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The 4 elements of fitness

Caucasian man working out in gym is stuck under heavy barbell on bench press

There are four elements of fitness; does your workout hit them all?

They are: strength, stamina, flexibility and balance.

You could argue the balance one with me, but really why would you? (Besides, it’s my blog, so I win.) No, I’m teasing (mostly). But seriously, balance is a very important part of functional movement, especially as we get older. Depending on how you’re taxing your muscles, balance involves your core and/or all those small stabilizer muscles in your legs. So balance stays on the list.

Most of us are better at some of these elements than we are others. As for me, I rock strength and stamina. When I’m in my cardio zone I feel like I can go forever. Relatively low-intensity cardio is my strong suit and will always be my favorite. As a part of my weight loss journey, I became a distance runner … until I shredded my knee cartilage. Running – but also decades of obesity – led to a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in 2012. I did one last marathon after that, but my distance running days are over. To get my fix I walk, ride my bike, and swim. (I still run short distances, but don’t tell my orthopedic surgeon. He’s very grumpy about that.)

Strength and stamina are the two elements that most of us think of when we’re planning out a fitness routine. We run (or walk), bike, row, lift weights, and do resistance training. That is, we cross-train. And cross-training is vital to prevent overuse injuries and to avoid burnout.

But what about flexibility and balance? Many of us have a hard time even bending over and touching our toes, so we just shrug and say, “I’m not flexible” and give up. But like balance, flexibility is one of those “use it or lose it” kind of skills.

We think of flexibility as something dancers or figure skaters have, and those of us who are firmly entrenched in middle age think of it as something younger people have. But flexibility – both muscular and in our joints – is something to continue to work at, as we get older. For example, flexibility allows us to move our spine in all four directions: left, right, forward and back. Back injuries can be debilitating, so working the muscles that support the spine is critical to overall health.

Now realistically, most of us aren’t going to lace up our skates or strap on some toe shoes and start pirouetting around the house, so how do we add flexibility and balance to our workout routine?

Yoga.

(You knew I was gonna make a pitch for yoga, didn’t you? I’m nothing if not predictable.)

There are yoga studios everywhere, and approximately 147 different kinds of yoga. (It’s possible I made up that number. I do that.) It doesn’t really matter what kind you do cause all yoga is good yoga. My own yoga practice started after a running injury and involved a lot of grumbling and cursing on my part. I didn’t wanna do yoga. It wasn’t “real” exercise, or so I thought. HA! Yoga kicked my butt right from the get-go. Now obviously, not all yoga is butt-kicking yoga; some forms are harder than others. The beauty of yoga is that if you pick one of the harder ones (almost anything with the word “hot” in it will work) you hit all four elements of fitness in a single workout. Certainly flexibility and balance are important components of any yoga regimen, but I love it when the moves require strength too. The stamina comes from doing difficult moves in a hot room.

If I’ve somehow given you the impression that I’m one of those yoga-pant-wearing Gumby girls who can bend in every direction, let me assure you I’m not. Flexibility is the weakest link in my personal fitness. But that’s exactly the reason I work at it! It’s so easy to work at the elements we’re already good at. Just like everything, growth and improvement come from getting outside of our comfort zones. I may have been dragged to yoga kicking and screaming, but by sticking with it I have found that my creaky old body has indeed become (a tiny bit) more flexible. And certainly it’s better than it would be if I didn’t work at it.

Strength.

Stamina.

Flexibility.

Balance.

They’re all important, whether you do them separately or together. Your body needs all four to be its best as you walk through the world. Simply, yoga is one-stop shopping to being your best.

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