Friday, February 5, 2010



When you think of fitness, what kinds of images come to mind? If you are like most Americans, you probably have visions of sweat-soaked hard bodies hoisting weights and running like hamsters on the treadmill at the gym. As much as the evidence disputes the validity of the 'no pain, no gain' approach, it continues to be a fitness doctrine that many people buy into. Part of this stems from trying to live up to a body ideal that is far from realistic. Another aspect that factors in is our addiction to instant gratification. We want more, better, faster results and we want them now. Unfortunately, our bodies do not punch clocks. It takes time to build a foundation of fitness. Will doesn't hold much sway over the power of biology. What many sadly discover is that approaching fitness in this all or nothing manner is not only supremely unrewarding, it can also be detrimental to our health.

What is often overlooked is that over-exercise has the ability to trigger the feast or famine response in our bodies in much the same manner that starvation does. People scratch their heads in disbelief when despite the growing number of hours they spend in the gym and the more they control their eating, the further they seem to drift from the state of vitality they seek. Exercise approached with intensity and lacking a strong foundation of support only throws our bodies into crisis.

This is why many individuals find their motivation to exercise comes in stints. You can only keep up that break-neck speed for so long. Your enthusiasm wanes when working so hard produces little end benefit. Eventually, you will run out of steam. If you don't respect the communication of your body you can rest assured that your body will make you listen to its pleas. You'll hit the wall and experience the subsequent burnout, or in some cases, injury that results from over-training.

Over-training syndrome is very real and far more people are affected than are aware of the condition. Athletes understand that intense training needs to be backed up by optimal fuel. Furthermore, this level of activity cannot be sustained indefinitely. Athletes incorporate peak training for brief periods of time. Intense activity is built up to throughout the year through a training cycle that incorporates periodization, by focusing on different foundational components of fitness so the body can effectively respond to the increase in workload without courting injury, or diminishing athletic performance. Talk with any seasoned athlete and you will quickly realize that rest is an equally important component when it comes to optimal fitness. Your average gym rat will put themselves through punishing workouts over extended periods of time without adequate fuel in the form of solid nutrition, or a strong foundation of fitness in place. They also continue to push ahead even though their body is demanding a timeout, falsely assuming that if some exercise is good, then more would certainly be better. Something is very wrong with this picture.

I see one of the main sources of the problem as a lack of knowledge when it comes to fitness. If you think about it, where have most people received their information about exercise? The answer is overwhelmingly, from the diet industry. The diet industry promotes the illusion of the quick fix. The hype is very seductive. In a culture that values thinness at all costs, or in the case of men, a chiseled, fat-free physique, it's easy to get caught up in the hope of the speedy results these spin doctors promise.

This gives rise to an important question. How much is too much? Tune in and ask yourself the following questions:
  • Do you feel drained, washed-out, tired and unmotivated?
  • Do you experience chronic aches and pains, or soreness in your legs?
  • Do you have joint pain?
  • When you exercise are you finding your performance suffering? Is it becoming increasingly difficult to make it through your workouts? Do you feel as if you are getting weaker, rather than stronger, despite your efforts?
  • Are you having trouble sleeping, or are you experiencing insomnia?
  • Do you have frequent headaches?
  • Do you generally feel under the weather? Are you catching colds more frequently?
  • Have you noticed a decrease in your threshold for intense exercise? Does your body react to your workouts with an inflammatory response, leaving you in pain for days? Do you feel exhausted? Are you having trouble rebounding after your gym sessions?
  • Are you experiencing mood changes? Are you irritable?
  • Are you becoming depressed?
  • Do physical activities you once enjoyed no longer appeal to you?
  • Are you finding your appetite diminishing? Are you eating less and less?
  • Are you working through injury?
  • Do you feel a compulsive need to exercise? If you take a day off from working out do you feel guilty?
If you answered in the affirmative to several of these questions it is time to bring your relationship with exercise up for review. Individuals struggling with these issues have not only hit over-training syndrome, they have also headed into slippery territory where eating disorder may be a root issue. It is important to answer these questions honestly and address these areas if your responses give rise for concern.

Let's clear up any confusion. Unless you are a professional athlete, or have a sport that is your passion in life, there is no need for such intense training. Remember, even athletes rest and renew. In fact, they often work with a team of professionals who guide their training. They receive plenty of support from physical therapists, coaches, nutritionists and sports medicine doctors who help them manage their training in a way that will not be depleting. How many of you have a team like this in your corner?

Moving your body should be a pleasure. It should be fun. If you are trying to survive your workouts, you will never develop a life-practice of fitness where you thrive. It's important that you begin to explore the kinds of movement you truly enjoy. If fitness is not a satisfying life-enhancing practice you will quickly find your enthusiasm dwindling. It's also important to think outside the box. Not all fitness is structured. Fitness can find its way into your day to day life experiences. I like to call these 'real life' workouts, or what scientists have dubbed, NEAT.

NEAT is an acronym for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. To simplify matters, NEAT is the movement you get in the rest of your life, outside the confines of the gym, or structured workouts. Scientists have discovered a direct link between NEAT and physical well-being. One Mayo Clinic study found a correlation between a high NEAT factor and the body's ability to more effectively assimilate the energy from food. In essence, the key to being fit may be as simple as getting more daily movement into our lives sans gym.

Never in history have we been as inactive as we are today. Modern technology has provided us with many conveniences. These same conveniences have been somewhat detrimental to our health. Instead of getting up to turn the channel on the TV, we now use a remote. In fact, we have remotes for just about everything from stereo systems and garage doors, to something as simple as turning on and off lights. Rather than washing dishes by hand, we toss them in the dishwasher. We hop in our cars to drive to locations that are as close as a 5 minute walk away. We spend our time zoned out in front of the tube or the computer screen rather than being out in the world connecting with others and exploring our interests. We watch movies instead of enjoying days in the park. Kids play video games in favor of riding their bikes through the neighborhood.

If sweating it out in the gym was the route to wellness, we would be a nation of healthy people. Sadly, that's not the case. Our current rates of heart disease and diabetes speak volumes on the reality of our nation's state of health. Too many approach movement from the angle of trying to change the appearance of their body when really, it should be about feeling your best. There is no denying the beneficial effect of movement, but there is absolutely zero support for the idea that a foundational level of fitness can only be achieved in a gym, or by engaging in rigid workouts. We've all tried the conventional approach and it has fallen short. Instead of mindlessly adhering to the current fitness dogma, how about questioning these ideas we have bought into?

This month I encourage you to bring more NEAT into your life. Feel what it is like to simply move more. This may be the key to getting off the bench and back into the game of life. The following are simple ways you can boost your NEAT factor:
  • Instead of driving, walk or bike to nearby locations.
  • Lower your carbon footprint by utilizing public transportation from time to time instead of always relying on your vehicle to get you around.
  • Enjoy a walk on your lunch break at work even if it is for a simple stroll around the block.
  • If you have a desk job, take mini breaks throughout the day. Get up out of your seat and stretch a little. Walk around a bit.
  • Instead of e-mailing your co-worker, take the time to walk down to their office and speak with them in person.
  • Wash your dishes by hand.
  • Get up to turn the channel on your television.
  • Rather than disconnecting via TV, video games and the computer, get outdoors and bring back the simple pleasures of walks around the neighborhood, playing in the park with your kids, roller-blading the local paths, gathering together friends at the basketball court for a game of H.O.R.S.E, or enjoying a hike in nature.
  • Opt for the stairs over elevators and escalators.
  • Park at the far end of the lot when you go to the store.
  • Rather than eating out, cook a meal at home.
  • Turn on your favorite music and dance around the house while you do your cleaning.
  • Get out in your garden and dig in the dirt.
  • If you have a cordless phone, walk around a bit while talking.
  • Swap out a physioball for your usual desk chair.
These are a few ideas to get you started. Take a look at your life and see if there is a way you can build more movement into your day, not by engaging in taxing workouts, but simply by getting on your feet more. With a little creativity and willingness you are sure to discover the many benefits that come from simple movement. Challenge your long-held beliefs about exercise and open yourself to experiencing fitness on a whole new level. Wouldn't it be great to free up some of that time you devote to the gym toward actually living your life? Give yourself the opportunity to find out just how wonderful it can be to move more and stress less.

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