Do you prefer to listen? Check out the podcast episode and listen to me talk about this topic and my take on it!
How’re you doing today?
Oh, just busy. How about yourself?
Same! There’s just so much to do.
While this is scripted for the sake of this article, it’s an everyday interaction with members as I check them in at the fitness center. In today’s day and age, we’re surrounded by “Team No Sleep” and #NoDaysOff. It’s tempting to get caught up in “the grind”. Being busy is glorified and this mindset spills over into fitness.
We wear a hard workout as if it’s a badge of honor. We talk about how killer the new class was and watch Crossfit athletes perform under the harshest conditions, pushing themselves to the point of complete exhaustion.
We indulged on Thanksgiving. It’s tempting to attack Monday’s workouts with an intense vigor. Hoping to “burn off bad eating” and “make up” for the weekend’s festivities. But the human body doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We can’t choose what food we burn off and we shouldn’t feel guilty eating a delicious meal with friends and family.
While there’s a time and place for workouts that push the limits, this doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence. While it’s difficult to reach a state of overtraining in the true definition of the word, we overlook activities that don’t make us sweat, as if they are not hard enough or somehow don’t count as a workout.
Weaving fitness into our lifestyles and improving overall health doesn’t mean overworking ourselves in the gym. It doesn’t always mean pushing to the point of complete exhaustion. Sweating more is not equivalent to a better workout.
Here are four ways you may skip the sweat, but you’re definitely not cheating yourself out of a good workout!
Trade out the cardio.
In 2013, nearly 51% of American adults said they want to lose weight. Walk through the magazine aisle and you’ll see countless advertisements and articles explaining the latest and greatest way to “burn fat fast”. Here’s where exercise, such as cardio comes into play. Many of the articles focus on cardiovascular activity because it causes increased body temperatures, leading to greater calories burned in that specific training session or workout.
Cardiovascular activity, such as running or walking, has endless benefits. Some include:
- Stronger heart and lungs
- Reduced stress
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Better sleep
It’s an essential component for improving overall heart health and being able to out-run a bear if you’re ever caught in the woods. (Just kidding, please practice safety when encountering wildlife. The best course of action isn’t always to run!) But by only incorporating cardio, and neglecting other forms of training, we’re only doing ourselves a disservice. For example, the vast benefits of strength training are often overshadowed by the immediate caloric burn that this cardio activity provides.
In the US, the Physical Activity Guidelines for adults ages 19-64 are:
- At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or brisk walking
- Strength exercises on two or more days per week that work all major muscles
As shown in the graphs above, according to the National Health Interview Survey, in 2016, 51.7% of adults in the United States, 18 and over, met the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic physical activity. Comparatively, only 21.7% of the same population met guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. While neither of these statistics are staggeringly high, the 30% difference between the two is striking. We are opting for instant gratification of a higher calorie burn; we neglect the long-term benefits of exercise such as strength training.
There is no quick fix to weight loss and building healthy habits.
Ask yourself: Have I been neglecting your strength training in favor of immediate calories burned in higher intensity activities?
If the answer is yes, the fix is easy! Start adding in some strengthening exercises 2-3 days per week. This can be as simple as a bodyweight circuit at home. Save the picture below and use it for your next at-home workout!
Exercise the mind.
Exercise your brain while you exercise your muscles. We’ve already touched on the benefits of adding strength training into your workout program. When we’re in the gym, think about each exercise, rep by rep. This attentional focus during exercise presents in two ways: internal or external.
Internal attention draws the focus toward the body and how the body is moving through an exercise. External attention directs the focus outward, relating the movement to the environment in which it is performed.
In the context of strength training, before deciding what to think about during an exercise, it’s important to recognize type of task it is for you. While external focus is best suited to performance based sports, such as powerlifting where the goal is the enhance performance in a given task. However, research suggests that focusing your attention internally may be more beneficial to both gain and maintain muscle.
This is often talked about as the “mind-muscle connection”. During each movement or exercise, we focus attention internally, on the primary muscles working during that exercise. Using our example of the squat from earlier, this may mean we think about squeezing the glutes together throughout the entirety of the movement.
By mentally engaging with our training, instead of going through the motions, we may be able to increase potential benefit from our strength training. This is especially true for lighter weight exercises (50% 1RM, 15+ reps). This may be particularly applicable, if we’re just starting out, or working out with only bodyweight or lighter weights, focusing our attention on the muscle we’re trying to target may be an easy way to benefit more from these workouts. It allows us to train with lighter loads, inducing less stress on the body, but still get the most out of our strength training session.
…Or give it a break.
Mindfulness and meditation is a hot topic in fitness today. Apps such as Headspace and Calm are taking off. Establishing consistent morning and night routines and healthy habits, such as meditation or breathing techniques, is talked about in many interviews with top performing executives and CEOs. Research suggests that “practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of IBS, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.” Just 10 minutes of mindfulness can set you up for success for the rest of the day or help you relax and unwind from a stressful day.
Better yet, combine mindfulness with a physical practice in that of yoga. Research on yoga is mixed and difficult to sift through. Between the numerous types of practices as well as the settings in which it is studied, much of the results can only be applied to very specific populations. [[[Those with existing, diagnosed anxiety or depression, those who have experienced lower back pain for a set amount of time, etc.]]] However, the benefits of yoga from an anecdotal perspective are numerous: stress relief, decreased lower back pain, decreased anxiety, and improved flexibility and coordination.
It’s important to note that there are countless styles of yoga. Before you decide to try it out, make sure you’re choosing one that’s right for you. Let’s take a look at five of the more popular yoga practices.
Hatha Yoga – The most popular style in the western hemisphere, this practice brings elements of all types of yoga and blends them together. In a series of flowing poses, participants are encouraged to move through at a moderate pace, linking movement to breath and specific posture throughout.
Vinyasa/Power – Based on the more traditional ashtanga practice, this faster paced style varies greatly based on the instructor. Instead of the strict flow of ashtanga, it encourages the instructor to create a class based on their personal preferences. The poses will be different; however, the traditional “flow” of the ashtanga yoga remains the same.
Yin Yoga – This is a quiet, restorative practice. Encouraging the relaxation of the muscles in passive poses, allowing gravity to assist in the work.
Bikram Yoga – One of the more structured options on this list, Bikram yoga is a series of 26 poses performed sequentially and repeated twice. However, the most recognizable aspect is the environment in which it is performed; Bikram yoga is also called hot yoga and performed in a sauna-like room with temperatures as high as 105F and 40% humidity.
Restorative Yoga – More relaxed that even yin yoga, this style focuses on holds as long as 20 minutes in only four or five poses. The utilization of props such as blankets, bolsters, and eye pillows allows participants to sink into a deep relaxation.
For more styles of yoga check out this article.
Personally, I find that yoga, specifically yin yoga, when practiced consistently aids in my flexibility and mindfulness throughout the day. The slow movement through poses and longer holds in each, as well as the attention to the breath, allows me to both relax my mind and stretch simultaneously. I try to practice 3-4 times per week.
If you’re looking to try yoga, there are countless resources out there for free. I personal use YouTube videos; they have short, 20-minute yin yoga classes that are amazing. There are also online yoga studios that you can pay to join for a fraction of the cost of an actual studio. I highly recommend, The Yoga Collective. (They sometimes even have a Groupon available!)
Take an active recovery day.
Finally, we need to make sure we’re taking active recovery days within our training program. Similar to how our society is terrible at leaving work at work, the mindset of work harder for more results creeps into our fitness lives as well. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although it’s tempting to take a day complete off and sit at home, watching Netflix, and hanging out, newer studies suggest that an active rest day may be more beneficial.
An active recovery day is one in which training is vastly decreased and only very light, sub-maximal activity is performed. Often, this can include walking, foam rolling, recovery forms yoga, or any combination of the three. Heart rate is kept low and often you won’t break a sweat during these workouts.
But research, and experience, has shown that we aren’t able to perform at maximum capacity continuously. This is why periodization and fluctuating training loads are used in nearly all strength training programs. The lighter loads, and de-load weeks, are included to give the body a rest and enhance both training performance and positive adaptations resulting from strength training – weight loss, muscle gain, strength increases, etc.
Active recovery is similar to these de-load weeks on a small scale. About once a week, we should aim to take a day and rest. Instead of sitting around, incorporate these very low intensity activities, such as yoga or walking. In addition to the physical recovery, these will increase your mental health as well through mindfulness and maintaining focus on the present moment.
Personally, my favorite part of an active recovery day is being able to take it outdoors! If you’re used to lifting heavy in the gym, taking a walk on the beach or along a wooded path can make all the difference mentally. Research has shown that time in the outdoors is linked to improved short term memory, stress relief, reduced inflammation, improved concentration, and overall improved mental health. This Friday, I encourage you to join REI and millions of others in their annual #OptOutside. Instead of hitting up the mall with the rest of the crowds, take an active recovery day, find a new place, and go do some exploring!
Fitness is more than just sweating. Swapping the cardio for weights, exercising your brain, relaxing the mind, or taking an active recovery day are all integral parts of weaving fitness into your lifestyle. Busier in life and in fitness, isn’t always better.
Have you fallen victim to the “busier is better” mindset in life and workouts? I challenge you to two things:
1. For this week, every time someone asks how you’re doing, answer with something other than “busy”.
2. Incorporate at least one form of lower intensity workout each week.
One thought on “The Overlooked and Underrated Workout”