If it’s not high intensity it doesn’t count… right?
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘go hard or go home’, it’s a pretty strong statement and one that I definitely used to base my life around when it came to exercise, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Let me tell you about a girl I once knew. She was a gym fanatic. Even though she was a busy mum of two, who had a pretty high pressure job, she still found time to exercise 6 times a week. And when I say exercise, I mean hardcore cardio, body pump with plenty of weights, PT sessions focused on lifting heavy weights and independent gym sessions for a minimum of an hour that left her dripping in sweat. Even if she had an event after work, she’d set the alarm early to make sure she got her workout in. Outwardly, she probably appeared super healthy and uber strong. Well, she may have been physically strong as a result of all her training, but her body was literally crying out for a rest, and she was definitely miserable. Every day there was a different ache or pain in her joints and muscles, and she no longer looked forward to any of her exercise sessions. They’d become repetitive, relentless and she’d lost all sense of motivation. This woman was me 2 years ago. I believed that there was only one option when it came to exercise, and the result was that I almost ended up falling out of love with it completely. I’m so pleased that I found another way to make exercise a consistent and enjoyable part of my life, but I think it’s really easy to get lost along the way.
The media and modern society do a great job of conditioning us to think about exercise in a very black and white way. If it’s not full on; heavy weights, endless cardio and bucketloads of sweat, we’re led to believe that we might as well not bother. As someone who has undoubtedly spent most of her adult life subscribing to this school of thought, I’m interested to explore the truth around this approach, and what impact it can have on our relationship with exercise.
Somewhat sadly, for many women including myself in the past, exercise becomes something that we endure rather than enjoy. I know from speaking with many of my clients that their long-term relationship with fitness has caused them to view gym sessions as a means to an end. Something that they feel they should do, as opposed to an activity that brings them joy and fulfillment. More often than not, they tell me that their objective has been focused on what their body looks like, with the aim being to push their body as hard as possible, for maximum perceived results. Often there’s little consideration for their mental or emotional well-being as their goal is purely outwardly focused. Paying attention to how we feel as a result of our activity, in my experience and opinion, is way more important than the way in which exercise makes our bodies look.
But, if we get sidetracked by the potential aesthetic benefits of exercise, it’s no surprise that high intensity workouts become our go to. The twenty-first century saw the rise of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and weight training for women has gained momentum. The positive aspect of this being that regular exercise has become much more commonplace within our society; more affordable gym options have appeared and free online content is plentiful. So, if people are exercising more often and working their bodies hard, surely that’s got to be a good thing? Not necessarily.
High intensity, heavy impact training isn’t going to suit every body, all of the time. Firstly, workouts that involve lots of jumping around or heavy weights aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If we force ourselves into doing something that we really don’t enjoy, we’re likely to develop a negative mindset which could ultimately discourage us from regular exercise which goes against our overall aim. Secondly, this type of training isn’t suitable for all of our bodies. We’re unique, and the kind of exercise that suits us best, gives us the most enjoyment and effectively builds our strength and fitness will be individual too. Depending on our experience, overall health, injury history and genetic makeup, we’ll all find different options of activity work better for us than others. If high intensity doesn’t bring you the best results, physically or mentally then it makes absolute sense to explore and enjoy other choices. Finally, and perhaps most importantly we need to remember that the human body is not a machine. However much we might not want to believe it, our bodies aren’t infallible. If we train at a super high intensity and impact level, without adequate rest, then before too long we run the risk of injury, exhaustion or worst case scenario burnout.
We might see countless images of sweaty bodies and massive barbells being thrown around but it doesn’t always have to be this way. In my experience and opinion, exploring new experiences when it comes to moving our bodies can be a game changer!
That old saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ really is true. If we want to support our overall health and well-being, looking after our physical bodies, our minds and our emotions in the most effective way, then we could try mixing things up. Sticking with one type of exercise alone can lead to a lack of progression, both perceived and real, along with feelings of boredom and a decline in motivation.
From a physical perspective, if we focus solely on explosive cardio sessions then our muscles are likely to become tight, and we run the risk of injury through fatigue and exhaustion. On the mental health side of things, we could end up feeling stressed or anxious due to the high levels of cortisol being produced by our bodies when we perform high intensity exercise with little rest or variation in our exercise routine. From an emotional viewpoint, the boredom factor of doing a similar thing workout after workout is very real. The reduction in progression from a physical perspective can also lead to feelings of failure and disappointment, which aren’t nice to experience and definitely won’t help with our enjoyment or motivation!
So what other options are there? Well the list really is endless. First off we can try changing up our thought process when it comes to our expectations around what exercise actually looks like. It doesn’t have to be in a gym, it doesn’t have to be for a specific length of time and it doesn’t have to make us sweat! A kick about with friends, a walk in the forest or a swim session with the kids are all brilliant ways of being active.
Increasing our heart rate so that we become breathless (and most likely start to sweat) is a necessary part of maintaining and developing our cardiovascular fitness. I’m pretty sure that we’re all keen to have a strong, healthy heart so building at least one movement session into our weeks that raises our heart rate is a really good idea. But our heart is just one muscle within our body, so incorporating an element of resistance work each week is a great way of maintaining and developing strength all over our bodies and helping to maintain the health of our bones, which is especially important for women as we mature. Strength training doesn’t even need to include weights, our own body weight will work just fine if that feels right for us. Alongside cardio and strength, it’s ideal to take some time to develop our flexibility. As we age our mobility can start to reduce and if we work sitting at a desk limbering up our bodies can be vital. Considering regularly practicing activities like yoga, pilates or gentle stretching at home is a great idea. Exercise can also fulfill our emotional needs from a social aspect too. Getting involved in team sports, joining a club or finding a group exercise option can be brilliant ways of feeling part of being active, feeling part of something and making new friends and connections along the way.
It’s important to remember that exercise forms that we might previously have considered to not be right be for us, can in fact often prove us very wrong. This was especially true for me when it came to both yoga and swimming. I’d always discounted them both, believing they were a waste of my time as they weren’t high intensity enough, and I also didn’t think I’d be very good at them, so thought I wouldn’t enjoy them for that reason. How wrong I was! Yes, I’m never going to win any awards for the best crow pose or long distance swim, but that doesn’t stop me from getting so much from these activities! There are loads of different forms of yoga, and I’m loving exploring them and trying new classes. Some absolutely do get my muscles and heart fired up, whilst others give me much needed opening and stretching of my body and some allow me to feel a real sense of relaxation and enter a meditative state that is wonderful for my mind. My first open water swim session had me totally terrified and I very nearly backed out, but I’m so glad I didn’t. I feel extremely fortunate to have a beautiful lake on my doorstep that gives me the opportunity to clear my head and improve my confidence in the water.
When we undertake any form of exercise with an open mind, a desire to just move our body and in a safe environment, it has the power to make us feel great physically, mentally and emotionally. I know I get a real high and feeling of energy from a cardio session, I feel powerful and strong when I work with weights and I get such a sense of space, freedom and clarity when I practice yoga or get out for an open water swim.
So, after that meandering chat, I think my feelings around high intensity exercise being the best or only option are clear. Training our bodies in a vigorous way is awesome if we enjoy it and it’s safe for our bodies, but it doesn’t need to be, and ideally it oughtn’t to be our only form of activity. If there’s something you’ve been toying with trying, my advice would be to go for it! If you don’t like it at least you can stop wondering, but if you do like it you’ve just opened up a whole new world of possibilities!
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