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How to Take Your Fitness Up a Notch

3 things to try to get more out of your workout — whatever your starting point

two women walking with weights in their hands

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En español | Maybe you’ve been sedentary for months or have held off on exercise because of the pain in your knees. Or maybe you walk most days of the week but want to up your game a little and tone your arms, too. We’ve gathered tips from fitness gurus on how to beef up your fitness regimen, whether you’re starting from ground zero or seeking some targeted intensity.

Three things to try if you’ve been sedentary

Just walk. Keep it simple initially. Go outside, set a timer for three to five minutes, and when the alarm goes off, head back, says Damien Joyner, a certified personal trainer in San Diego and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. After a couple of weeks, add a few more minutes. Also, sneak in bits of activity, such as parking at the far end of the lot when you run errands. Experts say these little bits add up and enhance your fitness.

Do some gardening. “People underestimate how much exercise this really is,” Joyner observes. A 140-pound woman who gardens for 30 minutes burns off 159 calories. And some research indicates that working the soil not only lowers BMI but also reduces depression and anxiety.

woman doing a pushup off of a brick wall outside

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Try a wall-assisted workout. You can do push-ups or squats against the wall or use it for stability while you march in place or kick a leg out to the side. “If you know the wall is there, it gives you security and allows you to brace yourself, so you’re not placing the full load on your upper or lower body,” says Len Glassman, a certified personal trainer in Garwood, New Jersey, who works frequently with older clients.

Three exercises to try if you’ve got achy knees

Straight-leg raises. These help strengthen the muscles around your knee area to support the joint itself, explains Pamela Peeke, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Fit to Live. Lie flat with one knee bent, one leg straight, and raise your straightened leg off the floor. Slowly lift your leg, keeping your knee straight. Lower it; repeat several times with each leg.

Pelvic lift. This is traditionally considered an abdominal exercise, but it requires you to bend your knees, which can help increase the joints’ range of motion, Glassman says. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Flatten your back against the floor and bend your pelvis up slightly. Hold for up to 10 seconds; repeat.

Downward-Facing Dog. This classic yoga move strengthens your whole body without putting too much strain on your knees, Peeke says. Place your hands and knees on the floor. Raise your hips high and keep your arms straight, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Keep your head down and look at the floor. Hold for as long as it seems comfortable.

Three things to try if you’re walking but skipping weights

Lift your arms during your walk. Raising your arms overhead or extending them to your side or front immediately elevates your heart rate and engages your core, Glassman says. If you feel too self-conscious to do that while you walk around the neighborhood, then grip a towel while walking. “If you pull it, you’ll encounter some resistance, which is a great way to ramp up walking.”

Take side steps. You can also boost your walking workout by adding variation. Take three steps to your left, then three to your right, for instance. This helps increase your agility. To make it harder, use a resistance band with your side steps.

Walk with weights. Research shows that people who use 1- to 3-pound hand or wrist weights during aerobic activities like walking burn up to 15 percent more calories than those who don’t. But keep them light, since walking with heavier weights can put stress on your arm and shoulder muscles as well as your wrist and elbow joints. Ideally, try to set your own little workout trail, where you stop at specific points — say, a tree stump — to work in things like box squats, Peeke advises.

Three classes to mix things up

Latin dancing. Breaking out your salsa moves can boost both your heart and brain. “It makes you think quickly on your feet, and it’s fun and exciting,” Glassman says. To wit: Older adults who took an hourlong Latin-dance class twice a week for four months were able to move about 30 seconds faster on a 400-meter walk than those who just enrolled in a health education program, according to a 2016 study published by the American Heart Association.

Physio ball training classes. You know those big bouncy balls you see at your gym? They’re fun, and they’re actually great for older adults. A  study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that older adults could significantly improve muscle activity in their back, stomach and thighs by working with a stability ball for 20 minutes five times a week for eight weeks. The ball forces your body to “use both fast and slow twitch muscles, which are both important for balance and strength,” Glassman explains.

Aqua classes. “People underestimate how challenging these classes can be, but they focus on strength and conditioning, with little to no impact,” Joyner says. A 2018 study published in the medical journal PLOS Onefor example, found that seniors who performed water aerobics twice a week for 12 weeks showed gains in upper-body strength, lost fat mass and lowered their blood pressure.

3 Ways to Add in HIIT

Want to add high-intensity interval training into your workout but a little nervous to start? Don’t be. Research from the Mayo Clinic showed that adults older than 65 who did HIIT-style workouts for 12 weeks were able to reverse some of the age-related deterioration of their muscle cells. Here are three easy ways to get started.

Mimic certain HIIT exercises. You can ease your toe into HIIT by modifying certain high-intensity exercises so that you don’t leave the ground. Glassman recommends doing jumping-jack movements with just your arms and a knee bend, for example, or mountain climbers on an incline. From there, try throwing in a few real jumping jacks, followed by several modified ones.

Alternate between fast and slow pedaling on the stationary bike. Go all out for 20 seconds, then drop to a more moderate pace for 40. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Cardiology found that people with heart disease who did similar intervals on a treadmill improved how quickly their heart rates slowed to normal after exercise.

Add intervals to your walking workout. You can either walk faster or simply walk up hills, Peeke says. Another 2017 study, published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Review, found that walkers who alternated between three minutes of fast walking and three minutes of slow walking for 30 minutes at least four days a week improved their aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood pressure.

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