Most of us relish the vicarious thrill of a no holds barred nailbiter – the edge-of-the-seat heart-stoppers that sport’s best and most competitive players deliver in spades. Be it Wimbledon, the Open, the Ashes, the Tour de France or the whole bang shoot, spectators on the ground and watching on the box will be hooked in to rivers of athletic adrenaline.
Watching world-class play – the stars make it look easy, exciting, sexy – may spur some of us into giving this sporty thing a go, which is great as long as we don’t expect too much of ourselves at the start; set ourselves up for disappointment and there’s a good chance we’ll soon throw in the towel. Equally, watching athletes perform at the top of their game can serve as disheartening confirmation that we’re destined to remain forever seated in front of that TV or behind that desk – we’re just not cut out to move. But this is not so…
Can’t hit a ball? Can’t ride a bike? Doesn’t matter, no-one need sit on the sidelines. An active lifestyle brings immediate and long-term benefits, from improved resistance to injury and disease to quicker, clearer thinking and more positive self-esteem. Life is not a spectator sport, and neither does it have to be a competition – it’s the taking part in a healthy lifestyle that counts…
Anyone for cardio tennis?
Though many Wimbledon fans will play tennis, the vast majority will not be blessed with a 130-mph serve. To try cardio tennis you don’t even need to be able to hit a ball.
Brainchild of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), cardio tennis is the very thing for anyone, regardless of age or ability, who might like to use tennis as a fitness workout. One-hour, group fitness classes take place on court and fun and sociability are the name of the game.
The workout drills are designed to tone all the key muscle groups and you can expect to burn up to 600 calories per session. Each class is led by an instructor who takes the group though a 40-minute full body workout, book ended by a warm-up and cool-down period.
For example, a typical class might begin with dynamic stretches and drills to warm up the body and focus the mind. The cardio workout comprises two sections: the aerobic part mixes hitting a range of tennis shots with various fitness activities; the tennis part comprises a series of fun, group games (no-one ever plays one-on-one) putting the shots into practice. Classes end with a recover and stretch cool-down.
In England alone around 445,000 adults play tennis every week and the LTA hopes that the duel appeal of cardio fitness and tennis will entice many more people to pick up a racket: beginners can learn the shots, existing players can raise their game and everyone can improve their fitness in an enjoyable, non-threatening group situation.
In praise of golf
These days, golf’s big-hitters work out rigorously. While we don’t perhaps naturally associate golf with athleticism, today’s champions train hard: flexibility, coordination, strength, balance and concentration underpin every winning stroke. Such qualities underpin a healthy lifestyle, too.
As any golfer knows, playing eighteen holes (or even nine) is physically demanding. A 2009 study by Neil Wolkodoff, director of the Rose Centre for Health and Sports Sciences in Denver, Colorado, concluded that golfers who walk 36 holes a week will burn around 2,900 calories. There is evidence to suggest that people who burn 2,500 calories a week lower their risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Walk just nine holes carrying clubs or pulling a golf trolley and we can burn around 700 calories, even riding a buggy between playing holes burns around 400.
Good muscle tone, not bulk, is key to good golf and loosening up with some stretches before taking the first swing cuts the risk of muscle injury. The hunched stance over the ball alongside that rapid torso-twist and the muscle power employed in the swing and follow-through puts strain on neck, shoulder and lower back muscles; hamstring strain, too, is not uncommon.
Taking a leaf from the pros’ book and embarking on a rounded fitness programme not only guards against injury but it should, also, improve your game. Cardio training such as running or cycling, plus weights, help improve balance, control and endurance which together with core and flexibility training bring more power and accuracy to the swing.
But one needn’t train all-out to reap golf’s significant benefits to wellbeing. The fact that it’s a year-round sport guarantees year-round, fresh air and exercise – just walking the course delivers a health bonus. And – unless there’s a trophy or a huge purse at stake – golf is generally a sociable, relaxing affair with time between shots to talk and to admire the course and nature in general – all good, healthy reasons for the game’s popularity.
Leather on willow
The rules of the game are notoriously bamboozling; match commentary is legendary for its meanderings. Yes, it’s cricket!
In England and Wales only some 400 people play at county level but around 250,000 adults play club cricket and many more turn out in whites on the village green or local park. As for the rest of us, and disregarding the rule book’s complexities, who hasn’t invented a back garden version of the game.
If one had to choose a single best exercise for cricket it would be the lunge because it is, ‘a compound exercise movement; it works numerous muscle groups that are essential to repeatable and high quality cricket movements.’ The lunge ‘underpins virtually every movement that a cricketer will make during a game.’ Lunges develop coordination and stability, they strengthen our core muscles which helps improve balance and they also strengthen the glutes (buttocks) – good for posture, stamina and fielding skills.
Any form of home-spun cricket, no matter how chaotic, is an exercise in hand-eye coordination and ball handling skills. Making runs and racing to catch (or chase after) the ball means we benefit from plenty of running spurts intense enough to raise the heart rate and exercise those lungs. Any old ball, a makeshift wicket, driftwood bat and two creases drawn in the sand will provide a healthy, energising workout for all.
The wheels on the bike go round and round
In one of the sport’s most popular events, the Tour de France, cyclists will cover a total distance of 3,500 km and 21 stages: 7 flat stages, 5 hilly, 6 mountain stages with 4 summit finishes, 2 individual time trial stages and 1 team time trial. From the start until they cross the finish line on there are just two rest days.
Britain’s success in the sport has inspired some of us to hop on our bikes and Sport England is investing n cycling at all levels, including traffic-free cycling centres to make easier and safer for all. Mountain biking, track, BMX, cyclo-cross, commuting by bike – indeed, peddling of any nature, at any speed, anywhere is a terrifically healthy lifestyle activity.
An article in New Scientist last August, headlined ‘Encourage everyday exercise, not sporting elites’, notes that many of us are put off exercising because of, among other things, pressure of time coupled with the notion that improving our fitness relies on ‘organised’ programmes – at gyms, clubs and so on. Aiming to mesh physical activity into daily life is, for most of us, our best hope of success – and cycling is one of the most convenient ways of achieving precisely that.
Riding a bike brings a wealth of health and fitness benefits. It builds muscle (leg, thigh and hip) strength and tone with little risk of strain; it improves joint mobility (particularly knees and hips) and coordination in general. Gradually increase distances cycled and we build stamina and endurance while cycling can enhance mood and ease stress and it gets us out and about in the fresh air. As for heart health, the British Medical Association says cycle twenty miles a week and we cut our risk of heart attack by 50%.
What's not to like?
Written by Dr. Noel Duncan