Regardless of their weight, fit people live longer, according to recent research from the American Medical Association. Yet we’re falling short of the fitness levels recommended in the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living, with only one-third of us getting enough exercise daily. So come on, Canada! Stop putting it off—and follow these fitness rules from Vancouver’s Geoff Bagshaw, a Can-Fit Pro-certified trainer who has been helping people get fit for 24 years. (Of course, check with your doctor before starting a fitness regimen.)
Fitness rule #1: Keep hydrated
Hydration affects energy levels and is essential to your workout performance. Why? Proper hydration regulates body temperature and heart rate. In one hour of exercise, you could lose more than a quart (1 L) of water, depending on exercise intensity and air temperature. Without enough water for the body to cool itself through perspiration, you could become dehydrated—you’ll lose energy, and your muscles may cramp.
The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking one cup (250 mL) of water 20 to 30 minutes before exercising. (Tip: If you work out first thing in the morning, keep a glass of water on your bedside table and drink it when the alarm goes off.) For every 15 minutes of exercise, drink an extra cup of fluids. The harder your workout, the more fluids you’ll need. Hydrate afterward to replenish the body, ideally having another cup of water within 30 minutes.
As for sports drinks, says Bagshaw, if you’re on a weight-loss program, the calories make your workout almost redundant. “They may help replace electrolytes if you’re exercising for a few hours, but most gym-goers don’t need them.”
Fitness rule #2: Eat before—and after
“Think of your body as a furnace,” says Bagshaw. “If you start by throwing on big logs, it might not burn as well as if you put in small amounts regularly. We want to keep our metabolism stoked all the time.”
Before your workout, have protein and slow-burning carbohydrates together, such as a piece of whole-grain toast with peanut butter. Ideally, you’ll eat one to two hours before a workout, but if you work out first thing in the morning, grab at least a glass of juice first. Don’t work out on an empty stomach.
Afterward, refuel quickly. “Research suggests there is a 30-minute window post-workout when you want to consume a certain amount of carbohydrates and protein to fuel muscle growth,” says Bagshaw. (For more on protein, see Fitness Rule #7.) Have a snack, and then within an hour or two, a larger meal.
Fitness rule #3: Do your cardio
Oh, the excuses: I hate cardio! I can’t do cardio! Bagshaw has heard them all. But you should aim to do cardio training three to five times a week for 30-60 minutes each time—and you have to get your heart rate up. “We used to talk about a ‘fat-burning zone’ but today the consensus is to work out as hard and as long as you can; you’ll burn more calories overall.”
Fitness pros like Bagshaw determine intensity with the Borg Scale, which is based on your own perceived exertion and uses a scale of 20. Research states you should be exercising at an intensity between “fairly light” (10) to “somewhat hard” (13). Some research has shown that exercising at high-intensity intervals can be beneficial as well, if you’re fit enough to handle it. Whatever you choose—an aerobics class or the treadmill—get sweating!
Fitness rule #4: Do weights
“As we age we lose muscle mass, and it is imperative to replace it,” says Bagshaw. He recommends you weight-train two or three times a week and target all major muscle groups.
One of the biggest motivations? Whether you’re using weights, resistance bands or your own body, having more muscle mass generally means you have a higher resting metabolic rate, so you’ll burn more calories even when you’re not working out. Beyond looking fitter and trimmer, you’ll shift your fat-to-muscle ratio. Resistance training can help you reduce fat mass (and abdominal mass), which is related to risk of cardiovascular disease.
Fitness rule #5: Change it up
You start going to the gym, you lose a little weight—and then, it seems, you stop making progress. This happens to hard-core gym addicts too, says Bagshaw. The solution? You need to add the “confusion principle” to your workout. “Your body adapts to what you do, so you should switch your program regularly. This can mean changing your entire regimen, or factors of it.” When weight-training, try upping repetitions or load. For cardio workouts, gradually increase duration and intensity. And if you always head for the treadmill, try the elliptical or the bike instead. A trainer can help keep your workout interesting.
Fitness rule #6: Stretch after your workout
Stretching is important for many reasons: It improves flexibility and circulation, may help prevent injury and helps relieve stress. While the start of a workout should involve light cardio to get muscles activated, you should never stretch muscles that aren’t thoroughly warmed up. So, stretch only at the end of your workout. Be attentive to problem areas—if you’re prone to back injury, for example, stretch out the hamstrings, which affect the lower back. The best thing about stretching, says Bagshaw, is that it feels good and is relaxing.
Fitness rule #7: Don’t forget protein
Protein is a major building block for muscle, and is broken down and used to fuel muscle recovery after your workout. “You actually get stronger after the workout,” says Bagshaw. While working out, you break down muscles, and rebuilding occurs in the recovery stage 24 to 36 hours later, which is why protein after a workout is essential.
If you’re working out regularly, try to get protein with every meal or snack. “It’s slow to digest, and will keep you full for longer,” says Bagshaw. But watch serving sizes: One portion of chicken, for example, should fit into your palm.
It’s important to get protein from a variety of plant and animal sources, but Bagshaw says supplementing with whey protein powder is a good idea for a quick fix. It scores high on the biological value scale (a rating used to determine how the body uses the nutrient) and is an easily digestible form of protein. “A fantastic re-builder after exercise is a whey shake with fruit.”