Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Exercise Workouts: The "Wuss" Strategy

Following my previous posting about establishing a workout regimen with an eye toward sustaining it for the long term, here's a counterintuitive trick: start out like a wuss.

If you've never been a worker-outer, or if you've lapsed, it's really helpful to do the most half-assed workouts imaginable for the first three sessions. Under-load all weight machines and work only to the point of light fatigue, rather than grunting exhaustion. Walk on the treadmill, don't jog. Break a light sweat, no more. Reasons:

1. You won't get as sore. Soreness at the beginning is a downer that can can make you skip sessions, interfering with the creation of a consistent regimen (though soreness eventually will come to feel good...you'll crave it!).

2. Many of us have psychological baggage about exercise, and those issues can derail a regimen. So you must pay as much attention to your mind as to your body. Easing in to a regimen ensures a positive experience. Pain, tiredness, and exhaustion may feel good once you're in the groove...but less so when starting out. It's hard enough to establish a regimen without having to deal with dread, so keep things light-and-breezy in the beginning. No pain, no exhaustion, no feelings of futility that may stir up deeper aversions and make the gym come to feel like a place to stoically endure, or even skip outright.

3. On days when you're feeling cranky and not in the mood to work out, it will be harder to blow off the session if you know it's not particularly demanding. Don't give yourself an easy excuse to drop out!

4. After the three (or so) easy workouts, you'll have begun to initiate a habit. You'll be used to going to the gym, and your body will start to yearn for exercise. Establishing this habit is vastly more important than the workouts themselves. Your job, in the beginning, is less about building muscles or losing weight, than about building a consistent regimen.

5. Workouts are like brushing teeth. Any one brushing, no matter how protracted and diligent, can make only scant improvement in the health or appearance of your teeth, but twice daily brushing will, over time, reap huge rewards. People often launch workout regimens with lock-jawed Prussian determination, but by intentionally ratcheting back at the beginning, we establish a longer-range perspective toward gradual steady process. When you exercise with that perspective, surprisingly good results sneak up on you when you're hardly looking for them.

The same applies if, after having established a regimen, you miss a few workouts in a row. Resume like a wuss. Drop all your weights, speeds, and timings. Don't heed the natural impulse to "make up for" missed sessions. You can't do yourself much enduring good from any one or two sessions, anyway, so you'll only disrupt your effort to reestablish the habit.

At a certain point, you'll hit a groove and your body will happily accept tougher workloads. The trick is to ease into it! But bear squarely in mind that consistency is everything. 200 relatively modest workouts per year will do much more for you than 30 or 40 punishing workouts. Intensity can always be ratcheted up later, once you've cultivated a firm gym habit. At that point, go for it!

Finally, some paradigm-shifting perspective from master yoga teacher Ramanand Patel. While having us execute some particularly grueling and uncomfortable maneuver, eliciting peals of grunts and moans around the room, Patel quietly noted that at that very moment, while we enjoyed our yoga class, countless millions of our fellow humans were engaged in the most back-breaking labor in hope of putting some food on the table for their families. The moaning ceased immediately.

It's a wonderful image to call to mind during those gym moments when you deem yourself to be "suffering".


Dave said...

Good stuff, Jim, and I think most of your advice about exercise could be applied to dieting as well, especially when one has fallen off the wagon and trying to restart a regimen.

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, it works for diet, for meditation, and for any other activity that requires a really long view approach.

I've never been a patient person (though I've grown a lot more patient lately), and this helps impose a long-view perspective on those of us otherwise disinclined to take it. There are things one does for immediate pay-off, and there are things one does like brushing one's teeth. Locking an activity into the tooth-brushing category requires a degree of self-coddling in order to gently, gingerly establish habit. Habits aren't, after all, only for breaking!

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