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Mixing it up: The benefits of cross-training

Some people just love to eat carrots. But, what if they were on your plate at every meal? Boredom aside, you'd miss out on essential nutrients that come from eating a variety of foods. Just as a diverse diet provides vitamins and minerals, a complete exercise program should consist of varied activities to work every part of your body – in other words, cross-training.

Cross-training means that you incorporate a variety of activities into your exercise routine. It's a way to broaden your activities and work different muscles.

Cross-training can be as simple as swapping an activity. For example, you may swim one day and run the next. Or, it can combine several types of exercises in one workout session. Just be sure to talk with your doctor before you significantly increase your level of physical activity.

Cross-training may help you:

Reduce the risk of injury. Overusing the same muscles and bones could lead to injury. That could happen if you were only doing one type of exercise, for example. Varying your routine gives part of your body time to rest. At the same time, it provides a workout for other muscles and bones.

Enhance weight loss. If you want to lose weight, you need to burn a large number of calories. That means you may have to exercise for more than 20 minutes a day at a moderate level of intensity. Doing more than one type of activity may help you reach that goal. For instance, in one exercise session, you might walk briskly for 20 to 30 minutes. Then, in the same session, switch to another activity, such as swimming, for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Improve overall fitness. People who do more than one activity may be able to exercise more often for longer periods. Over time, this type of exercise program can lead to improved performance. This is especially true if you combine aerobic exercise and strength-training.

Stick with it. You might get bored by the same old routine. By adding some variety, you'll probably have more fun and want to exercise more. But, it's important to find activities you enjoy. Since cross-training helps prevent injury, it can help you stay in the game, too.

Your exercise mix

As you put together a routine, look for combinations of activities that are different from each other – and that use different muscles. That way, your whole body will get a workout. For example, consider:

  • Bicycling or swimming. They provide a low-impact aerobic workout. And, either is a great companion to weight-bearing exercise, such as running.
  • Strength-training. According to experts, you should aim to do strength-training activities – such as lifting weights or doing push-ups – at least twice a week. They're also a good way to break up your weekly exercise routine. For example, you could do aerobic exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then, you could strength train on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • Flexibility exercises. Stretching can help build strength and keep you limber. And, it's a good way to balance out more strenuous activity.
  • Group activities. Consider tennis, soccer, basketball or golf. On the days you're not playing, you might try an individual activity to keep yourself fit. If sports aren't your style, you may want to join or start a walking club in your neighborhood.
  • A fitness class. You might give indoor cycling or martial arts a try, for example. Some community centers or local colleges offer a wide variety of fitness classes. And, they may cost less than joining a gym.

You also can vary the intensity of exercises in a single workout. For example, after a 10-minute brisk walk, jump rope for 10 minutes. Gradually increase the time and intensity of each exercise.

Cross-training doesn't mean you have to do a different activity every single day for a month. Depending on your fitness level – and what your goals are – you can mix and match activities that fit your lifestyle.

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