By Rachel Welch
Sluggish, worn out, or fatigued? Have you exercised recently? This might seem like a silly question for someone who is tired. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that exercise, (the last thing you want to do when you are tired), might be the best way to boost your energy! That’s right - we are going to explore the relationship between fitness and fatigue.
Fitness is defined as the condition of being physically fit and healthy (1). It is important to clarify what this means because society would have you believe that fitness is only achieved alongside visual (and unrealistic) perfection. It is also important to note that fitness has a spectrum, and doesn’t exclusively mean intense gym workouts.
Physical fitness looks different for everyone and includes varying activities! Maybe the photoshopped models in magazines with personal trainers are fit in real life, but perhaps so is the elderly man in your neighborhood who walks every day. Despite society and the media's best attempt to have you believe otherwise, fitness has a multitude of different appearances! For the purpose of this article, we will not refer to weight as an indicator of fitness. Yet another overinflated societal pressure is that in order to be fit, a person must be skinny or thin. This is completely limiting, false, and is not supported by science. We all come in unique shapes and sizes, and it is important to remember that health and physical fitness look different for each of us!
Experts’ definitions of physical fitness focuses on medical factors, and typically will evaluate certain criteria:
● Cardiorespiratory Fitness: This is where the beloved (or hated, by some) “cardio” stems from. When you think of cardiorespiratory fitness, think heart-healthy and heart-racing! Cardiovascular health is best achieved by cardiovascular exercise, or exercise which gets your blood pumping, your heart rate up, and the sweat flowing. This form of fitness is determined by cardiorespiratory performance. This tells us how well the body provides fuel to the circulatory and respiratory systems during physical activity (2). For an activity to fall into the cardio category, it must lead to an elevated heart rate for an extended period of time.
Cardio fitness strengthens the heart, helps arteries grow stronger, and helps to deliver blood to muscles more effectively. In the long run, maintaining strong cardio fitness can help reduce your risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve mental performance, and more (3). If you want to build cardio exercise into your routine, you can run, jump rope, dance, walk briskly, hike, or go for a bike ride. However, it is important to build endurance with these activities gradually; start with lower levels of intensity and build up as you feel able to!
● Muscular Strength and Endurance: Muscular strength and endurance are other key indicators of physical fitness. Achieved through strength training exercises, muscular fitness is an important part of overall physical health. Consider that muscles run throughout your entire body, and essentially hold everything in place. Muscles work together with our bones, joints, and balance, and the stronger the muscles are, the stronger that everything else is!
Strength training exercises help strengthen the muscles themselves and also help your bone density. This reduces the risk of fractures and breaks. It also helps with joint flexibility, which can reduce the symptoms of arthritis, and allow for more fluid and comfortable movement. Muscular strength training is also a key component to balance. By strengthening your muscles, you boost their endurance and allow for better balance. This is helpful, particularly in older age, as better balance can reduce the risk of falls. When your muscles are strong, your balance can be stronger, too!
Strength training exercises that are popular include weight training with free weights or weight machines. You can also use resistance bands or no equipment and complete activities like squats, pushups, lunges, and step exercises (4).
● Flexibility: Flexibility is an often overlooked, but highly important element of physical fitness. Maybe you have heard the phrase, “you’re not getting old, you just need to stretch.” There is much to be said about the benefit that comes with healthy flexibility!
Improved flexibility reduces the likelihood that these previously mentioned exercises will lead to an injury. If your body is accustomed to being flexible, then it is less likely to “go crazy” when you try out a movement it isn’t used to. Flexibility allows the body to withstand more physical stress. It leads to better posture, balance, and improved physical performance overall.
Some low-impact and beneficial flexibility exercises include yoga and stretching. Even if you’re not into the yoga scene, you can easily work in a good stretch after a weight training session at the gym. Your muscles and overall fitness will reward you!
Fatigue: Chronic or Acute, and How Fitness May Beat It
Maybe you’re reading all of these fitness facts and thinking, “that’s all well and good, but I am too tired to do any of that!” If this is how you feel, you are not alone. Many people suffer from fatigue and general tiredness on a regular basis.
Fatigue is generally characterized as extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion. In recent years, fatigue has become more commonly observed as a present baseline for many individuals who deal with chronic fatigue syndrome. Acute fatigue is the version that generally dissipates after a period of rest. In other words, acute fatigue is temporary, whereas chronic fatigue may be difficult to shake. Often, individuals with chronic fatigue feel persistently exhausted, regardless of the amount of rest or activity (6).
Chronic fatigue can range in levels of severity and has the potential to be quite impactful on one’s quality of life. While there is no official treatment for chronic fatigue at this time, there is research to support the positive impact of exercise.
Fitness: The Key to Fighting Fatigue?
A study completed in 2008 found that “Sedentary people who regularly complain of fatigue can increase their energy levels by 20 percent and decrease their fatigue by 65 percent by engaging in regular, low-intensity exercise.” They found that the participants who engaged in low-intensity exercise yielded just as much benefit as the participants who engaged in more aerobic/intense exercise (5). This is great news because it means that your unique, preferred style of exercise is just as impactful as the next person’s! To help fight your fatigue, you don’t have to engage in intense exercise! Low-intensity exercise, like walking, stretching, swimming, etc. is all that it takes to make a positive impact. If it’s your style to become a weight-lifting, marathon-running champion, then go for it! But if you want a chill day, or prefer a slower pace of exercise, you can help your fatigue with even a short and peaceful walk each day. Even a low-intensity exercise, like walking, stretching, swimming, etc. is all that it takes to make a positive impact.
Now, armed with the knowledge that fitness fights fatigue, the choice is yours as to what form of fitness you will choose! Going back to our previous categories of fitness, here are some exercise recommendations that can help get you started.
Remember, the key to cardio is your heartbeat! If the exercise leads to a sustained, increased heart rate, you will gain cardio benefits. Some popular options are:
● Brisk walking (or “power walking”)
● Playing tennis
● Jumping rope
● Interval training
Remember to take it slow when starting a new exercise and be patient as you gradually acclimate your body to new levels of intensity. You don’t have to walk or run a full mile immediately to help your heart health! Even short exercises are better than none!
Muscular Strength and Endurance
Keep in mind that strength is built in various ways, and you don’t have to go to the gym to accomplish strength training. Here are some workouts in and out of the gym that can help get your muscles into tip-top, fatigue-fighting shape!
● Pull ups
● Push ups
● Walking lunges
● Tricep extensions
● Bicep curls
If you’re new to these, there is an abundance of resources online including videos to walk you through each one step-by-step! Just like with cardiovascular exercises, you’ll want to start slowly and gradually increase intensity. For strength training, focus first on form to avoid injury. Then, focus on increasing the weights you use, the time you exercise, and the overall intensity.
The ever-important flexibility! This is what brings all of the rest of our exercises together. Flexibility makes everything easier, and less uncomfortable. Some key exercises to target flexibility include:
There are different kinds of stretches to target different areas of the body. To get started, look into and try some of these!
· Standing hamstring stretch
· Lunge with spinal twist
· Triceps stretch
· Figure 4 stretch
· Frog stretch
· Butterfly stretch
Yoga is a specialized practice/form of exercise that revolves around movements that also provide stretching and flexibility benefits. Certain types of yoga may involve spiritual practices, pair with meditation, or just focus on the movements themselves. There are lots of types of yoga to explore and try! To get started on your yoga practice, I encourage you to research the various kinds and find what suits your goals!
There are four main paths of yoga. These include Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.
Within these four paths, there are eight popular styles. These are Ashtanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Hot Yoga, Lyengar Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Power Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga. Among these, the most popular in western civilization is Hatha Yoga. This is a series of gentle stretching sequences and poses, paired with meditation. If you have never tried yoga before, and want a nice introduction, Hatha Yoga is a great place to start!
In addition to yoga’s ability to help with your flexibility (and fatigue), it also improves metabolism, helps relieve stress, aids in weight loss, reduces lower back pain, and improves sleep quality (7).
Fitness and Fatigue: Finale
If you experience fatigue frequently, or even chronically, consider how often you exercise. With better fitness comes less fatigue, and there is no particular roadmap that you have to follow to gain this benefit. Fast or slow, intense or mild, any exercise is better than nothing, and all exercise will help with your energy levels.
Hopefully, you now have a few new ideas to carry with you into your fitness journey! Whether you choose to focus on cardiovascular exercise, or strength training, stretching, or yoga, you can feel confident that all of them will benefit you! With a boost to physical fitness, comes a lessening of fatigue, and that helps us mentally feel better. The relationship between fitness and fatigue is one to nourish and care for.
The effort to exercise is worth it, and so are you!