Why We Exercise
Exercise is healthy. At this point, I don’t really need to defend that particular notion. It just feels good and right to move around and use these magnificent tools we’ve been given; our bodies. When we avoid movement for too long, our muscles, bones, and connective tissue atrophy, and we are not able to accomplish as much with our bodies as before. Even worse – bodies that are never challenged don’t get particularly fit and strong in the first place.
In the modern world (which comes up a lot at Sustainable Balance), humans don’t really need to engage in much physical exertion day-to-day, so it can be easy to fall into a rut of barely moving. It’s all too easy to drive/take the bus to work, sit at a desk all day, and then drive/take the bus home only to hang around the house all night. With limitless books, TV, movies, and video games, there are endless stimulations that do not involve any significant physical activity. Heck, we don’t even really need to move much to get food anymore. All the calories we could ever want are available in myriad of forms (some better than others) at grocery stores and restaurants. For some, moving around is their job, but for most of us these days, moving around and exerting ourselves has to be a conscious decision, and it’s a decision that I see a lot of people making (at least here in Vancouver), which is great (perhaps at the persistent suggestions of their loved ones, but nevertheless it’s a good thing).
I feel like most people who are committed to a high-quality lifestyle are aware of the need to maintain a sufficiently strong and mobile body, and that a certain amount of exercise is required to keep in shape. Everyone has different goals, however. This means that for some people, just being able to walk to work and carry home groceries is enough for them. For others, having a high-quality existence includes competing at a high level in numerous sports and seeing progress in the development of their athletic skills. Some people are fit and active but have absolutely no interest in formal training, while others succeed in maintaining a fully functional body solely through formal training. Too many others are not really engaged in either approach, and will grow weak and frail long before their time. Sarcopenia, the age-related loss of lean tissue in the body, is somewhat unavoidable, but can be significantly slowed down with exercise. Specifically, high-intensity strength training works the best.
In my opinion, a full human existence is not complete without exploring the extent of human physical capabilities (mental, emotional, and spiritual as well, but we’re focusing on physical today). This is not to say that we all become He-Man, but that we continually challenge ourselves physically in some way so as to develop new skills and achievements. Not only do we get stronger, faster, and more capable, but these effects spread to other areas of our lives as well.
So, that’s the “why” for exercise. But how do we, in our pressed-for-time existences with so many other endeavours worth pursuing, pull this off?
Bring the Intensity
Exercise comes in many forms, but the folks who make significant changes to their bodies – we bring the intensity. Now, I love walking and other low-intensity activities (hacky sack anyone?), and there are significant health benefits to lots (and lots) of walking, but it’s not really intense enough for most people to push any limits. I have known many people over the years who “go to the gym”, or who have some other physical pursuit, who never really make a change in their body or abilities. The difference between someone who makes real and lasting improvements, and someone who stops and stalls and steps backwards, is consistent intensity. Intensity means pushing the limits of what you are capable of, and relishing the transient discomfort that comes along with it (chronic discomfort is a different story). It’s a state of mind and body that embraces the relationship between stress and recovery. Intensity drives improvement. It’s not about doing the same thing you can already do (run a mile, say) more often, it’s about doing it harder (uphill?) and/or faster.
*Before we continue, I’d like to add the caveat that intensity is a relative term. A pushup to one person might be nothing, while to someone else it could be incredibly intense. Intensity means approaching our limits, and occasionally trying to surpass them. Working to improve ourselves slowly is key. Please don’t hurt yourself. If you’re really sick or injured, take it easy and recognize that your threshold for intensity will be much lower until you are recovered.
You see, our bodies evolved during a time when resources would at times be scarce, so our bodies quickly get rid of energy-intensive adaptations that aren’t being used. If you don’t use it, you lose it. That being said, with even a minimum of real consistent intensity, lasting adaptations can be made.
This is not only extremely effective for eliciting change, but it is a very time-efficient outlook on physical fitness. Over time, you will push yourself harder, and not necessarily more often, or for longer periods of time. With strength training this is simple to visualize: you will attempt to (safely) lift heavier weights as you progress. This is called progressive overloading, and is a key criteria of a successful strength training program. I have written before on my method of tracking strength, and why it was so effective for me. It was a way of determining that my strength was indeed growing over time. I got quite strong, and have maintained this strength for some time while only pushing the intensity once a week on average (crush some big lifts, then bounce – its super intense and short, and it’s all I need). Some day I might dial it up again, but for now I’ve been enjoying improving my performance at other athletic endeavours (namely ultimate frisbee and other sports), while using and enjoying the strength I’ve built. To be clear, however, consistent intensity in the weight room is what got me here.
More Examples of Intensity:
A study on running showed that although moderate intensity running improved aerobic capacity, it did not increase anaerobic performance. In that same study, participants then went on to perform extremely intense interval work, and their aerobic AND anaerobic capacities increased significantly. By dialing up the intensity, they killed two birds with one stone. This did not require extra time, just extra effort. I know which approach I’d choose…
Another study showed that low to moderate intensity endurance training burned more calories, but high-intensity-interval-training (HIIT), once corrected for energy expenditure, resulted in a ninefold increase in stomach fat loss. Yet another study on endurance athletes suggested:
It seems that, for [endurance] athletes who are already trained, improvements in endurance performance can be achieved only through high-intensity interval training (HIT).
More of the same won’t make a difference. You have to bring the intensity!
Even this study on subjects who’s average age was 69, in the Journals of Gerontology, concluded that:
– using heavy loads during explosive resistance training may be the most effective strategy to achieve simultaneous improvements in muscle strength, power, and endurance in older adults.
Now, we don’t have to go to absolute failure (can’t lift another rep!) but it should be intense enough to really challenge you on a regular basis. Going to the extreme too often can actually lead to symptoms of overtraining. That being said, when you have the energy and are ready and have your recovery planned (food and rest), training to the absolute limit can break through plateaus and put you further than you thought possible. Bring it.
If you really want to change your body and improve your athletic performance, consistent intensity is required. That being said, sometimes we are satisfied with our level of intensity in a certain realm, and so we must move on to others where we want to increase the intensity. For me, I have been focusing less on the development of pure strength, and I will be focusing more on the development of speed and power, which is a different type of intensity, but still is intensity at its core. I have much to learn in this realm, so perhaps once I’m somewhat accomplished, I will write about it.
If you want to make a real change, you have to bring the intensity.
See you out there,