By Michael Krueger
There are plenty of people who work out. They take classes; do DVDs; or run, swim, bike, lift, or any number of good training activities. They have goals, keep logs, and maintain schedules, thereby ensuring they will be successful in the long term. In short, they know what they’re doing.
Then there are a lot of other people who exercise but who don’t do so well. Rather than having a plan, they wander aimlessly from protocol to protocol, never really accomplishing much. They chat more than they sweat, and for some odd reason they consume energy drinks and recovery smoothies. They miss more workouts than they make, and they don’t keep a log, so they aren’t even aware of this. The only thing that is apparent is that they aren’t particularly successful.
Oddly, both of these groups and the huge numbers of people who fall somewhere in between are, for the most part, happy with what they do. They comfortably fall back on the old saw that says, “It’s better than nothing.”
Well, is it better than nothing?
The Short Answer
I’d say the answer is, “No, it’s not.” I’m sure I’d get a lot of argument on this subject from any number of groups and individuals, but since it’s a matter of opinion, I’m giving mine.
People who don’t accomplish much with exercise but insist that they do, in fact, “work out” dilute the value of exercise in the minds of others. As an example, let me tell you a little anecdote. I was on vacation a few years ago and went for a swim in the hotel pool. There were two overweight women about my age in the pool as well. They were in water about chest deep, slowly hopping/bobbing/walking the width of the pool. They were chatting while going back and forth. They stopped chatting when I first got in the pool but resumed once they noticed that I was using earplugs. I spent my time swimming laps and making sure not to get in their way.
After about half an hour to 40 minutes (a long time for me to swim), I switched over to the whirlpool, where I removed my earplugs. Now, even though I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, I could hear their conversation quite easily. It consisted of mostly what you would expect: children, grandchildren, and grumpy husbands. Then they surprised me. One glanced up at the clock and exclaimed, “Look at that. We’ve been exercising for nearly an hour!” The other replied, “I know; I regularly exercise for an hour.” Then they toweled off and trundled over to the breakfast buffet.
Later at breakfast, when I mentioned this exchange to my wife, she said, “Well, at least they did something.” I then pointed them out to her and said, “Do they look like they are getting a benefit from their regularly working out for ‘nearly an hour’?” In surveys, I’d bet that they check “yes” when asked if they get 45 minutes of exercise on “most days,” which explains why more and more people report regular exercise, yet as a country we get bigger and less healthy and take more prescription drugs every year.
Too many people just don’t understand what it means to really exercise. I’m not talking about making everyone into an athlete or a bodybuilder either. I just mean the act of raising their heart rate and sustaining it for even 20 minutes to elicit a training effect. Or lifting weights progressively enough to build and maintain adequate muscle mass as they age.
So, in my opinion, the idea of “doing something” has duped many people into thinking they are doing enough to affect their health in a positive way. I think they are mostly wasting their time.
… Let the disagreement begin.
The Long Answer
Now, to walk it back just a bit: I understand that everyone has to start somewhere, and that means low and slow. The previously mentioned women could be in the early stages of an exercise program, but even if that’s the case, they need to step it up. Nonprogressive activity is not exercise; it’s simply movement, which is wonderful in and of itself and is what the majority of life is about, but it’s not exercise.
Exercise is specific movement done in a detailed way, with a precise purpose in mind. Cardiovascular activity is done to improve heart and lung function. Resistance training is done to build muscle and improve strength. Flexibility work is so that your muscles and joints work smoothly and efficiently. All this training needs to be targeted and progressive to obtain the desired results, even if the desired result is simply to live a functional, pain-free life.
Physical training is work, not play. To get the most benefit from the smallest investment of time, exercise can’t be haphazard and unplanned. If you aren’t keeping track of your workouts, you don’t know what you are doing. If you don’t know if what you’re doing is effective, why are you doing it? To simply wander in the wilderness of gyms, pools, machines, and iron is a sure path to either self-delusion or frustration–but certainly not success.
I tell people all the time that if they don’t know why they are doing what they are doing, then they can’t possibly know if it’s working. Unfocused activity in the gym may give the appearance of exercise, but it’s not. I see people randomly trying this and that piece of equipment, haphazardly picking up (or trying to) a dumbbell or walk on a treadmill. This isn’t going to accomplish anything.
Then there are those who seem to have a plan, but it’s not working because it’s not tailored to their goals. They might work hard on a program that is designed to get them massively strong or huge (your average muscle magazine workout) when what they really want is to lose weight and improve their cardiovascular system so that they can pass their physical.
So while these people are both “doing something,” but in completely different ways, neither is going to be successful.
Taking stock of where you are, how you got there, and then deciding where you want to go is a good beginning. Doing the same thing that you did in the past is going to leave you in the same place as you are now. Doing what everyone else is doing, when you don’t know if their goals match yours, will just leave you frustrated and confused.
It’s time for a new plan. A plan made for you. A plan that will get you out of the cycle of failure that so many “exercisers” are in. A plan that includes realistic, time-specific goals; regular reviews; a successful finish; a celebration; and then a new goal.
Really Do Something
Next time you go to the gym, make sure you know what you are there for. Take your log book, write up your workout, and do it–no excuses. Your life is important, your time is important, your goals are important…
today is the day to really do something!
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]