Is Your Exercise Becoming Too Easy?

Your exercise is a stable comfort of reliability. Why should this change?

Posted Jan 14, 2020

My neighbor runs two miles in 20 minutes all five days a week. He has been doing this for about 15 years. I recently asked him why he never ran longer or faster.

“Why should I change?” he answered. “I’m comfortable doing the same running route. It is almost a reflex by now.”

I watched him start a run. It seemed almost effortless. And it probably was. After so many years, his body knew how to gauge how much effort or intensity had to go into the run, and probably only wind, heat and humidity, ice or rain would alter the difficulty of his run. And I suspect that his body put forth considerably less effort than it did when he first started to run, 15 years ago.

His response made me realize that I also may be following an exercise routine so familiar that my body was decreasing the energy it used to expend when I first starting to exercise in the gym. Evidence for this came unexpectedly quickly. A friend purchased a Peloton bike and invited me to use it. The bike, similar to the one used in spin classes, is programmed to allow the rider to participate in a class led by a trainer. You pick the level class or type of ride—hills, for example—and then participate through a 20- or 30-minute workout. Within minutes of starting, I realized that I could barely keep up with the instructions to increase resistance or speed or both. My friend heard me gasping for breath, and I wondered if I could last the 27 minutes of the workout. Clearly my gym workouts must have been lacking in intensity.

There are a few simple ways of determining the cardiovascular intensity of an exercise session. Measuring heart rate using a heart monitoring chest strap or a fitness device worn on the wrist will continuously track heart rate. Also, measuring your heart rate on your wrist with your fingers is a valid, traditional, and non-technological method. A well-established formula of determining the optimal heart rate in a workout (assuming you are not a competitive athlete) is to follow this calculation: Subtract your age from 220, and then calculate what 60 to 90 percent of that number is. That is the target heart rate that corresponds to a moderately intensive workout. 

But there is a simpler method to determine at what intensity level you are exercising. If you can talk and sing while running on a treadmill or outside, for example, your level of exercise is low intensity. If you can talk but not sing, the intensity increases to moderate intensity. High-intensity exercise means that you can manage only phrases, not sentences. Anyone who participates in road races becomes aware of how quiet the runners become when everyone is running up a steep hill. Chitchat is replaced by the sound of people audibly inhaling air.

But is it really necessary to push oneself to the point of perhaps physical discomfort to benefit from exercise? Is it important to recognize when the exercise routine is such a habit that the body is no longer working as hard as it was when the routine was first initiated? It depends on what outcome is being sought.

A comprehensive review of the relationship between the “dose” of exercise (intensity, duration, and frequency) and health concludes that we should engage in moderate exercise as often as possible. The most striking effects of such exercise are on levels of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and blood pressure. The conclusion of the review, that overall health is enhanced by moderate-intensity exercise, is reinforced by the American College of Sports Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. These organizations concluded that frequent moderate-intensity exercise is an effective way to decrease the risk of chronic disease. Indeed, it is hard to find studies to contradict these recommendations.

But let us say you are already exercising almost every day. Should you alter what you are doing to increase its intensity? One thing to consider is whether training, i.e. repetitive exercise, has improved your cardiovascular output and stamina so that you no longer are exercising at moderate intensity. Is my neighbor exercising at a low rather than a moderate intensity? I didn’t ask him if he could sing and talk while running. If he can emit these sounds, he could increase the intensity of his runs by including hills, running faster, or for a longer period of time.

There are many ways to change the intensity of our exercise. Many of us do this almost automatically when seasonal changes allow switching the types of activities we do outside. Cross-country skiing, skating, snowshoeing, kayaking, swimming, and bike riding use different sets of muscles, so the first few weeks of changing from winter to summer sports may increase the intensity of the workout.

Joining an exercise class, or changing the type of class, may accomplish the same objective. A boxing class will use different muscles than a spin class, and even chronic exercisers will find themselves, “…unable to sing” when going through an unfamiliar set of movements. Some classes, sequentially, use different types of cardiovascular equipment such as a treadmill and rowing machine to exercise different muscle groups and provide a moderately intense workout.

Those who are unaccustomed to exercising can benefit from taking classes for beginners at a gym, community center, or online. The Peloton program encourages those who have not used the bike to do their beginner classes that presumably allow the rider to talk (but not sing) while following along. Exercising with someone who is a faster walker or better tennis player than you are will also motivate you to work out harder.

Exercise does not confer immortality, but it may increase the chance of living longer and living well.

References

“Exercise Dose in Clinical Practice,” Wasfy M and Baggish, A, Circulation 2016; 133: 2297-2313.