I am not going to lie, I definitely lived by the “no pain, no gain” mentality when it came to exercise. It was the natural consequence of years and years of competitive rowing where we were constantly being pushed to get personal bests and were pitted against our teammates. I absolutely loved this environment and mentality in the moment, but realized it is no longer serving me. I am working on taking a new approach to exercise.
Even years after I was no longer in that competitive environment I was still constantly pushing myself to my physical extremes and I certainly wasn’t taking the necessary rest or listening to my body when it was telling me it desperately needed a break. Despite all of this, I wasn’t seeing the benefits, I would completely plateau. I wasn’t getting stronger or faster, I wasn’t building muscle, I wasn’t losing weight (when that was my goal at the time). So what did I do? I pushed myself harder, ran further, lifted heavier weights, and added in more workouts.
As you can imagine, this didn’t work either. Looking back at it now, I can easily realize that I was putting way too much stress on my body. It is obvious now, but harder to realize in the moment when we automatically assume we just have to try harder if we aren’t getting the results we want. I have seen this in countless others as well, usually related to trying to lose weight. They will be pushing themselves in the gym everyday, eating the cleanest diet, yet they are getting minimal results. Naturally they start to workout more intensely and eating in an even more restrictive manner, only to give up because “it’s not working”.
We might not realize it, but exercise stresses our body out. It is a good stressor, called a hormetic stressor, that allows our body to become stronger and more resilient in the long run, but still adds stress to our body in the moment. Just like any other stressor, it releases a spike of cortisol, our stress hormone in our body. If our cortisol levels are already all over the place because of all the other stressors we are dealing with, whether it be money concerns, deadlines at work, or throwing a party for your child’s birthday, then the exercise is actually doing more harm than good. If your body is already dealing with a lot of stress, it can be overkill and sends your body into survival mode. In this state our body is not functioning ideally and all the goals you are trying to achieve with your exercise routine are no longer a priority.
So what do you need to do?
You need to cut back on the stressors in your life, including exercise. When we are overwhelmed and dealing with a lot, it is often better to try gentle, restorative movement. You might even notice this is what your body is asking for. Personally, I notice there are times I can’t find the motivation to force myself to get out for a run, but I will be craving a relaxing walk in nature. This is your body telling you what it needs to recover and get back into balance.
I know encouraging you to take it easy when it comes to exercise goes against the cultural norms and likely even our own personal beliefs about exercise, but take it slow, let your body recover from the stress and once you have recovered you can ramp things up again. Whether you are looking to build strength or speed, lose weight or gain muscle, you will actually see these results once you have given your body time to recover.
Some tips for exercise that will help you recover:
Focus on gentle, restorative exercises. Think a walk around your neighbourhood, an easy stroll in nature, a relaxing yoga session or hop on your bike for a cruise around town. Anything that will get your body moving without raising your heart rate too much or causing you to break a sweat.
Slow your pace and reduce your intensity. You might not even have to switch up your regular exercise routine, you simply need to pair it back, whether that is slowing the pace, cutting back on the duration or turning down the intensity.
Listen to your body. When your body needs time to slow down and recover, you will find your desire and motivation to do more intense forms of exercise will be non-existent. Before your exercise session, check in with yourself on what type of exercise you feel like in the moment and what intensity you are feeling up for. And actually listen to what your body is asking and resist the urge to ramp it up or slip back in your prescription training schedule.
Get your movement in nature. Simply spending time in nature is shown to decrease stress, anxiety and depression, so if you are going to be moving your body anyways, why not get those added benefits.
Give yourself grace. If you have decided to slow down and let yourself recover, do it without guilt. Let go of what you “should” be doing and embrace this gentler way of moving your body, knowing that it is exactly what your body needs at that point in time.
I know it seems against everything you believe to be true about exercise, but I encourage you to slow it down, listen to your body and let your body recover. I guarantee you will not only handle the other stressors in your life better, but also reach your fitness or body composition goals much easier this way.
Want to learn more:
Check out this blog on how to fix your relationship with exercise using a movement menu.
Check out this blog on how to recover from stress.
Check out this free e-book on how to recover from stress using nutrition, sleep, movement and self care.