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Preparing for the Big Game: Transitioning From Competitive Athletics to a Healthy Lifestyle

Abel, Mark G PhD, CSCS; Carreiro, Bridget MS

Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 2 - p 58-63
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31820bc314
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ATHLETICS PROVIDES INDIVIDUALS WITH OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE IN A PHYSICALLY ACTIVE LIFESTYLE. HOWEVER, AFTER AN ATHLETE'S CAREER IS COMPLETE, LIVING AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE CAN BE MORE DIFFICULT. THIS ARTICLE SERVES TO IDENTIFY SPECIFIC BARRIERS TO LEADING A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE AFTER COMPETITIVE ATHLETICS AND PROVIDES STRATEGIES FOR STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROFESSIONALS TO ASSIST ATHLETES IN OVERCOMING THESE BARRIERS.

Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky

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Mark G. Abelis an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

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Bridget Carreirois a former collegiate gymnast and graduate from the Teaching, Coaching, Sport Leadership Master of Science Program in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Athletics provides individuals with opportunities to engage in a physically active lifestyle. After an individual's athletic career is over, it is important to maintain a physically active and healthy lifestyle to enhance quality of life. However, this transition can be difficult. Former athletes encounter many barriers when attempting to live a healthy lifestyle. It is the role of the strength and conditioning professional to educate athletes, assist athletes in developing the skills necessary to live a healthy lifestyle, and serve as a role model by practicing healthy behaviors. The purpose of this article was to enhance the transition to life after athletics by identifying the physical activity and diet-based challenges that individuals may face in leading a healthy lifestyle and to provide strategies for strength and conditioning professionals to help athletes overcome these challenges.

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CHALLENGES TO MAINTAINING A PHYSICALLY ACTIVE LIFESTYLE

LACK OF TIME

For the general public, “lack of time” is the most commonly cited reason for not participating in leisure time physical activity (10). Similarly, student athletes maintain very busy schedules in an attempt to balance school and athletic responsibilities. Typical time demands for student athletes may range from several hours per week for middle school athletes to 20 hours per week or more for collegiate athletes. Although athletics are time consuming, the student athletes' practice and training time are often protected and scheduled around school hours and coursework. Thus, allocating time for exercise is made convenient for the student athlete. As the athletes transition out of competitive athletics, their free time often becomes consumed by nonathletic demands and responsibilities, and exercise compliance typically suffers.

As a strength and conditioning professional, it is important to teach athletes the time management skills to enhance participation in physical activity after competitive athletics. One way to make efficient use of time is to teach the athletes to prioritize the tasks. Participating in a workout should be viewed as one of the most important activities of the day. Thus, it is important to schedule a workout at the most convenient time and protect this time as if it were an important meeting. Exercise compliance may be improved if the individuals schedule their workout at the same time each day and record future workout dates and times on a calendar or in a planner. Another time-saving tip is to leave a workout bag in the car, so the individual can easily exercise outside or go to a fitness center before, during, or after work without stopping at home. Furthermore, the individual can make an efficient use of limited exercise time by breaking up the exercise session into multiple shorter bouts of activity and combining daily responsibilities with exercise, such as walking or running with the dog before and after work.

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AWARENESS OF TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS

It is critical to educate athletes and raise their awareness regarding the amount of physical activity that is necessary to obtain health and fitness benefits, so they can establish exercise program goals. For health benefits, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association recommend that adults perform at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity for 5 days per week or at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity for 3 days per week (6). Many athletes may not understand the definition of the terms “moderate” and “vigorous.” Moderate intensity may be subjectively described as an intensity that “noticeably accelerates their heart rate,” whereas vigorous intensity “causes rapid breathing and a substantial increase in heart rate” (6). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (11) published a report that has recommended that adults should perform 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days of the week to help manage body weight and prevent unhealthy weight gain in adulthood. Furthermore, this report recommends that individuals who have lost a substantial amount of weight should engage in 60-90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity (11). To improve cardiovascular fitness, yet minimize the risk of orthopedic problems, it has been recommended that individuals perform aerobic exercise (e.g., running, cycling, and swimming) at a vigorous intensity for 3-5 days per week for 20-60 minutes (7).

For resistance training, the ACSM (1) recommends training major muscle groups (i.e., chest, shoulders, upper and lower back, abdominals, hips, and legs) for 2-3 days per week with 48 hours of recovery between workouts using the same muscles. The ACSM suggests using a weight that allows for 8-12 repetitions (at 60-80% of 1 repetition maximum) and results in muscular fatigue. The individual should perform 2-4 sets per muscle group with 2-3 minutes of rest between sets (1).

The ACSM recommends performing a warm-up followed by approximately 10 minutes of flexibility training (1). Specifically, at least one static stretch should be performed for all major muscle-tendon groups (i.e., neck, shoulders, upper and lower back, pelvis, hips, and legs). At least 4 repetitions should be performed for each flexibility exercise, and each repetition should be held for 15-60 seconds. Flexibility training should be performed at least 2-3 days per week (1).

In addition to teaching athletes about physical fitness recommendations, it is also important to educate athletes about basic training principles while you are training them. That is, explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. Consider discussing important resistance training principles, such as specificity, overload, periodization, and exercise order (see Figure 1 for examples).

Figure 1

Figure 1

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ACCESSIBILITY AND COST

High school, collegiate, and professional athletes have many advantages to participating in sports. One of these advantages is convenient access to a training facility. Most athletic teams have access to a strength and conditioning center that is free of charge. Athletes are often allowed to use the facility at their convenience. In addition, most academic institutions have a student-based recreational facility, which is accessible to all students. When high school or collegiate athletes graduate or leave campus, they are forced to search for a fitness center off campus. Typically, the use of these facilities is expensive and may not be in a convenient location. Thus, cost is another barrier to participation in regular exercise. Some estimates suggest that the average cost of a gym membership ranges from $40 to $50 per month, plus additional initiation or sign up fees (4). In addition, these prices do not include the use of a personal trainer.

Many athletes do not understand that typical daily activities, such as walking with the dog or cycling to work, count as physical activity and can improve health and fitness outcomes. In addition, there are a variety of ways to exercise without paying for fitness center services. For instance, it is free to hike on a local trail, run outside, perform body weight or resistance band exercises at home, or play pickup games at the park or community center.

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MOTIVATION

An additional barrier for former athletes to participating in regular physical activity may be the lack of external motivation to exercise. Many athletes are used to training in a team environment where teammates and coaches motivate and push each other in an effort to achieve a common goal. Many athletes have always had a coach instructing them when and how to workout, when and what to eat, and so on. Given the support structure of the athletic environment, it may be difficult for an athlete to now workout without guidance and external motivation.

To enhance motivation, former athletes should continuously change their workout program by using a variety of challenging, yet rewarding exercises. Performing a variety of exercises will likely help the individual maintain interest and maximize results. The strength and conditioning professional should encourage athletes to “train outside the box” and use a variety of creative exercises to make resistance training exciting. For instance, incorporate exercises that use stability and medicine balls, kettle bells, resistance bands, plyometric boxes, and nonconventional equipment (e.g., sand bags, tractor tires—to flip or drag) to enhance interest in the workout. To further motivate former athletes to workout and enhance exercise adherence, they should consider exercising with a partner who has common fitness interests and goals. Working out with a partner can serve to motivate individuals and hold them accountable for exercising. Similarly, participating in group fitness classes (e.g., spinning, yoga, aerobics, and triathlon training) at a fitness center or belonging to a community-based activity club (e.g., cycling club) can enhance motivation and accountability. Individuals should also consider keeping a daily log of their exercise program and note how they felt about the workout. A log can identify monotonous trends in a workout, such as performing the same exercises, and using the same number of repetitions and sets over an extended period. A log may also indicate which type of workouts were the most enjoyable.

An additional motivational strategy to optimize exercise adherence is to set goals and use positive reinforcement. Some keys to setting effective goals include making sure that the goals are behavioral, specific, measurable, and realistic (7). That is, setting a behavioral outcome, such as running 3 days per week for 30 minutes, is easy to evaluate, very specific, and measurable. If the goal is unrealistic, the individual will likely quit because they have become frustrated by not being able to achieve the goal (7). Setting both short- and long-term goals result in a more effective program (9). Short-term goals are typically behavioral based, for instance, participating in 3 spinning classes per week, whereas long-term goals may be outcome based, for example, losing 5 pounds of fat mass. Finally, it is important to reinforce appropriate behavior through the use of rewards. For instance, the individuals may allow themselves to download 1 song online for each completed workout.

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DEVELOPING HEALTHY EATING HABITS

Developing healthy eating habits is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle and is often difficult for many high school, collegiate, and professional athletes to adopt. Because of their busy schedule and living on campus, athletes often eat catered food. Thus, athletes may never learn how to prepare healthy meals and may not understand what types of food are healthy. It is important for strength and conditioning professionals to provide educational materials for athletes to assist them in making healthy dietary decisions. The American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (www.mypyramid.gov), and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov/hbp/index.html) have excellent online resources to aid individuals in developing a healthy eating plan.

On the most basic level, it is important for athletes to understand how much and what types of food to consume. For instance, the acceptable macronutrient distribution range for carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are 45-65%, 20-35%, and 10-35%, respectively, of total daily caloric intake (8). When competing, many athletes are often at or exceed the upper limit of these macronutrient ranges. However, when individuals are no longer training at high levels, they should be at the low to moderate end of these ranges. The Mypyramid.gov website provides a food guidance system that estimates an individual's caloric intake (including macro- and micronutrient profiles) based on a food diary and provides a quick estimate of what types of food and the amount of food an individual should consume. Figure 2 provides some healthy eating tips that are important for athletes to understand and use.

Figure 2

Figure 2

It is also important for individuals to develop healthy eating habits when dining at a cafeteria or eating at fast food restaurants. Here are some healthy eating tips from the American Dietetic Association (2) to consider when eating out: remember to eat slowly, as it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you are full. Choose menu options that state “baked, braised, broiled, roasted, grilled, and poached” and avoid foods that are described as “fried, buttered, breaded, or crispy” as these often have a high fat content. Consider having a side salad, fruit, or baked potato instead of french fries. The nutritional content of fast food can be found at the restaurant or on the restaurant's website.

There are many barriers to living a healthy lifestyle after retiring from athletics. It is critical for athletes to develop a set of basic skills to overcome these barriers. It is the responsibility of the strength and conditioning professional to serve as a role model and educator for athletes. It is important to take a little extra time to educate athletes and teach the skills necessary to live a healthy lifestyle after athletics (see Figure 3 for additional suggestions). One of the most important responsibilities of a strength and conditioning professional is to prepare athletes for the most important game: life.

Figure 3

Figure 3

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REFERENCES

1. American Dietetic Association. (2009). Eat right. Food, nutrition and health tips from the American Dietetic Association, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Available at: http://www.eatright.org. Accessed: January 11, 2010.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. General principles of exercise prescription. In: ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (8th ed). Thompson WR, ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2010. pp. 165-174.
3. Baechle TR, Earle RW, and Wathen D. Resistance training. In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed). Baechle TR and Earle RW, eds. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. pp. 401-408.
    4. Dellaverson C. (2008). On the money: The true cost of gym memberships. CNBC. Available at: http://www.cnbc.com/id/26663228. Accessed: January 20, 2010.
    5. Fleck SJ and Kraemer WJ. Designing Resistance Training Programs (1st ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1987. pp. 57.
      6. Haskell W, Lee I, Pate RR, Powell KE, Blair SN, Franklin B, Macera CA, Heath GW, Thompson PD, and Bauman A. Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc 39: 1423-1434, 2007.
      7. Howley ET and Franks BD. Exercise prescription for cardiorespiratory fitness. In: Fitness Professional's Handbook (5th ed). Bahrke MS, ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. pp. 167, 337.
      8. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Food and Nutrition Board. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.
      9. Kyllo LB and Landers DM. Goal setting in sport and exercise: A research synthesis to resolve the controversy. J Sport Exerc Psychol 17: 117-137, 1995.
      10. Martin JE and Dubbert PM. Exercise applications and promotion in behavioral medicine. J Consult Clin Psychol 50: 1004-1017, 1982.
      11. US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2005). Available at: http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines. Accessed: December 9, 2009.
      Keywords:

      former athlete; nutrition; physical activity; wellness

      © 2011 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association