I have always been a bookworm. For as long as I can remember, reading and writing have been my jam. I started my first diary when I was five years old—it was a little, red Hello Kitty diary, complete with a lock and key. That diary was my prized possession, and it sparked my insatiable love of the written word.
As a little girl, I would hide under my covers every night, with a flashlight and a stack of books, reading for hours while my parents thought that I was sound asleep. Throughout elementary school, I was always that student—the one frantically waving her hand in the air when the teacher asked for a volunteer to read aloud.
The habit continued throughout junior high and high school. Every weekend I would hunker down with my books and plenty of snacks, barely coming up for air. Reading and writing were the only things I ever wanted to do, so… it’s all I ever did, even to the detriment of my health and physical fitness.
While this behavior was fantastic for my brain, it wasn’t beneficial for my fitness. The effects of doing so little physical activity (plus the snacks), in conjunction with my changing hormones became evident when I was about 15 years old. I began gaining weight quite rapidly, and failed gym class two years in a row.
At 16 years old, I had an “a-ha!” moment, when someone close to me made a remark about my physical condition. It made me realize that I had to make some changes for the sake of my health.
I joined the gym, and fell in love with group fitness classes; so much that I decided to become an instructor! I got certified to teach nearly every group fitness class you can imagine. Between my own workouts and all the classes I was teaching, I was doing upwards of five hours of exercise every day. I really wanted to get leaner, and I figured that doing more was the best and quickest way to accomplish that.
Oddly, despite all of that exercise, my body wasn’t changing in the ways I expected it to. As a matter of fact, at one point I had my body composition tested, and it showed an increase in body fat, and a decrease in muscle mass. I was so frustrated. Why wasn’t I getting leaner? And to add insult to injury, I wasn’t getting stronger, either. I wasn’t any closer to being able to do a single unassisted pull-up or regular push-ups.
Despite not seeing the results I wanted, I had become quite obsessed about my workouts. If I had to skip a session due to an illness or some other obligation, I was instantly riddled with feelings of guilt. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally.
Things didn’t start to improve until I faced some truths and completely overhauled how I was exercising. Pretty soon, the way my body looked started to change dramatically, for the better. Most importantly though, I was finally getting strong! I could do unassisted pull-ups, push-ups, and pistol squats. Everything was finally coming together!
How did I make such great progress? I stopped exercising so much—and it changed my life.
When I was exercising like crazy, I only had one level of intensity and duration: Super-high, and super-long. I fell prey to the “no pain, no gain” mentality and exercised as hard as I could for as long as I could, over and over again.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a very productive approach. You just can’t be “on” all of the time. In order to make progress, training should vary in both intensity and duration. Most people benefit from a mix of high, moderate, and low-intensity training. When you only train at a high intensity for long periods of time, over and over again, you are more likely to incur injuries and burn yourself out. Not to mention, your appetite runs rampant. None of these things bode well for optimal results.
On the flip side are people who go to the gym seven days a week, and train using the exact same weights for the exact same movements, month after month, year after year. They are simply going through the motions, nary a smidge of intensity (or sweat) to be found. Now, I want to be clear: If this describes you, and you train this way because you enjoy it, or because it’s a way to get out of the house, or whatever else, that’s great! But if you are trying to make physical changes or get stronger, intensity matters. It’s important that you push yourself from time to time.
One of the biggest reasons that I wasn’t seeing progress when I was doing an obscene amount of exercise is that I was trying to out-train the ill effects of my diet at the time. You could say that I wasn’t very “nutritionally mature.” I struggled a lot with identifying which foods served me best, knowing how much food I needed to properly fuel and recover, and distinguishing between hunger and appetite.
I would hammer out hours and hours of exercise, but it was mostly of the high-intensity, steady-state variety. The type of exercise that leaves most people with a voracious appetite. I would get home at night and eat... and eat, and eat, and eat. I was a bottomless pit, and because my nutrition wasn’t well balanced, I would gobble down sandwiches, granola bars, yogurts, and cookies. I was eating spoonfuls of almond butter straight out of the jar multiple times per day, because I was always hungry, and I would justify it with all of the exercise I was doing. This eventually became a vicious cycle, because I would feel even more locked into my exercise to “burn off” everything I had eaten.
Once I cut back on how often and how intensely I was exercising, this change had an immediate effect on my appetite, which in turn helped me improve my eating habits. I didn’t find myself reeling with cravings every day. I could eat a regular-sized meal and be satisfied! I no longer felt the compulsion to go “burn off” all of the food I ate, because I was no longer overindulging. Even though I was expending less energy because I had cut my workouts back, I was consuming far fewer calories because I finally got my raging appetite in check. Funny how that works!
If you are making nutrition improvements for the first time and are fairly new to eating healthy, this is tricky, particularly if you’re exercising too much. It makes the urge to overeat (or, eat foods that don’t support your goals) difficult to resist.
It’s tempting to exercise like wild, and then eat like it’s your last meal on Earth—and vice versa.
If you find that your appetite and cravings feel out of control, consider scaling back either the intensity or duration of your workouts, and see how that changes things. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the amount that you’re eating, sparked by how much or how hard you’re training, could be what’s hindering your progress!
When I was at the peak of my exercise mania, all I ever did was train, eat, and sleep. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I scheduled my life around my exercise. I was turning down invitations to spend time with friends and family because the thought of missing a session was too much for me to bear. The more I obsessed over my workouts, the better at obsessing I became. My social life was nearly non-existent, and I didn’t have any ‘me’ time to simply unwind and relax.
Once I cut back on my workouts, it opened up so much more time! I got home from work at a decent time, and then had the whole evening to myself. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with that time, but when I got over that initial feeling of discomfort, I learned to relish in that glorious time! I didn’t realize it then, but I was stressed out and under-recovered from all of the exercise. Getting away from the gym, and finding other things to enjoy that didn’t revolve around working out helped me break free from the thinking that my worth was based solely on my diet and exercise. Additionally, more rest and time away from the gym provided me with more energy, lowered my stress levels, and also refreshed my enthusiasm for training.
Whether it’s reading a book, meeting a girlfriend for dinner, or simply relaxing, I firmly believe that having some time for R&R contributed greatly to my progress, and can do the same for you.
As you can see, scaling back the amount of exercise I was doing was a major ‘keystone’ habit change for me, meaning that this one change subsequently altered several other behaviors in my life, all of which enhanced my life and helped me make progress on my goals at the time. Making a few small changes can go a long way to getting the results you want. In fact, you can get started by making just one change: adjusting your training intensity.
If you always train at a high intensity, consider substituting one or two of your weekly sessions with a low-intensity workout that will provide some additional energy expenditure without overly stressing your body or causing a boost in appetite. For example, you could add a session of sled-drags, pulling a moderately heavy weight at a slower pace. You could start with dragging the sled for 40 yards, and then do a bit of core work. Repeat this four to five times.
If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, and all your strength training tends to be low- to moderate-intensity, try dialing up the intensity and adding a little variety to the routine a few times a week. For example, if you are doing moderate-intensity strength training four days per week, consider shifting two of those sessions toward heavy, lower-rep work, with plenty of rest between sets. In the other two sessions you could focus on faster paced, moderate-intensity strength work.
Ultimately, the key to getting the most out of your training is to keep your appetite in balance, train at an intensity that allows you to make progress without running you ragged, and make plenty of time for rest, relaxation, and socializing. All of these factors are crucial to both your progress and your overall enjoyment of life. When it comes to exercise, sometimes doing less turns out to be exactly what you need.
Training is meant to enhance and optimize. It’s a way to develop strength and be healthy, to enable you to better engage in, and enjoy, life and all that it has to offer. The most effective training is smart training, and only just enough of it.
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