Stretching by itself is not a good way to warm up because it does not stimulate circulation and raise muscle temperatures the way active movement does. Stretching exercises are important, but they are safe and effective only when performed after you are warmed up.
The best way to warm up depends on your fitness level and the type of activity you plan to do. The most effective warm up consists of movements you would make during that activity. Begin by performing these movements at a slow, gentle pace, then build gradually to your target intensity.
Let's say you want to warm up for a tennis, squash or racquetball game. Think about the ways you move while you play. There is some running, so you might begin your warm up with an easy jog, or run in place, maybe throwing in a little imitation footwork. Then begin hitting the ball easily against the backboard, or wall, or with your partner. Don't do deep lunges yet. In about 10 minutes you will start to feel warm, and then you can start playing for blood if you wish.
Warm up for swimming by doing some slow laps. Walk briskly or jog slowly to prepare for running. Aerobic classes usually begin with some slower routines that use many of the movements they'll use later in more vigorous routines.
If you are using weight machines, you need to warm up all of your muscle groups. You might begin your workout on the stationary cycle, rowing machines, cross-country ski machine, treadmill or other aerobic exercise equipment, if these are available. Try to involve both arms and legs. If you have time, you may wish to go through your circuit once with moderate weights and a second time with heavier weights.
A warm-up should last until you're warm. You're probably warmed up if you're just beginning to sweat. If you don't sweat, you will at least feel warm, and the exercise should start to feel easier. This usually occurs within 10 to 15 minutes.
Your warm-up should increase your heart rate to at least 90 to 120 beats per minute, depending on your age. Older people and those on some blood pressure medications may have lower heart rates. In these situations, using your Rate of Perceived Exertion would be advisable. An easy way to determine this is to make sure your breathing is slightly increased, with the warm-up movements feeling relatively easy.
As your warm-up leads into your target intensity level, your heart rate will reach its target zone or if using Rate of Perceived Exertion, your breathing should be increased to the point that you can no longer breathe comfortably through your nose and must breathe through your mouth. If you are not sure what your target exercise heart rate is or if you're reaching your Rate of Perceived Exertion, ask your instructor to explain.
If your warm-up is leaving you exhausted, you're working too hard. We all need a good warm-up to help prevent injury and make our workouts feel easier. Your body doesn't like to go suddenly from a state of rest to high-intensity activity. It needs a little time to adjust.
Some research has shown abnormal electrical activity in the hearts of subjects who begin vigorous exercise suddenly. These abnormal changes were not seen when the same subjects warmed up beforehand. As your muscles begin to move, their blood vessels open, and your circulation increases. Your heart begins to beat faster, and its blood vessels widen to bring in oxygen and nutrients and remove waste products.
Many of the injuries we see in adult fitness programs could be prevented if everyone warmed up before exercising.
Jeanne Rhodes is a nutritionist, author, owner and director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute and a nutrition consultant for the state of Maryland. Write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.