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It's Cool to Cool Down

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In my past article, "Why the Warm-Up Is Essential," we discussed the importance of the warm-up: Increase your body temperature so that you safely enter the more demanding stimulus phase of the exercise session. Some people, in order to save time, bypass the lower intensity warm-up as if it's a waste of time. It's not.

Likewise, a cool-down period following a training session allows for the gradual return of body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate to near-resting levels. Additionally, an active cool-down period maintains adequate venous return, which reduces the chance of post-activity hypotension and facilitates the removal of lactic acid more effectively.

Nonetheless, many -- usually the same people who skipped the warm-up -- zip away without any cool-down at all. As a trainer, I've heard the standard, "places to go, people to see," excuse. What do I, a humble health and fitness professional, say to such a person?

"Hold on there partner, you need to cool down!"

Based on what you've already learned from the previous articles, your total exercise regimen should include the cardiorespiratory training, musculoskeletal training and flexibility training.

* Cardiorespiratory training: This includes biking, jogging, walking and swimming. Anything that's rhythmic in nature and can be continued for prolonged periods of time will also suffice.

* Musculoskeletal training: This includes strength-fitness training and weight lifting.
 
* Flexibility training: This includes safe, stretching exercises, such as yoga and stretching routines, for each major muscle group.

Your individual exercise session doesn't have to include all three types of training each time you train. Sometimes you'll only need isolated cardio or strength-training sessions. Planning your exercise on a weekly or monthly basis will allow you to determine which components to include training. There's room for personal preference and creativity.

However, each and every exercise session must include a warm-up and a cool-down. The warm-up and cool-down always sandwich the more intense phases (i.e., the stimulus phases) of the cardio and/or strength-training sessions.

The cool-down should consist of five to 10 minutes of such low-intensity activities as slow jogging, biking and/or walking. Monitor your heart rate; it should decrease during this time. This is an easy task because most cardio machines these days have accurate heart rate monitoring equipment. If you're exercising on your own, you should monitor your heart rate, but you can also monitor intensity by using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE scale).

Following your cool-down activity, I recommend using the cool-down phase as an opportunity to concentrate on flexibility training. Flexibility is often either ignored completely or only given a minimal time segment during the training session; this is a mistake. Flexibility decreases with age, and as we become less flexible, our chance of injury increases. We can minimize our loss of flexibility if we dedicate time and patience to flexibility exercises during the cool-down.

The various types of flexibility training techniques include static, active and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Active stretching involves moving a body segment through its range of motion in a controlled fashion. For example, hold your arms up in front of your body and parallel to the floor, and move your arms away from each other until you feel a stretch in the pectoralis major and anterior deltoids. Holding that position with an isometric contraction of the upper back muscles is an active stretch for the chest. PNF stretching involves moving a body segment to its limit followed by an isometric contraction then passively stretching the body segment again.

Static stretching is the most common form of stretching. Because of its simplicity, it's a practical way to develop and maintain flexibility. Although it simply involves consciously relaxing the muscle as it's elongated, static stretching has been found to be effective in developing and maintaining flexibility. Flexibility exercises for all of the major muscle groups should be performed throughout the week. About two to four repetitions should be done for each stretch, and each repetition should be held for at least 15 seconds in order to effectively elongate the muscle. I encourage slowly moving into each stretch and taking more time -- up to a minute -- to settle into each stretch.

Many experts recommend daily stretching because the flexibility improvements from stretching, like exercise in general, are temporary. For example, a six-week cardiovascular conditioning program will probably show an improvement in overall cardiovascular efficiency following the program, but in time, those improvements will disappear altogether if the exercise isn't continued. Much like the former jock who likes to reminisce about the physical feats once possible, physical fitness deteriorates if we don't stay physically active. Likewise, any flexibility improvements are lost if stretching isn't continued on a consistent basis.

Remember, the final stage of your exercise session is an important phase because it will help present injuries.

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