addition, back pain can also develop from other physiological health conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis.
The problem that leads to most instances of back pain is a strain or sprain of the muscles, tendons, or ligaments of the back.
Because the back carries much of the body’s load and many neglect to strengthen the core musculature to support such a load, the back is often placed in compromised positions to get injured, resulting in back pain.
The Most Common Back Injuries
The most common back injuries occur in the muscles supporting the lumbar spine, the latissimus dorsi, and the rhomboids. The muscular injuries are strains and tears.
Injuries involving the spine include sprains of ligaments, herniated disks, and fractures of the vertebrae. A more specific condition that can occur in the cases of herniated disks is the condition of sciatica, which is when a bulging disk in the lumbar spine impinges the nerve root that exits the spinal cord and branches into the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs down the back of the leg, and the impingement caused by the disk at the spine “shoots” painful nerve impulses down the sciatic nerve.
The following is a summarized detail of the most commonly reported back injuries.
Sprains and Strains
Whether via heavy lifting or unnatural body movement, the muscles and ligaments of the back and spinal column can be sprained or strained. A back sprain or strain is excessive stretching or tearing of a ligament or muscle.
Herniated disks occur when the disk, which is the jelly-like soft tissue between the vertebrae that cushion the axial load of the spine, begins to bulge or rupture. The pain of herniated disks is the result of the pressure that it places on the adjacent nerve.
A vertebral fracture is a dislocation or break of the vertebral bone and is typically caused by a traumatic injury from sports, vehicular accidents, or significant falls. In most cases, this is not a preventable injury since it is accidental.
The best way to prevent or lessen the blow of a back injury is to strengthen the surrounding tissue to ensure that it’s the strongest, most prepared, and most resilient when an injury occurs.
The Best Exercises for Back Strengthening
The healthiest, most effective strategy to combat and prevent back injury and pain is through exercise and strength training that targets specifically the core and posterior chain.
Targeted exercises that avoid placing the back in a position of weakness decrease the risk of injury and are essential for preserving a healthy back.
Using this thought process, one might consider the option of resistance training versus free weights. The safer option is a machine that creates a controlled movement and trains the untrained body to perform any given movement correctly.
Further, a machine prevents the potential for traumatic events during exercise that could easily happen with free weights. These points should be considered when choosing the proper workout method for the back.
Below are some of the best exercises for strengthening back musculature, reducing the risk of back injury, and thus helping to prevent back pain.
Note that it should be understood that the following exercises are not to be utilized for an injured back. Instead, they should be used to strengthen the back to prevent injury.
Though not typically viewed as a back exercise, the plank seeks to work the entire core of the posterior chain. Since a weak core is often a primary contributor to the root causes of back pain and injury, strengthening it can help prevent injury and pain.
Another exercise not typically associated with the back, the squat, is an incredible compound lift that strengthens the lower extremity and the entirety of the posterior chain and helps reduce the risk of lower back pain. Whether air squats, barbell squats, goblet squats, or others, be sure to master the technique before adding weight to ensure injury prevention.
At first glance, the dead hang is a lazy man’s favorite stretch. Upon a deeper look, however, the dead hang is an incredible strategy for decompressing the spine, and lower back, releasing any tension that’s cause for concern when it comes to the onset of back pain. It also happens to train core stability, core strength, and back strength.
Plyometric exercises involve rapid, powerful movements that are explosive in nature. Though it’s important to isolate the back musculature so as to strengthen it and its surrounding areas, it’s also important to provide the spine with an environment of controlled instability. This will teach the spine to be resilient and respond to alterations of movement, thus reducing the risk of injury should a traumatic event or unusual movement occur.
In addition, general activities such as walking, swimming, water aerobics, and even yoga can act as an effective preventative or management method for back pain.
One of the most effective methods of back pain prevention, as noted in a meta-analysis of 25 major studies, is regular physical activity and exercise. Through the use of specific techniques to safely exercise the back, preventing injury and pain can be achieved.
No matter what type of activity, whether it’s a cardiovascular exercise like running or an anaerobic exercise like weightlifting, skeletal muscles are constantly being contracted.
Serving several purposes, muscle contractions are a necessary function of human movement, offering stability, postural support, and even body temperature regulation. Similarly, exercise, no matter the type, has the ability to aid in any fitness goal of choice, whether weight loss, strength, muscle gain, or otherwise.
When a muscle is overexerted during exercise, however, muscle contractions can result in injury or some type of temporary discomfort.
In what follows, we’ll be diving into the world of exercise, detailing the many things that happen during a given activity and how it can aid in any fitness goal of your choosing. More specifically, we’ll discuss what a muscle contraction is, what types of contractions there are, and what occurs when muscles are overexerted.
Defined by the shortening, lengthening, and tightening of a given muscle or muscles, a muscle contraction is the activation of tension-generating muscle cells triggered when a certain stimulus occurs.
The type of stimulus or action that triggers a contraction will determine what type of contraction occurs. Some examples of common actions that trigger a specific muscle contraction include a bicep curl, a squat, and a leg raise.
No matter the type, however, all different muscle contractions serve the same purpose. They move certain parts of the body and act to provide stability and maintain proper posture. In addition, muscle contractions will also serve the function of body temperature regulation.
Types of Muscle Contractions
There are three primary types of muscle contractions: Concentric Contraction, Eccentric Contraction, and Isometric Contraction. Though independent in their location and activity, certain muscle contractions often occur at the same time other muscles are contracting. Thus, a given movement will usually lead to multiple muscle contractions. Concentric contractions are when a muscle shortens and generates a force. Eccentric contractions describe a muscle that is lengthening and generating tension. Finally, isometric contractions occur when there is no change in length of the muscle. The different types of contractions occur based on the technique and location of the contracted muscle.
During a bicep curl, for example, there’s a concentric and eccentric contraction that occurs. In addition, depending on whether or not you decide to hold the weight in a position for a specified duration, there also may be an isometric contraction involved.
How a Muscle Contracts
The contracting portion of the muscle is otherwise known as the muscle fibers. The building blocks of the muscle fibers are proteins named actin and myosin, and when muscle contracts, these fibers either shorten and tighten or lengthen and loosen.
The cause of fiber contraction is a nervous system signal, otherwise known as an “action potential.” Through this nerve signal, the impulse reaches the end plate of the muscle and affects the muscle cells producing a contraction.
A muscle contraction is largely regulated by calcium. For those seeking to improve the efficiency of the action potential generated during a given contraction, it’s important to optimize calcium levels in the body through a healthy, nutritious, and well-rounded diet.
Muscle Spasms and Cramps
Otherwise known as muscle cramps or “Charley horses,” muscle spasms occur when the muscle involuntarily and forcefully contracts in an uncontrolled fashion. This occurs because the muscle is unable to relax due to muscle fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, or perhaps the reason is unknown.
Muscle spasms can involve the entirety of a muscle or simply a portion of it. In the most severe cases, a muscle spasm can occur in numerous muscles simultaneously.
The most common muscles that experience muscle spasms include the thighs, hands, arms, abdomen, and calves. Though extremely common, it’s best to make efforts to avoid muscle spasms by frequent stretching via warming up and cooling down, as well as regular hydration.
Common Goals of Exercise
Most individuals are interested in learning how exercise can help them attain a specific goal. Depending on which exercise or fitness methodology used, almost any given goal can be achieved. Whether it be athletic performance, weight loss, fat burning, strength gains, muscle building, or simply an overall improvement to your health, there is an efficient exercise that can be utilized that is best suited for the desired goal.
Someone seeking to lose weight and burn fat, for example, would likely seek out a cardiovascular-based exercise that produces high caloric expenditure. Similarly, someone seeking to build muscle will likely partake in a weight training exercise that maximizes muscle contraction and stimulus.
Once the goal and exercise have been decided, it’s important also to learn how to maximize efforts. An example of a key component of effort is intensity, which can be measured by perceived excursion or, more accurately, by heart rate.
It has been understood that an increase in heart rate translates greatly to an improvement in performance, ultimately improving the overall quality of the workout.
Exercise is a lifestyle component that should be part of any healthy lifestyle. Not only is it beneficial for performance and athletic improvements but for one’s general mental and physical health and well-being.
It’s important to understand the basic actions of exercise, such as muscle contractions, and learn how to improve efficiency of these contractions to achieve the goals of exercise.
For both athletes and non-athletes, hip flexors are among the most injured regions of the body. Unfortunately, they also happen to be among the most neglected muscle groups during exercise.
Yet, interestingly, the hip flexors play several vital roles in athletic performance and general day-to-day activities. Even though these muscles tend to be almost ignored, they maintain an important purpose in preventing other injuries and improving overall physiological health.
In what follows, we’ll define the hip flexor muscles, their roles in physiology and movement, and why they are so important to physiological health and performance. We’ll also touch on hip flexor injuries, their causes, and what can be done to treat these injuries and prevent them.
Defined as a group of synergistic muscles located toward the front of the hip, hip flexors primarily aid in the fluid movement and flexion of the hip and knee while also providing balance and posture to the pelvis.
Comprising several muscles, the hip flexors include five major muscle groups, otherwise known as prime movers and synergists for hip flexion. The two prime movers are the psoas and iliacus muscles, and the three synergists are the rectus femoris, pectineus, and sartorius muscles.
Extending through the pelvis all the way to the femur, the primary function of the psoas muscle is to contract during hip flexion, allowing the upper legs to lift towards to upper body.
Anatomically proximal to the psoas muscle, the iliacus muscle allows for muscle flexion and rotation of the femur. Its primary function is to aid in the postural alignment of the spine such that the entirety of the body maintains proper posture.
Performing two major functions of the quadriceps and hips, the rectus femoris runs down the entirety of the thigh and aids in the function of hip flexion and knee extension.
The rectus femoris is also the most commonly injured hip flexor muscle, responsible for over half of all hip flexor injuries.
The pectineus is located in the inner thigh and primarily promotes general balance and spinal alignment for postural purposes. Its main function as a hip flexor muscle is to aid in the adduction of the thigh.
Notably, the longest muscle in the body spanning through the hip and knee joints, the sartorius, too, functions as a hip flexor while also allowing for external rotation of the leg and adduction of the thigh.
Hip Flexor Injuries
Like most injuries, hip flexor injuries can range from mild to severe and will be more likely with specific activities or sports. The hip flexors are often the easiest regions of the body to injure, especially in kicking sports.
At its most mild, hip flexor issues can occur secondary to long days spent sitting, which leads to general stiffness and tightness throughout these muscles. At its most severe, however, hip flexor injuries can be the result of traumatic events in competitive sport or from general overuse in certain activities, ultimately causing strains, tears, tendon injury, or bursitis.
The most common symptoms involved with hip flexor injuries include groin pain, hip pain, and back pain, as well as swelling in the area of the injury.
While prevention is the best medicine, physiotherapy is an excellent solution for those who’ve already suffered such an injury.
During such a regimen, a physiotherapist is likely to initiate the treatment with a knee and hip assessment to understand its existing mechanics and identify where to improve, whether via mobility exercises, strength exercises, or both. Other types of physiotherapy can include soft tissue mobilization, electrotherapy, or cryotherapy.
Other potential hip flexor injury treatment regimens may include over-the-counter medication, home remedies such as contrast therapy, and stretching. With some injuries, surgery to repair the injury may be necessary.
The Importance of Hip Flexors
Evident in the particular location of these muscles, the hip flexors are of primary importance in the natural movement and flexion of the hip and knee while also providing balance, stability, and steady posture throughout.
Similar to that of the core, the hip flexors, when fully functioning, work to protect the lower back and spine from injury. A clear method to avoid lower back pain is to avoid hip flexor injuries.
Critical elements of the simple acts of walking, running, bending, and squatting, the hip flexors allow for optimal physiological function in everyday life, not to mention elite athletic performance.
It’s important to maintain good function of the hip flexors for normal activities. In addition, if you want to improve your health with exercise, improving optimal function of the hip flexors will improve overall efficiency of any exercise and help prevent many injuries.
Among the most common causes of preventable injuries and poor posture, hip flexor injuries, too, can be prevented. This can be accomplished through diligent and proactive preventative exercises that target hip mobility, knee flexion, and overall hip strength.
The importance of strong and mobile hip flexors, then, can’t be denied and must be prioritized, both for longevity purposes and athletic performance purposes.
During and after exercise, whether leisurely or intense, the muscle undergoes a disruption that consists of muscular tears and cell activation. Through the maturation and growth processes, such muscle damage begins to repair, ultimately developing into larger, stronger, and more resilient muscles.
However, this maturation and growth process is only optimized when proper recovery techniques are implemented before, during, and after a given exercise period.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing the best ways to improve and optimize recovery times from exercise. Though similar in its tactics, we’ll also share a few effective strategies for managing delayed onset muscle soreness.
How to Improve Muscle Recovery Time
With several tools, tips, and tactics available to deal with muscle soreness and improve recovery time, it’s important to choose and prioritize efficient methods. This is much better than randomly choosing any method and expecting the same outcome of optimized recovery time.
While some of the following tips might seem simple, it’s clear that the implementation of these tips will help the process of recovery.
Hydration doesn’t just comprise water consumption but also sodium and electrolytes. Contrary to popular belief, water alone won’t optimize hydration. Instead, the body requires a certain level of sodium to retain the water being consumed throughout each day.
Ensuring adequate hydration will result in the promotion of peak performance, joint lubrication, injury prevention, and, ultimately, recovery time optimization.
Primarily consumed as a means of energy prior to a given workout, carbohydrates also work to restore glycogen levels following a workout so as to recharge energy stores.
Thus, in order to optimize for performance and recovery, carbohydrate consumption pre-workout and post-workout should be included. Pre-workout consumption helps performance, and post-workout consumption helps recovery.
Often referred to as the building blocks of life, protein has several important roles, both for physical and athletic performance as well as overall health and well-being. Regarding exercise, protein aids primarily in muscular recovery and repair.
Protein consumption promotes muscular recovery and acts as a defense against muscle soreness from exercise while providing the necessary energy and physiological requirements for peak performance.
While everyone’s nutritional demands are different, based on age, activity level, height, weight, and sex, the most active individuals should consume upwards of 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Managing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
The amount of soreness experienced after exercise depends on several factors, such as exercise intensity, duration, recovery or lack thereof, and experience level of the individual. There is, however, an amount of soreness to be expected from physical activity.
Although soreness can be a sign of overtraining, it may also be a sign of muscular growth, repair, and progress. As such, it’s important to learn how to listen to your body, understanding when it’s time to rest and when it’s time to continue.
Movement is also a great recovery management technique because it promotes blood flow, circulation, mobility, and thus recovery. Below are three tips for managing delayed onset muscle soreness and fatigue from exercise.
Follow a Stretching Regimen
Mobility and flexibility are critical for overall health, wellness, and performance. To ensure that the muscles and joints move fluidly, without pain, and without limitation from muscular soreness, it’s important to stretch consistently.
Though it doesn’t need to be complex, stretching is an imperative part of living an active lifestyle. To reduce or prevent muscle soreness from exercise, it’s important to warm up dynamically pre-workout, stretch intermittently during the workout, and statically cool down post-workout.
Use Contrast Therapy
Otherwise referred to as hot & cold therapy, contrast therapy is an effective recovery tool, particularly for its ability to reduce, manage, and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness.
Contrast therapy, which is often the method of taking a sauna followed by a cold plunge, has shown to provide several health benefits. In addition, contrast therapy is very effective in promoting muscle recovery, reducing soreness, and improving future performance.
Rest and Recover
While it’s important to learn to listen to your body and follow the advice of your own coach or trainer, rest and recovery are essential components of any active lifestyle.
The most effective method follows a multifaceted approach comprised of scheduled rest days and active recovery days. These active recovery days include low-intensity, leisurely physical activity such that the period doesn’t comprise complete inactivity.
Finally, sleep is not to be ignored, and it can be argued that it is the most effective tool for recovery and soreness prevention.
There are also some alternative strategies for recovery and soreness management, including massage therapy and other techniques such as acupuncture, and these can be investigated and considered by each individual.
Regular exercise that includes proper recovery techniques is the most efficient. A recovery regimen is the best way to prevent future injury, improve performance, speed up recovery times, and manage muscle soreness from exercise.