Intensity

A few years back, I got sucked into the P90X craze just like many, many other people. I borrowed the DVDs from my brother-in-law and gave it a go. It was a hell of a workout while I stuck with it…which was about two weeks. The problem with this and other workout programs like it is that it is not practical for the average person that has a normal life. Most people don’t have the time or stamina to exercise for over an hour per day, six or seven days per week at the intensity level that is required. P90X is a great program if you are already in shape. The problem is that many (I dare say most) of the people who are drawn to programs like this are de-conditioned and need to start out more slowly. Put another way, these types of programs are not practical for long term exercise adherence because the intensity level is too high for most individuals to stick with long term.

Well doesn’t a high intensity workout burn more calories and fat? Absolutely, but if you want to make exercise a habit, you need to ramp up your level of intensity gradually, not just go all out from the start. Motivation is not usually the reason people don’t stick with their exercise regimes. People often start off training too hard and then feel like failures because they cannot stick with the unrealistic goals that they have set for themselves. Much of this has to do with the culture that we live in with companies and programs promising high reward with little effort (which doesn’t work), and/or showing us “ideal” body types that have nothing to do with actually being healthy. In order to make exercise a lifelong habit, you need to start slowly and build up the intensity over time. Here’s an example.

Say for instance you wake up one morning and decide that you want to begin an exercise program. You see your neighbor running every morning as you go out to get the newspaper and decided that you want to be a runner too since she seems very fit and healthy. So you put on your shoes and go for a run around the neighborhood. You feel okay. You’re a little winded and have to walk part of the way because your legs hurt a bit, but you push yourself to keep going because you are determined. You finish your run, and go on with the rest of your day. Then…you wake up the next morning. It feels like someone ran over you in their truck while you were sleeping. Extreme soreness is not necessarily bad physically, but it can be devastating mentally. You can barely walk, much less run, so you decide to take the day off to let you body heal. Surely you’ll feel better tomorrow, and you’ll get back on track. You feel a little better the next day but your legs are still throbbing. You decide to take off one more day before you run again. Before you know it, it’s been five or six days since your run around the neighborhood, and you feel defeated. You think to yourself that you don’t want to feel that sore again, but you know you need to exercise more. Your running program just lasted exactly one day before it crashed and burned. You feel bad, and decide to have Oreos for breakfast.

That’s just an example, but I hope it gets the point across. It doesn’t have to be like this. There is a better way.

Since exercise has so many benefits, the goal should be to make exercise a habit…something you do most days of the week in order to be more healthy without killing yourself in the process. You need to be healthy…not look like a magazine cover model (who has probably been Photo-shopped anyway). The Center for Disease Control recommends 15o minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week for most adults in order to see significant health benefits. Let’s do some math. 150 minutes divided by 5 days per week is only 30 minutes per day…for five days. The example the CDC gives for “Moderate Intensity” is brisk walking. Another way of thinking about “Moderate Intensity” is using a Rating of Perceived Exertion scale of 1 to 10, moderate would be about a 3-4. What’s more, the 30 minutes per day does not even have to be all at one time. You can see significant health results by doing 3, 10 minute sessions or 2, 15 minute sessions until you are physically able to walk for 30 total minutes. Once you have reached that threshold and are easily walking 30 minutes at a time for 5 days per week, then you can add in jogging/running if you want to. Time yourself, and use a 1:3 ratio of running to walking, then eventually progress to a 1:2, and then 1:1. Once you get to this point, going for one long sustained run at a moderate pace when you feel like it should not be as big of an issue as it would be if you just woke up one morning and went all out on a run. It will take more time building up to running this way, but the activity level is more sustainable.

If you’re like me and can’t or don’t like to run, this works with walking (just walk faster and/or uphill to increase the intensity), biking, swimming, or just about any other aerobic activity you can think of. Despite what you may see or hear on TV and the Internet, as long as you are not putting yourself into some kind of unnatural position that your body is not made for, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to exercise. The goal is just to get up and move more than you currently at some manageable intensity level that is challenging but not ridiculous. That way you are more likely to work exercise into your daily routine which is something that ANYONE can do.

Happy Trails!