Men are physiologically designed to move. They have more muscle and less fat (when healthy) than females. Their body adapts to demands placed on it quicker than women’s.
There are positives and negatives to a man’s body being more adaptable. Given the right stimulus (lifestyle), men can improve their health and fitness more. But given the wrong lifestyle, a man’s body adapts in ways that impact both short- and long-term health.
The accumulation of body fat is a good example. Women naturally tend to store fat on the hips and thighs (below the waist) while men store it around their middle (above the waist). Fat stored around the waist and in the viscera (gut) is more metabolically active, releasing substances that negatively impact health. This puts men at greater risk of metabolic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The upside of men’s physiology however is that given the right environment, (diet and sleep) and the appropriate demands (exercise and stress) a man can achieve and sustain good health into old age.
Exercise is without doubt the most significant tool a man can use to optimise his health. Used strategically it can set men up for life.
During puberty and their twenties, men should be thinking about building capacity, taking advantage of higher levels of testosterone. This is the time to build muscle, develop neural pathways and maximise physical capacities. The effort put in during these years lays the groundwork for lifelong fitness.
By the thirties and beyond, life seems to make it harder to stay active with work and family responsibilities taking up more time. During these years, men need to be efficient with their exercise to maintain capacity they built in younger years.
There are primarily two types of exercise that men need to focus on.
In younger men the focus should be on building a solid aerobic base. They should aim to do exercises such as running, cycling, swimming and rowing for periods up to an hour at a pace they can (just) sustain for that period. They should also incorporate some higher intensity intervals to really challenge their system, so it adapts and gets fitter.
In older and busy (work and family) men, who only have time to get out for short periods or the weekends, it is important to be safe and smart when exercising. The last thing a busy and stressed man needs is an exercise routine that adds more stress. Pushing hard for long periods of time puts unnecessary stress on the heart and muscles. A safer aerobic exercise regime is to work at a comfortable pace for most of the session, with just a few higher intensity intervals during the session.
For a runner this might be pushing up hills. A cycling group might incorporate some “sprints” into their route; ride fast for a short period but sit up, recover and wait for the group. Unfortunately, many “weekend warriors” or competitive middle-aged men falsely believe that they have to push hard the whole time. This isn’t the case and may in fact increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.
The tendency in younger men is to focus on how they look at the expense of getting stronger. Focusing on their chest and arms can lead to muscle imbalance and postural issues. It is more important to do a range of exercises that use the major muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders and legs).
Impatience and wanting quick results lead some men to use steroids to artificially stimulate growth. Steroids place an enormous stress on the body and carry significant health risks in the short term and into the future. While steroids help muscles get bigger, they don’t necessarily get stronger and the gains are lost once use is stopped. Younger men should aim to do strength training 2-3 times per week.
In older men, strength training becomes more important but so does protecting tendons and joints from injury. The same principle of focusing on major muscle groups applies, however how the exercises are done is different. Older strength trainers should do exercises slowly and controlled but still work almost to failure. They reap the same strength benefits but without the risk of injury.
The good news for men is that regardless of age their body will adapt to exercise provided they are smart and choose the right program.
ED: Men who haven’t exercised for some time or have health issues may be better off under the guidance of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (of which there are about 400 in WA).
References available on request.
Questions? Contact the editor.
Author competing interests: nil relevant disclosures.
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