Well, another new year is upon us, and a lot of people are going to be making new year’s resolutions to get in shape (or get back in shape). As it turns out, I’m going to be too, although not for any reasons related to the new year (I’ve never been particularly big on new year resolutions), but because my body is reminding me of the reasons why I need to keep in minimally decent shape.
Now, I’m not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination, but as many of you know, that’s never kept me from pontificating on other topics. And, since exercise is on my mind these days, I have a few thoughts on the subject, related to people like me who don’t particularly enjoy it.
Thought, the first: An exercise program that you can stick to is vastly superior to one that you will burnout on in a few short weeks. I’m currently in my late forties, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve embarked with maximum enthusiasm on a new workout routine with maximum intensity, and then quit a month or two later.
Oh, I always had a good excuse why I didn’t continue, usually related to time pressures or something along those lines. In my more self effacing moments, I admitted to having an attack of laziness. But looking back, most of the time, the reality was that I simply burned myself out, exercising beyond my current level of fitness.
The workout routines I’ve been able to stick to for extended periods were ones where I worked within my current comfort level but maybe toward the end pushed slightly into discomfort. That relatively easy approach led to fitness gains, and kept me on board. Of course, as I mentioned above, I did eventually fall off the wagon, but it was almost always because I forgot my initial cautious approach, got impatient, and started regularly going far into that discomfort zone, leading to burnout.
This principle applies to just about any kind of exercise you might be doing. For cardio, it means working at an intensity that is comfortable except for perhaps the last minute or so of the workout, and backing off if you err on the too intense side. For stretching, it means stretching to where you feel a pleasing but perhaps slightly uncomfortable stretch, but without pain. For weight lifting, it means using a weight that that is comfortable until that slightly to moderately uncomfortable last rep.
Of course, there are people who thrive on pushing themselves to the limit. They tend to either have advantageous genetics, have essentially been in excellent shape their entire lives (making it difficult for them to sympathize with people struggling to get back into it), or are taking some kind of performance enhancing drugs. The problem for people who hate exercise, is that most of the people in the fitness industry tend to fall into one of those categories. Phrases like “train to failure”, “push past the pain barrier”, or “no pain, no gain” tend to originate from them. That’s not to say that there aren’t voices who advocate moderation, but too many follow the drill sergeant approach.
Bob Glover in his excellent ‘The Runner’s Handbook‘ said it best: overload gently. Give your body a chance to adapt to that gentle overload, and when the effort that led to it becomes easy, push a little further out. Over time, that pushing just a little further out adds up. Ignore the (usually) yelling fitness gurus who urge you to push yourself to the limit.
Thought the second: This is closely related to the first thought, but deserves its own section. Never exercise through pain. Ever. At least, unless you have a competent physical therapist urging you to do so. (Even then, consider getting a second opinion if a therapist seems indifferent to your pain when prescribing a program.) Ignore the no pain, no gain crowd; they are not your friends.
Unfortunately, I have direct experience on this one. It’s why I have some of the issues I do. When my shoulder first started bothering me years ago, I ignored it. When it insisted on being noticed, I took ibuprofen to shut it up so I could get through my workouts. Big mistake. Trust me on this one. You don’t want to go where that road leads.
Thought the third: Remember the Pareto Principle. That principle says that you usually get 80% of the benefits from 20% of the effort. Whatever your fitness goals, you can get most of the way there with a modest effort.
So why do people do the other 80%? Usually because of competition. If you want to win a marathon, an Ironman triathlon, a powerlifting or weight lifting competition, or some other kind of sporting event, then that other 80% is necessary. But if you just want to look and feel better, then you can probably get by with a lot less effort.
For example, for years I alternated between running, bicycling, and other forms of cardio. As I described above, I often burned out and quit. Now, and successfully for the last few years, I walk (briskly), which I can do during lunch break at work while listening to some of my favorite podcasts. (Living in the deep south, I do have to break up the walks during the summer months.) Walking is much easier, I’ve never been in danger or burnout from it, and I get most of the benefits I felt from the more strenuous forms.
Well, those are my thoughts on exercise. I’d be interested to know yours, particularly if like me, you don’t really enjoy exercise, and especially if you have nevertheless found a way to succeed at it.