I’m on holiday this week – four days in and I’m feeling relaxed – perfect time for a blog. I’ve had this idea sitting in my drafts folder for ages – and given I’m taking a week off exercising it’s probably the right time to write it. So without further ado: how to exercise properly…
First up a caveat (because, sadly, we live in a weird world): the contents of this blog are my opinion, and any advice regarding exercise should be ratified by a medical professional before you act on them. Follow at your own risk and, if in doubt, consult a doctor first!
There is an enormous amount of confusion and bullshit out there regarding exercise and diet. Entire industries have evolved to make people feel bad about themselves and offer ‘solutions’. Amazingly, most people know very little about the physical aspects of exercising: what’s ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, how to do it right, what’s healthy (and what’s not), and what’s just plain BS. Similarly, very few people know much about the psychological benefits (and potential risks) of exercising. Over the next 1500 or so words, I’ll try and sort a bit of the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’.
Let’s start with the physiological basics of exercise. Exercise is simply physical activity that places the body under strain. We exercise in order to get ‘fitter’ which means ‘placing the body under physiological stress, and then allowing it to adapt’. Fitness improvements occur through a process of overcompensation: when we place a system under strain, damage occurs. In order to reduce the likelihood of damage occurring to the same level in the future, the system heals with minor improvements. Given enough time, including adequate recovery time between episodes of strain, the body will adapt to be more effective (i.e., resistant to damage) when placed under similar strain. This is getting fitter.
The biggest mistakes that people make when attempting to increase fitness come from a lack of understanding of the basic mechanism of overcompensation. First, they place themselves under too great a load. Instead of minor damage to the system, they end up with an injury that isn’t easily healed and which scuppers future training. In order to train effectively, we need to start with a low dose, and then slowly increase the dose (including time, frequency, duration and intensity). Second, they don’t give themselves adequate time to recover between exercise sessions (resulting in ongoing damage manifesting as injury). The body needs between 24 and 48 hours to recover from training, depending on the amount of damage done (i.e., a higher dose tends to require a longer recovery). Third, they underestimate the amount of time required to modify a system. It takes at least three months to get a training effect, and any real improvements to an untrained system takes 6-24 months. Fourth, they do the same thing over and over, resulting in excessive strain to a given system and inadequate attention to other systems. The body requires varied exercise routines. Last, they assume that if a certain ‘dose’ is effective, then a multiple of that dose will be more effective. Without adequate time to recover, and with ongoing damage to system, not only don’t we get a training effect, we can also do a lot of systemic damage (this is called overtraining).
At the other end of the spectrum, people don’t get a training effect because they don’t put themselves under enough load. The body adapts relatively quickly, so continuing to do the same thing that you did when you started exercising will stop providing a training response pretty soon. Likewise, simply going through the motions won’t result in an outcome. People who walk or run on treadmills while reading a magazine (for example) are not getting a training effect! There is some truth to the ‘no pain, no gain’ maxim: placing the system under strain will feel uncomfortable, and the higher the intensity, the more uncomfortable it will feel (with the above caveat).
So, put simply: start easy, get enough rest (but not too much), increase at a measured pace, do lots of varied things, recognise that it’s going to take a while, but also make sure you challenge yourself (within limits).
The benefits are worth it. We’ve all been told that if we exercise we reduce the risks associated with ‘lifestyle illnesses’ like heart disease, type II diabetes, bowel cancer and osteoporosis. But it goes a lot further. Fitter people not only live longer, they function dramatically better, not only physiologically, but psychologically as well. Fitter people are less likely to experience anxiety or depression, perform better cognitively, have a lowered incidence of dementia in later life, and sleep better. Exercise results in increased levels of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain (all of which help improve our mood), and helps to increase neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) especially in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that regulates memory and emotion). Screw ‘brain training’ activities; the one intervention that has been demonstrated consistently to improve brain function throughout the lifespan is regular aerobic exercise. That brings up another important point: it’s never too late to exercise. In fact, most of what we call ageing (e.g., lowered mobility and strength, reduced energy, physical and cognitive decline) is the result of ‘secondary ageing’: ageing that is the result of inactivity and mostly preventable. In fact, because most people stop exercising properly in their 40’s or 50’s (the time when they need it a lot more), by the time they reach their 70’s they’ve been inactive for 20-30 years, with 20-30 years of associated decline.
OK, so good so far. Exercise is good, and we need to do more of the right type. But what is the right type? Again, most people don’t know what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
At its simplest, we can divide exercising into aerobic and anaerobic types. Aerobic exercise (also called endurance or cardiovalscular exercise) generally lasts for more than 20 minutes, and involves something like walking, running or cycling to get the heart rate up for an extended period. It’s called ‘aerobic’ exercise because, primarily, it utilises the aerobic energy system in the body, which uses oxygen as a catalyst for turning sugar into energy. Aerobic exercise is important because it improves the efficiency of the heart and the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the cells. Anaerobic exercise (strength or resistance training) uses the anaerobic (no oxygen) systems that exist for short bursts of power. It includes things like weight-lifting and sprinting and, because it places our muscles, connective tissue, and bones under load, it’s very important for improving strength in these systems.
Any effective exercise routine should include both aerobic and anaerobic components. That means that as well as getting their heart rate up regularly, everyone should be lifting weights or doing some weight-bearing exercise. A common myth is that lifting weights will automatically build muscle, an idea that puts many women off resistance exercise. In reality, muscle growth (or hypertrophy) occurs in the presence of anaebolic steroids (i.e., testosterone). Because women produce only small amounts of testosterone, the chances of ‘bulking up’ are extremely slim, but the benefits, including stronger muscles, increased bone density, and a more stable core, are huge (if you’ll excuse the pun).
Great, not only is exercise good for you, we need a balance of different types. But there’s a problem. Exercise is usually perceived as (i) difficult, (ii) painful, and (iii) time consuming. If it was easy and pleasant, most of us would be fit. But it turns out that a lot of our preconceptions about exercise being hard and painful come from the ways in which we exercise in the modern world.
First, we exercise in ways that simply aren’t fun. Most gyms are filled with modern torture machines on which people flog themselves without taking any pleasure or enjoyment in what they’re doing. Watch people in a typical ‘cardio theatre’ and either they’re suffering through a punishment session, or they’re bored shitless and staring at the television (or reading a magazine) without pushing themselves at all. It turns out that, although we might get a physical training effect from the training, unless the exercise is voluntary and enjoyable, we get no psychological benefit (the increased mood and reduced anxiety and depression I mentioned earlier). In fact, it might even make it worse, because we’re putting ourselves through something that we find stressful and unpleasant. Note, kids have fun when they exercise, because for them, exercise is synonymous with play. Enough said.
Second, we exercise in artificial ways (e.g., using treadmills and machines) and in artificial environments (e.g., gyms). We evolved for systemic movement (using the full body) in a natural environment and, according to researchers, it turns out that we get the best benefits (both physiological and psychological) when we exercise in a more ‘natural’ way. This means exercising outdoors and in a way that imitates the activities we evolved to do (like climbing and sprinting).
Third, we often exercise either in isolation or competitively. One of the greatest benefits of exercise is the social interaction that can be had from collaborative exercise with people we like. This means that we get to have fun while exercising, which also means we’re much more likely to enjoy ourselves, less likely to focus on the uncomfortable aspects, less likely to experience pressure or stress, and be more inclined to repeat the experience. And yet, most of us suffer through boring, isolating gym routines in which we focus on the pain and suffering and dread the next session.
Last, we exercise in ways that involve very little challenge around skills development and mastery. On the one hand, learning to ride a mountain bike (for example) involves a whole bevy of requirements. Not only developing the strength and endurance required to ride the bike, but also the skills necessary to stay on at speed or during technical, challenging descents. This means devoting time to increase skill levels and the consequent satisfaction we achieve from increased mastery. On the other hand, most of the things we do in a gym have a very short learning curve and mastery provides very little in the way of satisfaction. Mastering a mountain bike is exciting because it has a lot of variables and provides a lot of feedback. A treadmill, not so much.
So, if we put that all together, exercise sucks for most people because it’s dull, painful and repetitive; it’s artificial; it’s isolating or competitive; and it provides us with very little by way of stimulation or accomplishment. Enjoyable (and, therefore, motivating) exercise combines fun, a natural environment, social interaction and collaboration, and challenge (through skills development).
There’s one more thing that I need to address, because it’s probably what most of you are thinking at this stage: time. As in, “I don’t have enough time to exercise”. It’s the biggest excuse and the main reason for a lack of regular exercise in most people’s lives. And to that I say “screw the gym”. We tend to make time for the things that we find important, meaningful, pleasant or valuable. If exercise is all of these things, then we will make time for it. For me, I get my exercise from mountain biking (something I love for lots of reasons – read here) and I train in the gym to be stronger on the bike (which means I can go faster and therefore have more fun). But for those of you who simply aren’t interested in something like that, or who genuinely can’t make time, how about basic stuff like getting off your morning commute a station or stop earlier and walking the rest of the way to work? It’s even easier when you combine the intention with a value (e.g., “my health is important to me”) and pleasure (e.g., “I really like the walk to work because it takes me past my favourite [insert favourite thing here]”).
In case I’ve come off as too preachy in this blog, let me leave you with a basic. We evolved for regular physical activity. Without it we don’t function and break down. If you want to live an effective life you’re going to need to exercise, and if you’re going to exercise, you might as well do it in a way that gives you the benefit you need. My advice, unless you really enjoy it, ditch the gym and find something that’s more fun and that gets you interacting with people you like. And do it soon.