-Getting the Right Dose of Movement
While some is good, more is not necessarily better. Endless hours of exercise can be destructive for your health because it leads to chronic inflammation in your body, creates hormonal imbalance, and promotes sugar cravings. You should feel better leaving the gym than when you got there, not beat to a pulp.
Let’s get more specific about how much exercise counts as a therapeutic “dose,” and what we might expect when taking that dose of exercise consistently.
Finding the “perfect” fitness routine for an individual is a bit like trying to find the “perfect” diet. There are a bunch of ways that definitely don’t work, but “optimal” is going to vary from person to person. It doesn’t help when America’s billion-dollar fitness industry is constantly spewing out new “get fit fast” programs, all promising perfection to some degree.
Before we dive into identifying which exercise routine is actually going to be as close to optimal for healing as we can get, let’s address the elephant in the room (you may not even know there is one).
Let me introduce you to chronic cardio.
Best described as a pattern where you too frequently engage in workouts that are highly stressful for your body. They are typically cardiovascular-based workouts such as running, group boot camp programs, and even personal training that push you hard, fast, and for too long.
You might find yourself in a “chronic cardio” zone if your heart rate goes above your pure oxygen burning threshold for too long. This can exhaust your body’s systems, create constant inflammation, mess up your hormones, lead to inability to properly recover, and make you more prone to get injured. In addition, such workouts can promote your appetite and often don’t deliver the results you may have expected. So if you think you’re doing your body a service by having a perfect attendance at your local CrossFit box six to seven times a week, diligently showing up and suffering through boot camp classes with little rest, or pushing yourself to run at high speed for an hour straight, I’ll challenge you to expand your thinking.
Another way to think about chronic cardio is by looking at it through your body’s energy production systems. Remember “glycolysis” from a previous lesson? That’s the system that produces fast fuel NOW by using sugar, and it doesn’t need oxygen to generate energy for working muscles. This system is great for 1-30-second efforts, but dipping into that well too frequently without enough rest in between can lead to burnout over time. Too much glycolytic training (mixing sprint efforts with endurance efforts too often) keeps us craving sugar and exhausts the body.
We’re also told that in order to lose weight, we must persevere through grueling exercise routines or else the weight simply won’t come off. However, exercising is ineffective for weight management (I can hear the glass shattering). Wait, what? We’ve been taught that in order to lose weight we need to “eat less, move more.” But that simplistic energy balance equation is about as explanatory to weight loss as the statement “the Patriots scored more points than the Buccaneers, so that’s why they won.” It’s true that scoring more points than the other team will result in victory, but there’s way more to the story.
Yes, caloric deficit is a thing, but most of your body composition depends on how your nutrition affects hormonal activity. That’s why you can see marathon runners with a beer belly, that’s why you may be struggling to get back in shape. We’ve been misguided here as well. Overall as a nation, we’re getting into fitness more. More people are running marathons each year, more CrossFit and MMA gyms open up. But in some cases, especially when nutrition and sleep are not given proper attention, the BMI of these people isn’t significantly different from the general population.
It tells me that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. Exercise is commonly viewed as the primary vehicle for weight loss. What you eat, though, builds you from within, promotes fat burning or muscle building, or on the contrary, hinders it. It really does matter what you’re going to implement from the second and third modules of R+R Elements, and you’ll be amazed by how simple it can be. By tapping into the playful elements of movement, you can turn exercise into something fun, while zeroing in on your nutrition will help you reap multiple benefits.
Recall our analogy of the “black box” we used when discussing nutrition. In the space between the inputs and outputs (when it comes to conducting studies of optimal lifestyle patterns) lies the infinitely complex human mind and body. It is almost impossible to pinpoint exact variables, but we do have enough evidence to say with confidence a mix of things that work, and a mix of things that definitely don’t.
So let’s take a look at a few fitness approaches we may consider as a part of a healing journey that builds strength, stamina, efficient metabolism, and resilience back up. I’ll suggest a recommended mash-up or a “weekly menu” later, but you can play with mixing and matching it the way it makes you feel good.
1. Low heart rate (HR) training.
What is it? Any time you engage in what you might consider “cardio” (running, rowing, cycling, swimming, etc), limit your heart rate to 180 minus your age and work out strictly below that threshold. For example, if you’re 30 years old, you’d need to keep your heart rate below 180 minus 30 = 150 beats per minute when you’re exercising.
The reason for this is that above this threshold, we risk going glycolytic, or sugar-burning. When we’re doing aerobic-based exercise, it’s best to keep it as aerobic as possible. As my endurance coach used to tell me, keep your easy days easy and your hard days hard. But best not to mix the two together.
Benefits: Optimal fat burning, minimal risk of fatigue and injury, caloric compensation. Feeling energized, invigorated, and strong.
How to implement: You may need to adapt by wearing a heart rate monitor. If you don’t have one, you should be able to comfortably converse when you’re walking, jogging, hiking, doing yoga, or biking. If you are already aware that your heart rate goes above this at all times, you may need to adjust to this new way of exercising by slowing things down. You’re still moving, you’re still burning calories for energy, and you’re still helping your body reap the benefits of exercise.
2. Resistance Training
What is it? Basically, picking things up and putting them back down! Including your own body weight. Evolutionarily, we’re meant to perform some functional fitness activities, the kind of movements easily translatable to an activity beyond your workout. For instance, pulling ourselves up on a tree branch, moving heavy boulders, or carrying a large dead animal to cook it at a camp. We were not doing those things for extensive periods of time, just a few times a week. Lifting weights can mimic this pattern and take the form of bodyweight exercises, lifting free weights, or using cable machines at the gym.
Benefits: Your body thrives on this kind of exercise. It builds muscle, boosts metabolism and doesn’t wreak havoc on your hormones. Also, you can achieve accelerated fat loss, increased energy and better mood by training this way.
How to implement: Keep it brief, explosive and intense. 2-3 sessions a week, 15-20 minutes in duration (excluding warm-up and cool-down). Forget about the “No pain, no gain” motto. You don’t need to slave away doing bicep curls all day or using the machines for hours. Ideally, you’ll feel better after leaving the gym than when you came in and achieve results more efficiently by focusing on the method above.
What is it? An all-out effort that mimics the ancestral provocative thrill of “kill or get killed.” Fight-or-flight mode will be activated, but the cortisol and adrenaline release will only last a short time, just enough to give your body the shakeout it needs. This type of training is the quintessential example of “just-in-time” stress previously discussed.
This is very different from perpetually abusing your fight-or-flight mechanism with everyday hard-core high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or running. Like short-circuiting an overheating electrical circuit, sprinting can help you complete the stress cycle according to Dr. Emily Nagoski, and can aid in helping us return to a baseline level of rest and become more resilient in the face of stressors in the future.
Short bouts of mild, positive stress help us optimize metabolic function and help us become more resilient to future stress. This is known as a “hormetic effect,” a positive response to stress exposure.
Benefits: Increased resilience to stress, optimized metabolic function (yay to burning fat more efficiently!), muscle growth, better fitness and cognitive performance, and renewed vitality.
How to implement: Every seven to ten days go all out, focusing on maximum effort, not necessarily the speed or distance you’d like to cover. Remember to have a good warm-up, focus on form and explosiveness of your effort, and keep the sprint duration fairly short (15-20 seconds max, although if you’re new to sprinting, even four to five intervals of five seconds each can be a good place to start).
NOTE: if you’re injured, brand new to a fitness routine or older, please take it slow. Listen to your body. Start with low-impact exercises like swimming and bike sprints instead of pounding the pavement. Sprinting can bring incredible results and health benefits only if you’re already in a stable place health and fitness-wise.
What is it? The classic definition of CrossFit is “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains.” We talked about chronic cardio before and hitting a CrossFit exercise six plus days per week can easily fall into that category. However, if executed as designed, this methodology can be highly effective. For starters, it’s recommended to take one day off for every three days of training.
To their credit, in its founding, the creators sought to have an objective definition of “health and fitness” and aimed to create a program that maximized those objective variables. The intent was not to produce the “fittest on Earth” that you might picture in the documentaries (if you’ve come across those), but to combat chronic disease. This is why CrossFit considers itself a lifestyle more so than a one-hour fitness plan and includes sleep and nutrition in its protocol.
I was first introduced to the whole black box idea in my CrossFit Level 1 class, which helps explain why gyms rarely schedule the same workout twice. Their definition of fitness includes ten domains: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, thus the varied nature of the workouts theoretically fires on all of those cylinders.
This method of training can be executed well, safely, and while promoting your health, but, as with any exercise routine, it can be overdone. Do your research before you start drinking the infamous CrossFit Kool-aid, and specifically look for a good track record for CrossFit coaches at the gym you’re considering to join, as well as the adaptability of their programming to athletes of all levels.
Another note on CrossFit (in my estimation, the true secret sauce of the programming) is that it’s performed with a group. Members often feel part of a family and the communal bond that’s established through extremely challenging physical exercise adds an unbelievably powerful layer to its effectiveness.
Benefits: Build muscle, lose fat, push yourself while pursuing some hard fitness goals, have a community of like-minded individuals.
How to implement: If you’re new to CrossFit, take the fundamentals class that every gym offers, focusing on the technique and moving well. If you’re going to solely focus on CrossFit as your main fitness modality, doing WODs (workout of the day) 2-3 times a week mixed in with some good strength training parts of your class is a great way to promote optimal health and get stronger. Above all, make sure the gym you pick feels like a community you could be a part of. That is at least as important as a coach who can meet you where you are with just the movements themselves.
How to create a fitness protocol that works for you:
If your body is beaten up (join the club!), if it went through a lot physically and mentally, if you are injured, lacking motivation or intimidated to get back into the swing of things, then less is more. Moving your body frequently, even doing the simplest things such as shifting away from being sedentary, can bring beautiful results. Movement can create a positive impact on those struggling with PTS by reducing PTS symptoms, improving cardiovascular health, neural and cognitive markers, as well as enhancing mood. Even as few as 4,400 steps per day have been shown to help with longevity.
Want to feel like a badass and have the strength, power, and energy today? Go do that CrossFit workout. Promise me you’ll first focus on your safety and form, then on the speed and beating the person next to you. Go for a run and listen to your body’s cues. Slow down. Focus on your form.
In ideal conditions, if you’re looking to build something sustainable and score some long-term benefits, you’d want to have 2-3 dedicated strength workouts weekly, 3-4 sprinting workouts a month, and daily movement at a low heart rate to support your body, build strength and promote optimal health. For specific performance goals, it’s best to work one-on-one with a coach to figure out what works for you, but any general movement routine to promote maximal health simply includes a handful of sprints, a few days of lifting heavy things, and low-level movement throughout the day.
Next up, Andrea is going to talk about slowing life down and practicing mindfulness to enhance your vitality and reduce daily stress.
Always cheering for you,
- Assess your physical health. Do you have injuries limiting you? What needs to be healed on a physical level? Do you need more mobility work, PT, or adjustments? What is your ultimate goal when it comes to movement?
- Create a simple plan to improve your physical fitness that is aligned with your healing. If you’ve already made great progress on addressing stress, inflammation and improving your sleep, maybe longer runs at a reasonable heart rate or CrossFit are calling your name. Do a search for gyms in your area to see what might be realistic.
- Test your ability once in a while using benchmarks like maximum lifts or run speed, and reevaluate your training program frequently.
We got a full-body, 20-minute exercise on tap for today. Roll out the mat and let’s get to it!