"The beauty of a fitness program," says personal trainer Jennifer Sharpe, "is that you can tailor it to suit both your lifestyle and your riding goals." Sharpe, a Northern California horse enthusiast, helps equestrians of all disciplines develop the strength, coordination, and endurance they need to ride their best. Here she provides some tips for designing a fitness regimen that'll work best for you.
Ideally, a fitness program has four components:
- Aerobic exercise, which places a demand on your cardiorespiratory system by working the large muscles of your legs and buttocks continuously for 20-30 minutes or more at a time. "This is what we typically call the 'cardio' component of a workout," says Sharpe. Examples include brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, aerobic dancing, or using one of the popular "cardio machines," such as a stationary bicycle, stair climber, treadmill, or rowing or cross-country-skiing device. Ideally performed 2-3 times per week, cardio work strengthens your heart and lungs, burns calories, and builds your endurance.
- Strength training, which tones and develops muscle tissue by asking it to contract against a resistance (usually a weight). Basic weight-lifting programs can be done at home or at a gym, using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or machines. "Lifting your own body weight, as in push-ups or abdominal crunches, is also strength training," notes Sharpe. Ideally performed 2-3 times per week, resistance training does more than increase your strength--it also improves your muscle control and coordination, fights fatigue, and revs your metabolism (causing you to burn more calories at rest).
- Flexibility work, which stretches your various muscle groups through their full range of motion. "Stretching is best done right after your cardio or strength work, when your muscles are thoroughly warmed up," notes Sharpe. There are also entire programs, such as yoga, that focus on flexibility work. In addition to making you more graceful and limber, stretching enhances your ability to relax and helps protect your muscles, tendons, and ligaments by reducing their susceptibility to pulls, tears, and stress injuries.
- Proper nutrition, which provides your body with just the right amount of the high-quality fuel it needs to perform at its best. Theories on how best to eat abound, but the smartest advice is the simplest: Eat anything you like in moderation, emphasizing foods that are low in saturated fat and high in complex carbohydrates, especially fruits and vegetables. Eat only when you're truly hungry, savor your food, and stop eating when you're satisfied--not full. "It comes down to common sense," says Sharpe. "Basically, it's two cookies instead of five. If you can turn that thinking into a pattern, you've got it made."
The most helpful advice for starting a fitness program is, as the Nike ads say, just do it. "Start sqeezing some exercise into your daily routine today, and work the details out as you go along," recommends Sharpe. Also:
- Go easy. "Set realistic short-term goals," she adds. "That way, you motivate yourself with success, and avoid injuries and burn-out."
- Get help. Especially if you want to lift weights, find a professional to help you design your program, at least. Refer to the story above titled "Fast Track to Fitness" for suggestions on how to find a personal trainer.
- Make it fun. Experiment with different forms of exercise until you find something you genuinely enjoy. If you're the sociable type, working out at a gym or attending aerobics classes may be just the ticket. If you're a loner, working out at home with cardio machines and free weights may suit you best. Walking, running and cycling are terrific activities that can be done solo or in groups, as you prefer.
- Be flexible--and creative. Avoid rigidity. Take each day as it comes, and if you miss a workout or two, just get back on track as quickly as you can. Being flexible also means being able to substitute one form of exercise for another at need. If rain keeps you from jogging, grab a jumprope. If travel takes you away from your regular gym, use the hotel's gym, jog in place in your room, or use the stairwell. "Exercise your creativity as well as your muscles," says Sharpe.
- Keep going. Make a commitment and resolve not to quit. If you must stop for awhile, just start again. If you find you hate your rowing machine, trade it in for a bicycle. If time shortages overwhelm you, cut back on your total workout time--but don't give up. "If you persist," says Sharpe, "you'll get hooked on the benefits fitness provides. Then you'll be set for life."
There's a wealth of information and assistance available to jump-start your fitness program:
- Personal trainers. Call the American Council on Exercise at 1-800-825-3636 for the names of ACE-certified trainers in your ZIP code. Or you can ask at your local health club, or check out the fitness classes offered through your local community college. Be sure to ask about credentials. Our featured expert, Jennifer Sharpe, offers clinics and workouts by appointment; contact her at her studio at 242 Inverness Ct., Alameda, CA 94502; (510)-523-4833; firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Equestrian programs. Comprehensive courses like Barbra Schulte's Mentally Tough Riding include fitness components specially tailored for equestrians. Contact Mentally Tough Riding, 2000 South Market St., Suite 219, Brenham, TX 77833; (800) 737-1070 or (409) 277-9344; barbraschulte.com.
- Magazines. Check the nearest newsstand for an array of health and fitness publications, including Eating Well, Living Fit, Muscle & Fitness, Men's Health, Shape and Shape Cooks.
- Books. Go to your library or bookstore, search for fitness titles at Amazon.com, or check out HorseBooksEtc.com's rider fitness books. Some to consider: Better Riding Through Exercise, a Threshold Picture Guide, by Linda Pearce (The Kenilworth Press Limited, 1999); Fit for Riding, by Eckart Meyners (Half Halt Press, Inc., 1992); Fitness for Dummies and Weight Training for Dummies, by Suzanne Schlosberg (IDG Books Worldwide Inc., 1996 and 1997).
- Videos. "The Complete Guide to Exercise Videos" catalog (available free by calling 1-800-790-1114) is a comprehensive listing of fitness titles featuring aerobic workouts, weight training, flexibility work, and combinations of the three.
- Equipment. Find used equipment (cardio machines of every type, weights, weight benches, etc.) for sale in your local newspaper's classified section, or check at used equipment retail outlets such as Play It Again Sports, where used dumbbells are available for pennies per pound.
From Horse & Rider magazine.