I want to use the occasion of the year ending in a few days in order to talk about a topic that most of you are probably all too familiar with – exercise. Everyone can relate to it because everyone is doing it, over-doing it or should-be-doing it. Researchers have recently agreed that there are more exercise-programs and meal-plans on the internet than hydrogen atoms in the entire universe – but which one is the right one for you, you might rightfully ask? Let me take you on a short step by step journey on how I found my ideal exercise routine and how you might learn to find yours.
Step 1 – Try out a lot of different things
Whether you are completely new to physical exercise or you have already been on and off different regimens for years – it does not matter. There is a fine line between quitting something and simply moving on to find something more suitable for you. Chances are you know yourself well enough to be aware which one of those two you are guilty of. It is ok if you haven’t found your way yet. It’s just important that you keep going. On the other hand, if you regularly quit exercise programs only to plunge into a routine of couch-potatoing for a few months in a row, it should be a clue that you need to intensify your efforts in looking for your optimal workout regimen.
Step 2 – Dig around for fundamental and background information
Some people like to believe blindly – others, like me, want proof. If you start a new program familiarize yourself with the scientific background a little bit. If something doesn’t sound right to you, don’t do it – no matter how ripped the cover model selling the products appears to be and no matter how overwhelmingly positive the testimonials sound. And don’t worry, the science part isn’t that difficult anymore nowadays – and it’s getting easier and easier to understand. Many bloggers write on scientific topics in a very understandable manner and it’s easy to become familiar with seemingly complicated topics and understand them fairly quickly. If you understand the underlying fundamentals of something you are about to do on a regular basis and are convinced that these fundamentals make sense, you are much more likely to stick with such a program.
Step 3 – Become your own personal trainer and customize your plan
A fair amount of quitting when it comes to almost anything – especially such a commitment like a new exercise program – comes from inappropriate expectations. That’s why we all buy our 1-year gym memberships on January 2nd (we would do it on the 1st if we weren’t so hung over) and have nothing left but excuses by the end of February. You “commit” when you’re hyped up and motivated and when getting up at 6 AM and going to the gym for 2 hours 6 days a week sounds like a good idea. But when you wake up on the second day of your program feeling cold, tired and sore after your first workout you suddenly don’t feel all that hyped up anymore. It then becomes an all or nothing decision between two extremes and you can’t see any middle ground. It becomes perfection over progress for you and once you hit the first discomfort you go on and quit entirely. To prevent this, following through with Step 2 should give you the minimum amount of knowledge necessary to take responsibility and become your own PT. Then you can go on and customize your plan so that you can stick to it in the long term.
Step 4 – Learn to listen to your body and tweak your approach as needed
No matter how different all the exercise programs out there may seem they actually all have one thing in common: they all are a cycle of strain and recovery. The main differences are only in volume, frequency and quality of these two components. The important thing is that both of those parts – the one where you actually do some work and strain your body as well as the one where you let it recover and regain its strength – are both equally important and to be taken seriously. In order to master this cycle you need to become very honest with yourself and learn to listen to your body very well.
Since “listen to your body” has become an empty bromide with only a nebulous meaning let me clarify what it means to me: There are basically two types of pain and two types of thoughts. Positive and negative pain, and positive and negative thoughts.
Let’s quickly examine the first one: Positive pain mostly relates to muscle. It’s what happens when you do something that is really, really physically difficult. There is no joint, ligament or tendon being hurt – just muscles burning and shaking. It mostly comes gradually, building up as you are getting weaker throughout your run on the treadmill or your weight lifting session and the levels of lactic acid start to increase in your muscle tissue. Also, the area affected is mostly large in size and not easy to pinpoint with just the tip of one finger. It is crucial that you experience this kind of pain on a few occasions and convince yourself that there is nothing bad happening to you and that you can work through it.
Then there is the negative pain. This one usually does not build up gradually and it’s hard to get a positive twist on this no matter how often you experience it. It is pain like the one you experience when tearing some fibers of a muscle in an instant or when accidentally burning your hand on the stove. It is best compared to a sting in a small surface area and often involves your joints – like an inflammation of the muscle tendons running through your kneecap after excessive jogging or a bolting pain in your neck when turning your head to a certain position.
Apart from learning to read those two kinds of pain you can learn a lot about your current state by listening to the dominant thoughts in your head. If you are well recovered after your last workout you will automatically be looking forward to the next one and if you think about the specific exercises and the effort involved you might think positively “I can do this” or any variation of that thought. If you haven’t recovered yet or are even seriously injured chances are you will be thinking something along the lines of “Omg, I can’t do this, this is way too hard” etc. Given that you are even remotely aware of your inner self-talk and don’t have any major issues like regularly torturing yourself with negative, failure-oriented thoughts, listening to the dialogue in your head can give you valuable insights into the state your body is in and can enable you to make proper decisions like inserting an additional recovery day, changing the long-term intensity or volume of your workout program and so on. That way you can prevent injuries and ensure that you stick with your plan for a longer time period while not under-challenging yourself.
Step 5 – Stick with it and develop consistency
Now that you have learned to take responsibility for your own workout program and listen to your body and manage the different kinds of pain effectively we need to address the last missing piece in the exercise picture: consistency. Of course you know that you have to stick to something in order for it to work, that’s not new information for anyone who has been around the block at least once. The more interesting question is: how do you do it? The answer to this is related to another question that has bounced around the blogosphere some time ago and was spectacularly answered here by Mark Sisson. The question was: what is the best exercise? And the answer was pretty interesting: it’s the one that you will do. Meaning of course that it doesn’t matter how much you could get out of working out for 2 hours 5 days a week if you only can manage to ACTUALLY do 2 days a week or follow through but quit after 3 weeks. The right approach is to find the minimum effort that you are capable of exerting on a regular weekly basis and stick to it and then check back with your results after 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, etc.
So please, do yourself a favor and don’t fall into the new-year’s resolution trap and bite off way more than you can chew, let alone swallow and properly digest. Consider all your other commitments – they cost time and physical resources as well, all of which need to be taken into account when designing your workout plan. Then figure out what it is that you can positively do every single week and then go on and do it.
If you have aimed too low you can always tweak along the way and increase your efforts step by step. But at least you won’t be an owner of a gym membership card that has been swiped only twice in January while you were still surfing your motivational high resulting from eating too many cookies on Christmas Eve.