Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

11 Ways to Improve Your Workouts

More is not always better when it comes to exercise

You’ve probably gotten the memo by now that exercise is good for you. Whether you’ve decided to take advantage of exercise’s benefits might be a different story.  Perhaps you’re afraid that you can’t commit enough time to exercise to make it worthwhile. Or it may be that you feel that you can’t afford the cost of gym membership, equipment, or family care while you’re at your workout.  If these reasons, or others, are keeping you from taking advantage of the healthful benefits of exercise, keep reading as you’ll find that you may not have to sacrifice as much as you fear.

How about if you’re an exercise fanatic? You’re probably feeling pretty smug right about now. Exercise is so much a part of your daily routine that you become despondent when the gym is closed for holidays or bad weather. If someone or something interferes with your workout schedule, you complain bitterly until you’re able to find a way to sneak out for a quick fix on the treadmill. If the sneaker fits, keep reading anyway, as you’ll more than likely find some of your most cherished exercise traditions are in need of tweaking.

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Here, then, are the 11 ways that you need to improve your actual workouts or your workout beliefs:

1. Don’t exercise too much.  More is not necessarily better when it comes to exercise frequency. You can overdo your exercise regime. A recent study reported that people who exercise 60 minutes a day actually lost less weight than those who exercised 30 minutes.  One of the major reasons for this finding is psychological, not physiological.  People who exercise a lot feel justified about engaging in other behaviors that actually detract from their physical health.  Through the process called ego depletion, they “use up” their will power at the gym, only to let it go in their off hours by eating or drinking to excess.  So relax, you won’t be told here that you have to devote hours a day to exercise in order to get and stay healthy. The good news is that moderation actually works in your favor when it comes to exercise.

2. Take care of your feet. Most forms of active physical exercise involve putting some sort of stress on your lower extremities. Running, playing sports, being involved in aerobic exercise classes such as step are particularly hard on the knees.  People often injure themselves during rapid shifts in direction such as when they play tennis or basketball.  Being able to continue to enjoy yourself in these pursuits means that you have to protect those precious joints. This means that you have to cough up the cash to get the right footwear. Proper exercise footwear should fit-- no jamming your toes in sneakers that are too small or allowing your feet to swim around in ones that are too large, just because they were on sale. You also need to get enough cushioning in the heel and forefoot to protect you for the particular activity for which you’ll be using them.  You may pay more now but you will save endless time and agony later from arthritis, fractures, or damage to your ligaments.

3. Don’t crank up the volume. It’s fine to crank up the volume of your workout (as long as your feet are protected), but hold off on cranking up the volume of your music player. As little as 30 minutes of loud music a day can cause permanent damage to those tiny, delicate hair cells in the cochlea, the part of your ear responsible for hearing.  For that matter, consider not using your music player at all except when you exercise.  This would both make your workout more exciting and different from your ordinary walking around town.  It would also help you tune in more to the actual world around you rather than the artificial world you create between those headphones by constantly pumping music into your head. 

4. Find what motivates you. As I indicated in #3, saving an activity you like (playing music) for your workout time can help making the workout more rewarding. If that isn’t going to be enough to get you into workout mode, experiment with different incentives until you find the one that does get you in the right frame of mind. If you’re a people person, the lonely run at 6 am will be sheer torture. You should seek out group exercise classes. If you’re a news junkie, then make sure you can schedule your workouts at the gym during a time when you’ll be able to get access to a machine with your own TV screen.  Being able to satisfy more than one need at a time will make it more likely that you’ll build physical activity into your daily life.

5. Include enough variety to give yourself a well-rounded workout. Although you may find that you love running and nothing else, you still need to ensure that you include some form of muscle strengthening into your exercise plan.  The muscle strengthening should include free weights, resistance machines, dumbbells, or some combination of these. Add to the mix enough stretching, flexibility, balance, and posture exercises (Pilates, Tai Chi, Yoga or gentle Yoga) to make sure that the muscle strength your gaining doesn’t cause your joints to become too tight and stiff. Related to point #1 about exercise in moderation, you shouldn’t work the same muscle groups on consecutive days. There is a 48-hour rule about muscle conditioning, because these tissues need time to heal in between training sessions.

6. Do the exercise you like least first followed by the exercise you like the most. Many people shortchange their workouts by doing what they like first and then following up with what they like least. This means that by the time they finish the activities they like, they either run out of time or are too tired to do the exercise they didn’t really like in the first place. At that point, they promise they will catch up “tomorrow,” but (as the song goes) tomorrow never comes. Instead, follow what psychologists call the “Premack Principle” and what ordinary people call “grandma’s law.”  Save your dessert till you’re finished with dinner. In exercise terms, do what you like least and then do what you like the best. This will not only make sure you get a well-rounded workout but, according to reinforcement theory (the Premack Principle), the less desirable activity will eventually gain its own rewarding properties.

7. Don’t exercise when you’re hungry. Speaking of dessert, exercising when you’re hungry can lead to one of two undesirable scenarios.  The first is based on physiology. If you are hungry because you haven’t eaten, you run the risk of performing at less than your maximum capacity, or worse, passing out. The second reason not to work out when you’re hungry is psychological. If you’re feeling food deprived when you’re exercising, you’ll be more likely to overeat following your workout. It’s ego depletion at work again. If you’re hungry, you’ll be more likely to believe that your sacrifice of working out should be followed by some sort of reward or indulgence.

8. Adapt your exercise to your body’s level. You may wish you had the physical prowess of someone taller, stronger, faster, younger, or more graceful.  Through exercise, you may very

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well be able to meet your aspirational goals, but you can’t expect miracles right away. A good program of exercise trains your real, not your ideal, self.  If you’re not very strong or muscular (and wish that you were), don’t immediately pile on those heavy weights and expect instantaneous results. Instead, you’re more likely to injure yourself either by straining your joints, dropping something on your toe, or just simply giving up in discouragement. It's more important that you focus on form and technique than on speed or strength, especially at first. Bring yourself gradually up through your desired fitness level, keeping in mind realistic goals for someone of your age, height, weight, health, and overall physical abilities. Don't take it upon yourself to compete with the other people at the gym, your family, or your co-workers. Do what you are able to do best and build up from there.

9. Pay attention to pain. When something hurts, stop doing it. This may seem like a simple rule, but it’s surprising how many people feel that they must “play through the pain.” The old adage “no pain no gain” may better describe the psychological rather than the physical type of pain when it comes to healthy exercise. It’s true that you may feel some discomfort when you first start to work out until those endorphins take over, but when you feel prolonged aches and strains, you need to rethink your strategy. Perhaps you do need better workout shoes, or your old ones have finally worn out. However, until you get to the source of the pain and manage to figure out how to fix it, you need to switch to a less arduous form of exercise.

10. Measure your progress (and be honest). Some of the most successful weight control programs involve taking stock of caloric intake vs. outtake and recording the results on a daily basis. These can be free websites such as the About.Com Calorie Counter, which also have companion mobile apps. However, these self-report tools only work as well does your self-report. If you decide to cheat by shaving off a few pounds or shaving on a few extra minutes at the gym, you won’t be showing any benefits, and you’ll eventually give up altogether. 

11. Recognize that you will have setbacks. Building in relapse is a cornerstone of behavioral change programs. No one can progress in a straight line from a sedentary lifestyle to an active and healthier one without a few failures now and then.  As long as these are failures due to willpower and not to injury or illness, they are readily fixable.  Avoid catastrophizing about the impossibility of your ever changing from one or two missed workouts. Keep up your self-efficacy and you’ll be able to get back on track. You can also overcome setbacks if you use the failures in a diagnostic manner. Why did you skip that workout? Do you really hate that gym you go to and should you therefore consider switching to a new one? Are you unmotivated because you’re a social person doing isolated exercises? Are the workouts too demanding? Too boring? If you can figure out why you slid off the treadmill, you’ll be better prepared to avoid future relapses.

Ready to hit the gym? With your well-fitting and comfortable sneakers, the iPod turned to moderate volume (and saved for the workout), and a program of varied and enjoyable activities (saving the best for last), you’re ready to put these 11 rules to the test.  Before long, your workouts will become an effortless part of your routine and you’ll wonder why you ever needed these rules in the first place!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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