Enjoy Your Exercise!

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of picking exercise that is enjoyable and not boring.

A new study showed that individuals ended up feeling unhappy and over consuming calories after activity that was defined as “exercise”. Study participants that were told they were walking for “pleasure” ended up feeling more positive about their time spent active, and made healthier nutritional choices for the remainder of the day.

For the complete article that discusses this study, please visit this link to The New York Times.

One interesting aspect that the study did not discuss was the role of cortisol, or stress levels, in the body. Sure, telling someone to “go out and exercise” may make their experience less enjoyable than telling them to “listen to music, stroll around, and sight-see”, but ultimately, we need to examine the mechanisms behind the difference.

As one of the last paragraphs of the article states:

“Just how, physiologically, our feelings about physical activity influence our food intake is not yet known, she said, and likely to be bogglingly complex, involving hormones, genetics, and the neurological circuitry of appetite and reward processing. But in the simplest terms, Dr. Werle said, this new data shows that most of us require recompense of some kind for working out. That reward can take the form of subjective enjoyment. If exercise is fun, no additional gratification is needed. If not, there’s chocolate pudding.”

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a compensation that’s required, but rather, more about finding the activity that is right for you.

I have clients that perform bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes a day in their office. I have clients that walk leisurely outdoors then perform a few movements with elastic bands. I have clients that prefer loading up a barbell and pushing their strength limits. I have clients that go through a one-hour session, spending the first 3rd on an aerobic machine, the second 3rd on exercises to improve strength and balance, and the last 3rd on flexibility and recovery work.

All these people experience incremental progress on a daily basis, and major improvements month-to-month. But, more importantly, they leave each session feeling like they accomplished something important that day, and not that they were simply “forced to exercise”.

To go back to my point about cortisol – if an activity is not enjoyable, it’s going to feel like a chore or a stressor. When our stress levels increase, our body does a few things.

First, it will hold onto body fat because the body wants to prepare itself for enduring “hard times” and sustaining life. Second, the body’s hunger-signaling will be altered to allow for additional calories to come in, to once again be stored as fat to ensure our survival through the stressful period.

Cortisol has many other functions but is better saved for a later post.

One last thing I can’t keep myself from drawing attention to, are the studies parameters for healthy and unhealthy food. They list a “chocolate bar and pudding” as unhealthy and a “cereal bar and applesauce” as healthy.

Certainly a cereal bar and applesauce can be healthier than a chocolate bar and pudding, but this is like saying that driving 75 MPH on a small side-road is safer than driving 100 MPH on the same road. Sure, one is marginally safer, but they both have very high likelihoods of a tragic outcome.

These are all refined, processed, and packaged foods that are not found in nature. Also, they are all sources of carbohydrates with next to no essential proteins or fats. All carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and will turn to sugar in the blood. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at applesauce or pudding…we’re still focusing on non-essential, man-made products.

If the two groups had truly healthy options, such as a large salad with salmon and avocado, topped with olive oil and red wine vinegar, it would be almost impossible for either group to overeat. The body needs proteins and fats, and while carbs are useful to boost athletic performance, they result in insulin spikes that interfere with leptin, causing abnormal hunger-signaling.

Ok, sorry, got a little side-tracked there!

The final takeaway from this post is: find an enjoyable and sustainable activity to improve your health!

Recovery

Since the last few posts have been about nutrition, let’s switch gears and get back to the fitness side of things…specifically, recovery techniques.

If I could spend 2-3 hours a day, in the gym, lifting weights, I would. However, I’ve learned the body doesn’t make its progress in the gym. It’s the recovery…the rest and eventual return to a greater stimulus…that helps us reach health and fitness goals.

My favorite recovery techniques are as follows.

Walking – I believe walking is the best form of aerobic activity (swimming may be better but not always as convenient). The benefits of walking are too numerous to list but it certainly helps stretch, and increase blood flow, to recently trained muscles. Depending on your surroundings, you may benefit from the tranquility of nature and avoidance of the over-stimulation of modern life.

Stretching – Recent studies suggest “static” stretching (holding and gently pulling on or pushing against a muscle) does not increase flexibility or recovery and may even increase the risk of injury if done before a workout. However, I’ve experienced nothing but positive results when stretching after a workout or hot shower.

Mobility Work – Before working out, I use “dynamic” warm-up routines. These involve active motions, performed with little to no weight, engaging the same muscles as the exercises I’ll be performing that day. I do about 10 movements, for 5-10 reps, focused on upper or lower body. Some examples would be arm swings, bodyweight squats, or torso twists. On my recovery days, I do closer to 20 movements working all the major muscle groups of the body. I find this helps me feel agile and flexible for the day.

Foam Rolling – This may be one of my favorite recovery techniques…well, besides deep-tissue massage which is far more expensive. Most fitness stores have a variety of foam tubes that you can roll on to help massage your muscles. Start with something soft and work up to more firm tubes or PVC pipes. I recently bought a TriggerPoint that is made of metal. It is filled with water so it can be frozen to provide an ice-bath affect while massaging sore muscles.

Alternating Water Temperature – For centuries, athletes have used ice-baths to help recover from workouts. The science behind this is still uncertain but I swear by a shower alternating between progressively hotter and colder water. This seems to wake me up in the morning, relax and cool me off at bed, and make my muscles feel infinitely better.

Protein – That 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight will provide adequate amino acids for the muscles to rebuild after training. Try to consume a complete protein source within 30 minutes of your training session to jump-start the recovery process. Experiment with different intake levels but, keep in mind, if you are consuming more protein than your body can assimilate on a regular basis, it will be converted to carbs and start registering as a fuel rather than a nutrient for rebuilding.

Omega 3 – Remember all that talk about the anti-inflammatory nature of Omega 3’s and the inflammation caused by Omega 6’s? For that reason, try to maximize your intake of things like wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef while minimizing your intake of modern vegetable oils and nuts.

Carbs – Some carbs, like grains and legumes, are very inflammatory while others, like sweet potatoes and fruits, may be anti-inflammatory. Opt for higher quality carbs and consume enough to sustain your training. If you are doing high-intensity work, training multiple times a day, or trying to gain weight, more carbs, particularly starch, will be essential to recovery. Finally, try to consume the majority of your carbs post-workout. The muscles will be primed to absorb glucose and the carbs help transport amino acids and other nutrients post-workout.

Magnesium – I’ll eventually do an entire post about the use of dietary supplements but, to stay on recovery, I’ll just mention magnesium briefly. Magnesium helps the muscles relax and efficiently utilize glucose. To incorporate two recovery methods at once, take a hot bath with 1 cup of Epsom Salt (magnesium) for 15-30 minutes, and then rinse with cold water.

Sleep – This may be the most important yet overlooked aspect in recovery. It is during the first few hours of sleep that the greatest release of human growth hormone occurs. Try shutting down all electronics an hour or two before bed, use room-darkening shades, and set up a source of white noise such as a fan. Shoot for 8-10 hours of sleep a night. You may feel fine with 6 but try for a minimum of 8 and see how your body and mind performs.

These are the tactics I use on a regular basis. I think professional massages and meditation sessions are very valuable but haven’t had time to incorporate them into my daily routine.

Hopefully this post provides you with new ideas for optimizing your recovery. As always, contact me to let me know what did or did not work well for you, or if you want more specifics about these techniques.

Now make some time for rest & relaxation!