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Cross-training: Get more for your sweat
A three-tier approach
The rewards

Creating a program that works for you
Creating a program that works for you

The idea behind cross-training is simple enough that designing a program has more to do with common sense than with any complicated training theories. You should consider these three aspects when selecting the activities that will form your backbone program: whether you like the activity, whether it’s relatively convenient for you to do it and whether it provides a fitness benefit that complements your other activities.

The table below lists possible activities, their principal fitness benefits and what to look for when planning complementary activities.

ActivityPrincipal benefitsComplementary ActivitiesWalkingCardiovascular fitness, lower body strength, bone strength*Flexibility, upper-body strengthCyclingCardiovascular fitness, lower body strength, bone strengthFlexibility, upper-body strengthSwimmingCardiovascular fitness, upper-body strengthFlexibility, bone strengthAerobicsCardiovascular fitness, upper- and lower-body strength, bone strengthFlexibility, strength in unused musclesRowing machineCardiovascular fitness, upper-body strengthFlexibility, lower-body strength, bone strengthWeight trainingMuscle strength, bone strengthFlexibility, cardiovascular fitnessYogaFlexibility, improved balanceCardiovascular fitness, muscle and bone strengthStretching exercisesFlexibilityCardiovascular fitness, muscle and bone strength

*Bone strength comes from participating in weight-bearing activities, such as walking, tennis, stair climbing and weight training.

The time you spend exercising isn’t easy to come by. Neither is the motivation you need to get yourself moving after a day filled with everything from workplace politics to dirty socks. All the more reason to make sure you get all the fitness you can from your workouts. How? By regularly switching from one type of exercise to another. Called cross-training, this approach will give you more bang for your exercise buck. Here’s how it works.

A three-tier approach

Three basic types of exercise form the foundation of cross-training: aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, swimming), strength training (using weight machines, free weights, elastic bands) and flexibility training (yoga, tai chi, stretching exercises). Aerobic exercise burns calories, raises “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels, strengthens the heart, increases stamina and improves lung capacity. Most aerobic activities also strengthen muscles in the lower body.

Through strength training, you can target specific muscles, such as those that aren’t well worked in your other activities. For example, if cycling is your aerobic activity of choice, you should work out with free weights to build upper-body strength (something bike riding doesn’t foster). Otherwise, even if you’re aerobically fit and have legs like tree trunks, you may find yourself unable to carry a heavy box a long distance. In addition, you might want to target muscles that you use in a seasonal activity, like skiing, so they don’t become weakened during the off season.

Working on flexibility will improve your performance in just about any sport. In addition, it will help reduce your risk of injury both during exercise and in the course of everyday activities, such as walking on uneven surfaces, lifting heavy objects and roughhousing with children.

The rewards

1. You’ll reduce your risk of injury. Overuse injuries, like tennis elbow, runner’s knee and shin splints, are more likely to occur in people who do only one activity and thus are always stressing the same muscles, joints and bones. Because cross-training improves your overall fitness, it will help you avoid injuries that might otherwise occur if you tried a new activity.

2. You’ll be better prepared for almost any activity you encounter. Whether a neighbor asks you to help move a sofa or you have to walk five miles to the nearest gas station because you ran out of gas, your cross-training will serve you well.

3. You’ll be more likely to remain physically active as long as you live. Let’s face it, taking a 45-minute walk every day for the rest of your life could be pretty dull. Cross-training reduces burnout because the possibilities are endless. You might bike into town to get a book from the library one day, take a hike with a friend another and garden a third.

But the best reason to cross-train? You’ll feel better all over when you have well-toned muscles from head to toe, when you can actually touch your toes and when you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself if you call on your body to perform a task it isn’t used to.