By Dr. Mercola
Do you have a healthy relationship with exercise? If not, it could be sabotaging your efforts—just as an unhealthy relationship with food can sabotage your dietary goals.
If you find that you aren’t getting the fitness ball rolling, or you can’t seem to stick with it, you may need to change some of your habits or change how you THINK about exercise.
An article titled “9 Habits of People with a Healthy Relationship to Exercise” recently appeared in the Huffington Post.1 Some of their points may seem obvious—like avoiding types of exercise that you hate, as this virtually guarantees you won’t do them—but others may be less obvious.
If you aren’t making steady progress toward your fitness goals, then maybe it’s time to perform a bit of an inventory of your relationship with exercise. How do you approach exercise? How do you evaluate your progress? Do you need to modify your goals and rewards? Do you even HAVE goals and rewards?
By understanding a bit more about motivation and behavior, you may be able to make subtle changes that produce substantial and long-lasting effects.
Why Do So Many People Dread Exercising?
In one recent study,2 the exercise habits of average Americans were found to be even worse than previously thought. Men and women of normal weight were found to engage in fat burning activities for a meager two minutes per day.
Obese women were found to manage just one hour of vigorous exercise per year, which breaks down to about 11 seconds per day.3 The number one reason people fail in their exercise goals is lack of a payoff. In other words, there is no immediate and noticeable reward to keep you motivated.
If you want your child to get into the habit of cleaning his room, you might as well forget it unless you build in a reward... and as larger children, we require the same! We’re simply wired that way.
As Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit,4 explains in the video, rewarding yourself could be as easy as treating yourself to a piece of chocolate after you exercise. (Just make sure it’s high-quality chocolate!)
The important thing is that the reward is something you really enjoy. In other words, a bag of kale chips won’t work unless you happen to love kale chips. But if exercise has so many health rewards, then why do so many people find it so hard to do?
Starting Out Too Hard Can Doom You to Failure
Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University, has some theories about why so many people disdain exercise.5 First and foremost, most of the health payoffs that make people want to exercise are not experienced instantly.
Yes, exercise offers countless health benefits—but many of those benefits take weeks or months to manifest. Exposing that six-pack, or having your lipids normalize, or your diabetes disappear is just not going to happen overnight.
Most people need some sort of immediate gratification, and unfortunately, many drop out of their routines prematurely because they’re not seeing or feeling the benefits, and then conclude it’s not working or that it’s too difficult.
Another factor is that starting out too hard in a new exercise program can deprive you out of the exercise mood-boost, which offers near-instant gratification. This may be one of the reasons many people find it hard to stick to their exercise routine.
When you exercise above your respiratory threshold—that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk—you postpone exercise's immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes, according to Dr. Otto. If you’re a novice, that delay might keep you from returning to the gym. So if you’re a fitness newbie, it’s best to start slowly with a moderate exercise plan.
This not only makes it more enjoyable, but it will decrease your risk of injury or the extreme post-workout soreness that often occurs before you learn how hard to push yourself. The “exercise high” is a positive effect that’s immediate and tangible, so you certainly don’t want to deprive yourself of a reward like that!
Is Goal-Setting Really Important?
Setting long-term and short-term fitness goals may be helpful. However, make sure your goals are clear, realistic, and measurable. Success with the short-term goals is what will keep you motivated and on track for success over the long term. A short-term goal may be as simple as feeling energized, being in a better mood, having fewer carb cravings, or sleeping better. Start small and make it easy to achieve.
Many people set their fitness goals around the scale, which can be a recipe for failure. Weight loss may be your ultimate goal, but if you focus on the more immediate rewards—such as better mood and energy—you can avoid what becomes for some an unhealthy fixation on a number.
You will probably feel better pretty quickly, so that’s a better short-term goal. For some, the hardest part of the workout is getting dressed for it—or getting to the gym. Once you’ve gotten that far, you’re committed and the rest seems much easier. So your goal could simply be “putting on your gym clothes”! The point is you can often outsmart your psychological resistance with some clever, outside-the-box thinking.
Excessive physical activity may be as harmful to your health as being too sedentary. If this is you, then your goal is to find the middle ground and know when enough is enough. Whatever your hurdle, if you can identify some immediate benefits from your exercise efforts, you’ll be more likely to stay committed to your routine when the “exercise doldrums” set in. And remember, when it comes to evaluating your fitness success, you are only competing with yourself.
The ‘Invisible’ Benefits of Exercise
In addition to the obvious physical benefits of exercise, there are many others you can’t see—benefits that are "invisible." These include improved health, decreased PMS symptoms, better sexual health, healthier body image, improved memory, and even slower aging—the list goes on and on.
But the most successful exercisers do it for the mental benefits. The mental benefits are often instantaneous. Exercise is THE most effective brain exercise, bar none. Mood enhancement, decreased anxiety and stress, and better memory are all scientifically proven benefits of exercise. Exercise also boosts endorphins, improves self-confidence, and has even been found to inspire creativity.6
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, is quoted as saying:7 "Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain."
Mars and Venus in the Gym
In addition to the known structural differences between men and women, there are also significant psychosocial differences between the sexes when it comes to working out. For example, their motivations are different. Men tend to be all about bulking up and view exercise as a competitive sport. Men love to sweat and aren’t shy about showing it. They also love to look like they’re working out. Men tend to exercise in a formulaic way, following and rarely deviating from a recipe—which typically involves running on a treadmill and lifting weights. Pamela Peeke, MD, calls this “the Home Depot approach” to working out.8
Women, on the other hand, have a more holistic approach, are less interested in a “formula” and more eager to try new things, so their workouts tend to be more varied. Women easily engage in dance and yoga, where the focus is balance, flexibility and coordination as opposed to just strength. Women are often intimidated by weight training, at least initially, and tend to not push themselves in their workouts as hard as men. Women generally don’t like to sweat—and don’t want others to see them sweat!
Women also tend to use exercise as a cooperative social opportunity, whereas men prefer to compete in the gym. Women are much better at taking instruction—men won’t ask for support or direction. Another difference is that women struggle more with a workout schedule, as their hard-wiring as caregivers causes them to put their family’s needs ahead of their own, sometimes to the detriment of their own health and fitness. Of course, these are all generalizations, so there are always exceptions.
All of that said, women and men could LEARN something from each other, pulling from each other’s strengths. Men could teach women how to appreciate the virtues of a vigorous, sweaty workout. Women could teach men temperance. Women could help men step out of their comfort zones and expand their activities into, say, Pilates, dance, and mind-body practices like yoga or tai chi which focus on other things than strength and bulk. Interestingly, recent studies show that men need more vigorous exercise than women for cardiovascular benefits, so it’s possible that some of the above gender differences might actually reflect different biological needs of the sexes.
Varying Your Activities Is Important for Optimal Fitness
The most successful exercisers may have their favorite activities, but they still switch it up a bit. This makes sense when you consider that the effectiveness of your fitness program isn’t measured by how long you exercise, but the quality of your exercise. Quality means optimizing your movements and incorporating as many types of activity as possible. In a new study,9 people who engaged in a varied exercise routine lost more weight and fat mass and built more lean muscle than those who did only resistance training or were sedentary.
Keep in mind that exercising for too long can backfire. High-endurance training, such as running for an hour at a time, puts extraordinary stress on your heart. And while stressing a muscle usually makes it stronger, extremely high stress can have the opposite effect—and when it comes to your heart muscle, this can spell bad news. “No pain, no gain” is as outdated as the low-fat diet.
Studies have repeatedly shown that extreme endurance exercise leads to high levels of oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage to your heart tissues. This produces acute physiological responses that can trigger a cardiac event.
To protect and optimize your heart health, avoid endurance-type training and instead focus on high-intensity interval exercises. Short bursts of intense activity, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is safer and more effective than conventional cardio—for your heart, weight loss, and overall health and fitness. HIIT mimics the movements of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which included short bursts of high-intensity activity rather than running for long distances.
An added boon is that you can complete an entire HIIT session in 20 minutes, and you only need to do them two or three times a week. Any more than that and you'll actually be overdoing it. Now that you’re no longer spending hours upon hours on the treadmill, you can incorporate some other forms of exercise into your routine such as yoga, Pilates, tai chi, tennis, dancing, or a bike ride. The more you can vary your activities, the better your overall conditioning will be, and you’ll have more fun as well.
Proper Recovery Is Crucial
The most successful exercisers recognize that they need to take a break between workouts. Adequate recovery time is necessary to ensure your body has a chance to repair and rebuild between sessions, especially high-intensity ones. Over-exercising can send your body into a stress-response, keeping your cortisol levels elevated. Cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone," is secreted by your adrenal glands and is involved in a variety of metabolic functions, such as regulating your insulin and glucose levels and controlling inflammation.
Elevated cortisol will cause your body to store fat instead of building muscle, which is the last thing you want. Regardless of what types of exercise you do, always listen to your body, as it will give you important feedback about whether or not you are overdoing it. Practicing mindfulness while exercising will augment your results and help prevent injury.
Tips for Building a High-Quality Fitness Regimen
Download Interview Transcript
Intense exercise should be balanced with strength training, proper stretching, core strengthening, stress reduction, restorative sleep, and good nutrition. You'll find much more information about HIIT and other types of exercise in the fitness section of my website. When putting together your exercise routine, it’s important to incorporate the following:
- Stand Up Every 15 Minutes. Compelling research now tells us that prolonged sitting can have a tremendously detrimental impact on your health, even if you exercise regularly. Your body needs to interact with gravity in order to function properly, and this has to be ongoing, throughout your day. Whenever you have a chance to move your body, do so! I invite you to look at our list of 30 videos for ideas about what you can do when you stand up.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: Interval training involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods, and are central to my Peak Fitness routine.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the health benefits of your fitness program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview above with Dr. Doug McGuff, and my video about super slow workouts at the top of this section.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and improve your balance and stability. Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.