Turns out you can get fit without shame or pain

Can we talk about all the bullshit, shame based fitness memes that are so damn popular on social media? You know the ones. They say shit like “Be proud, but never satisfied.”

FFS. I can’t be the only person who finds this kind of language abusive. I realize the people who use these “fitspirations” are well intentioned. I’ve had conversations with other instructors where they’ve asked me, “What’s the harm if these statements motivate people to work harder? How else are we supposed to get participants to push themselves?”

This is just my opinion, but why are we so worried about working hard? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work smart?

There is this misconception in fitness that the harder something is, the better the results, but “hard” isn’t exactly quantifiable. External factors, such as room temperature can influence our perception of what is hard. Consider hot yoga. When we perform the poses in a hot room, we sweat more and feel like we work harder. However, studies have proven that while exercising in a hot room increases perception of exertion, actual physical exertion remains the same.

Similar to being in the hot room, going big or fast will increase how hard we think we are working. However, when you sacrifice quality of movement for a little extra sweat, you get diminishing returns, particularly from the perspective of building strength and improving fitness without unnecessary injuries.

Why? Because being able to rush through an exercise and perform it well are two different things.

If you can’t slowly do a bodyweight squat with reasonable control, then you won’t be any more prepared to squat quickly with a 200lb bar on your back. The same goes running when you have poor mechanics walking or doing rapid fire sun salutations when you lack the flexibility, strength, and muscle control to do the same moves correctly at a moderate pace.

While it might feel effective in the short term, if you can’t maintain control, progressing too quickly can set you up for injury and frankly, at some point, it just turns into glorified flailing, which should be reserved for infants who are developing motor skills, not adults in a Tabata class.

Also, many of us can’t tell the difference between physical challenging (e.g. muscle burn) and pain (e.g. aching joints/muscle tearing). When we become overly fatigued, our form suffers, causing us to throw a bunch of force into joints that aren’t well prepared to take on the load.

An early warning sign to what could become a nagging issue could be a weird feeling in compromised joint (not always, but it’s worth paying attention to). Yet, many of us mistake pain as a sign of work well done.

Beyond that, the people who we are seeing in gyms are a very small percentage of the population. I suspect that there is a reason behind this. The gym can be an intimidating place. If you are uncomfortable at the idea of exertion and you haven’t worked out in a long time there is a good chance you’ll want to start slow and not feel destroyed after a single workout.

I don’t write this to say that we shouldn’t find times to challenge ourselves. I love a challenge in the right setting and amount!

However, it’s important to note that high intensity is only one subset of exercise and an even smaller subset of movement as a whole. If it’s the only kind of exercise you’re doing, it’s a little like eating nothing but spinach. Is spinach healthy? Sure, but your body needs other nutrients. Not to mention if all you hit it hard all the time, every time, you’re probably missing out on other important aspects of training, such recovery, which is the the time when your body adapts to the stimulus of exercise so you actually see things like strength and muscle gains.

Instead, we should consider the benefit of mixing up how we move. Hiking may not build upper body strength, but it works your cardiovascular system and challenges your ankles to move across varied terrain. Pilates won’t build your biceps, but it teaches you how to move with better body awareness, which can improve form during more strenuous exercise and may decrease the experience of pain. You won’t get precise motion in a Zumba class, but it’s fun, cardiovascular and challenges coordination. Yoga won’t blast your heart rate, but it may calm your nervous system and decrease stress levels.

The bottom line is that the value of exercise (but really, let’s just call it movement) extends far beyond calorie burning and the achievement of sweating buckets and heavy breathing. Even if that is the end goal, my hope is that fitness professionals can find more positive language to encourage their participants to work hard.

No one wants to be in an abusive relationship with another person. Why would you want to be in one with your own body?

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