In December last year, a friend contacted me looking to get back into regular exercise. She lives in Santa Eugenia and was searching for a personal trainer in the local area. As I had just moved to Santa Maria, where her daughter attends The Orange Tree School, it was the perfect fit. Well, almost. She couldn’t afford me one-on-one. As a compromise, she offered to arrange group classes and split the cost between the other Mums and Dads from the school.
And so, at the beginning of January, the Santa Maria Fitness Club was born- a place for parents to come after dropping the kids off, for a bit of fitness care and maintenance, to learn about healthy exercise and safe biomechanics. (Admittedly, plugging my own business is the pinnacle of lazy journalism. I only do it because I care.)
My interest in mechanics began before my coaching career. Six years ago, I had just started writing my book ‘Working [it] Out’ on how to do more exercise. As part of my research, I certified as a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and coached at the local gym back in Hamburg as a part-time gig.
However, my full-time job was as a supercargo intendant, loading yachts onto cargo ships. Whilst juggling the two careers, I noticed that they weren’t all that different. I spent both bossing people around and fine-tuning my mechanical reasoning.
To safely lift boats, you need to understand how the crane and lifting rig take the load. It’s about knowing which shackle, beam or frame is taking the most significant strain and how slight adjustments shift the centre of gravity from one support to another, all the while ensuring nothing breaks or falls.
Coaching my clients how to move and lift weights safely isn’t much different. I am constantly looking for obvious and subtle cues in feet, knees, hips, back and shoulders that tell me if they are moving safely and the adjustments to limit the risk of injury, wear and tear. Biomechanics is still mechanics. And in the worlds of both yacht transport and fitness, ‘it’s not what you lift, it’s how you lift it.’
Frenzied modern fitness isn’t the primary focus of my classes. I’m not looking to maximise the bodies’ work capacity, pushing stamina and endurance to their limits. As I said in my first article for this newspaper: health and fitness are two roads that run parallel for a while only to diverge sharply at the extremes.
Faster, longer and heavier isn’t always healthier. I don’t want to see clients lifting heftier weights to the point of risking injury in the pursuit of ‘fitness’. Nor do I want to bring up my clients’ heart rate up so high that it is no longer beneficial. (Like any muscle, the heart must fully contract and expand to grow. But if the heart rate goes up too high, it starts to vibrate during diastole and systole beats, limiting its range of motion. Interval training is the healthy medium, allowing the heart rate to go up and then slow down repeatedly.)
Don’t get me wrong; my clients break a sweat, especially when skipping, on the power rope, or running around the park. But I’m coaching how to run in a way that protects knees and ankles for years to come. It’s not so much about fitness but about learning and implementing exercise strategies for healthy ageing.
I often hear people saying that lifting weights or performing explosive ballistic movements isn’t healthy. In truth, it’s the only way to tackle one of the leading causes of early mortality. In western cultures, we spend too much time sitting down- on chairs at dinner, on the sofa, whilst driving, or waiting at reception.
All the while, our hips and knees are stiffening, and the supporting muscles and tendons waste away. As a result, we’re more susceptible to harmful trips and falls than our Japanese counterparts. Their tatami furniture keeps their bodies strong.
As a result, the Japanese have fewer trips and falls than we do and live longer for it. In the US, the Center for Disease Control found that falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among persons over 65 years of age. And it’s not just about deaths directly associated with falling.
Injuries incurred from a fall reduce mobility and quality of life. In turn, these two accelerate the ageing process, reducing life expectancy. According to the World Health Organisation, between 20% and 30% of those who fall suffer injuries that reduce mobility and independence and increase the risk of premature death.
In 2004, a comprehensive study by the World Health Organization asked, “What are the most effective interventions to prevent these falls?” The WHO’s number one policy consideration was “home-based professionally prescribed exercise, to promote dynamic balance, muscle strengthening and walking”.
To prevent and protect ourselves from trips and falls, we need strong fast-twitch muscle fibres in our hips, arms and legs. Fast-twitch muscles do what they say on the tin; they enable us to move fast, allowing us to catch our bodies should we trip or stumble, preventing injury.
The only way to grow these fast-twitch muscle fibres is by doing explosive, dynamic, ballistic movements. Adding a little weight helps the cause. I don’t encourage my clients to lift weights, squat, deadlift and swing kettlebells to look sexy on the beach or beat somebody up. I do it to keep them living mobile and happy for many years to come.
Health is about being free from illness and injury. My fitness classes walk the line between the two. I teach my clients how to use their bodies safely during their day-to-day lives- from lifting the sofa to playing with their kids.
I want all of my clients to feel physically able and confident in their bodies no matter what sport, activity, challenge or situation life throws at them. If you want to feel the same way about your body, then come and join us at the Santa Maria Fitness Club.