Monday, 16 May 2011

Reduce your headaches, sleep better, increase your energy

Tonight's post is not rocket science.  It is about the simple benefits of regular exercise.  Not ones that I have read about, but ones that I have experienced personally, not just once, but every time I take on a new fitness regime after a period of stagnation.  If I can persuade just one person to get off the couch and do something active, someone that normally does absolutely nothing active, then I will be happy.

I have experienced both ends of the spectrum in the past.  In 2000 before I cycled from John O'Groats to Lands End I was so fit that I felt like my body was a machine.  I could go to the gym for 3 hours lifting weights and doing cardio, and then go out on the bike and cycle for hours on end without feeling fatigued at all.   And I could repeat this day after day, only resting because I knew that I had to, in order to avoid overtraining.  Then at the other end I have had sometimes periods of 1 year or more without exercise, smoking up to 10 cigarettes per day, drinking lots, and eating a fast food diet.  Of course when you have been to both extremes the differences you notice in how you are feeling are far exaggerated from what the average person will experience.  But even on a smaller scale you will probably start to notice one or all of the following:

1) Better sleep
During periods of inactivity I find a lot of difficulty in falling asleep.  It seems to take me several hours after I switch off the lights to actually get to sleep.  I was always jealous of people who could fall asleep almost as soon as their head hit the pillow.  But as soon as I start to participate in regular exercise I notice I can fall asleep much easier.  In addition the quality of sleep is higher.  If you are an insomniac maybe try jogging for an hour after work and then see how you sleep that evening.  The one piece of advise I would give though is try not to exercise within 2 hours of your planned bedtime, as your body needs time to return to normal first.

2) Less backache
Working in an office and like most of us having a tendency to slouch in my chair after sitting for extended periods of time, I sometimes suffered from backache in the lower back.  This soon went after I started yoga or weight regimes.  In fact I haven't really experienced back pain for the last 2 years which is more or less when I started doing yoga on a regular basis, except for when I am doing 100km+ bike rides, where one should expect some bodily protests.  If you don't want to do yoga then even back extensions several times per week seem to help.  Don't overdo it at first though.

3) Increase your energy
Obviously exercise tires you out in the short term, but I find I soon recover.  And even if I am aching all over I still usually feel more energetic inside than I do when I am leading a sedentary life.  When I don't do exercise I tend to feel sluggish and less motivated to do household chores, homework and other things that don't offer immediate rewards.  With regular exercise though, I don't mind so much doing the household chores, and I usually wake up with a spring in my step.  Don't overdo it though - overtraining tends to make you feel chronically tired.  One way to check if you are overtraining is to measure your heart rate each morning.  When you are overtraining you will tend to find that your heart rate is no longer returning to that same resting rate in the mornings.  This is a warning sign that your body needs some rest.

4) Reduce the number of headaches you suffer
Headaches are a problem that have plagued me since childhood.  In my teens I could count on getting several of them per week and was even prescribed preventative tablets by my doctor, to take on a daily basis.  As I got older, the frequency of headaches has reduced, but during regular periods of exercise this is even more noticeable.  During sedentary periods I would say on average I get 2 headaches or more per week.  When I have a really bad headache all I want to do is lie down and sleep and this isn't at all pleasant.  Now though for instance I can go several weeks without one, which is really an improvement in my quality of life.   The regular massage that I take helped too, but it did not prevent them by itself alone.  The massage reduced them to a manageable frequency, but as I increased the frequency of exercise the number of headaches came down to a level I am very happy with now.  Beware though - exercise in itself can cause headaches.  These are commonly referred to as post exercise headaches.  I tend to get a few of these when I start running suddenly after a break, or when I exercise in the heat, or for instance when I switched from running to cycling after the Zürich marathon recently.  Most of the times I think my post exercise headaches are caused by dehydration and I try now to make sure that I am well hydrated the night before I intend to go for a long ride and that I take in enough water during exercise.  Also I think the switch from running several hours to suddenly cycling 100km+ stressed my neck muscles a lot, as when you are cycling on a racing bike you are not in the most comfortable position, and this tension in my neck gave rise to a few headaches at the beginning.  If you are getting post exercise headaches try to make sure you are well hydrated (a good indicator is the colour of your urine, which should be pale and not bright yellow), cover your head and try to avoid exercising during the hottest part of the day and build up the exercise gradually.  Also consider getting regular massage to reduce tension in the muscles.


Words of caution

Obviously the examples above are only some of the many advantages of exercise, but they are strong reasons for trying it if you haven't before.  It won't always be easy though and it is important to take it slowly if this is the first time you are doing so.  I can't really relate to the last comment about taking it slowly, as despite sedentary periods, my body was accustomed to sport at an early age.  By the age of 9 I was competing in local fun runs once per week.  On top of this I spent almost all evenings and weekends on my bike in the woods with my friends.  So my body has a certain memory and I can usually ramp up the intensity fairly quickly.  But I do know how bad it can feel the first few times you start to exercise again after a break.

Usually the first few weeks you start to cough up mucous as your body starts clearing out the junk from your system, even more so if you are a smoker.  This feels horrible and at times makes you start to wretch as it blocks your breathing.  Just take the pace down a notch and the feeling will probably subside.  If you are actually physically sick then you have probably pushed it too far.  Only once have I been physically sick and that was after a timed rowing piece where I went at a controlled pace until near the end, and then launched suddenly into an all out sprint.  In that case the lactic acid overwhelmed my body and I had to make a quick trip to the toilets.  After a few minutes I was fine again, but I wouldn't advise anyone to push themselves to that point by choice.

Just bare with it and within a few weeks you will probably notice the mucous buildup is reducing, your lungs feel clearer and you can breathe better, your energy is starting to increase and you are sleeping better.  In addition maybe your sex life took a positive turn too.

If you don't believe me just try it.  And please let me know the results if you do.  Also if you want any help or advise feel free to ask me.

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