I’ve been physically active on the regular for a long time now. It’s been over 15 years that I’ve been active in the fitness industry as a trainer and fitness instructor. But not one year has been alike to another when it comes to the types of workouts I have completed. That’s the nature of fitness, it changes as you do (or it can change as you do, if you’re able to adapt). The intensity goes up and down depending on your goals, priorities and levels of motivation.
When I look back at the most dramatic turning point for me in the last 15 years of regular exercise, it’s glaring at me straight in the face because it really did change my entire life for the better. In 2013 I started to change my exercise strategy. I had been lifting weights for years, but had never really focused on lifting heavy or prioritizing the intensity of my workouts.
I went from 15-20+ hours of exercise each week, including teaching oodles of cycling classes, step aerobics, HIIT classes, longer runs, plus my own strength workouts, to about 5-7 hours of exercise per week where I was teaching less, lifting heavier weights more on my own (vs. in a class setting) and doing interval cardio workouts like the stairs, hill sprints and lots of slow outdoor walks.
Essentially I threw out the ‘more exercise is better’ mentality and adopted an ‘intensity over duration’ type strategy.
And this is what happened…
My whole life changed. I’m not exaggerating, I swear! My energy levels improved. I was less hungry. I saw better physical results. I saw my muscles! I was more motivated to exercise. I had more mental energy to work on my business, hang with friends, love on my family and get better sleep. I made better food decisions due to my decreased hunger (always hungry = lots of decisions about food all day long) and I actually wanted to cook more often.
That is A LOT of change due to shifting an exercise strategy. So let’s dive into why I saw so many differences.
The Intensity Component
When we operate under the premise that all we need to do to create body change is burn more calories, we tend to adopt a more exercise is better approach. And for a certain segment of the population, more exercise IS better. If we are doing little to no movement each week, then yes, going for a walk, getting to a group strength class and doing intervals is going to help to see results.
But that is not where I was at in 2012, and many of the women I train are in the same boat. We do a lot of exercise. We walk, we lift, we go to cycling class, we run…all super fun and healthy pursuits! But every action we take creates an equal an opposite reaction within our bodies. Basically, the more exercise we do, the more hunger we tend to experience.
When my weekly exercise total was clocking in at 15-20 hours, I was ALWAYS hungry. Every 2 hours I ate, and most of what I ate was really healthy, lean food. I just ate a lot because I was outputting so much energy each day.
After reading and researching (a constant theme in my career as there is always so much new information coming out about food and exercise) I knew that I wasn’t following a less is more approach with my own exercise. Sure I was expending tons of calories each day, but they were from moderate intensity exercise rather than intense sessions that left me truly breathless and burning.
It took me a year to slowly learn how to teach less classes, do more intense interval training, lift heavier and to keep my workouts under 30 minutes. This left me much more time to sleep, cook, rest, relax, read, work on my business, and walk outdoors.
I’ve shared these photos before, but this is what less exercise (but more intensity) looked like for me:
I noticed more muscle definition especially in my midsection, and more importantly, a renewed zest for my exercise routine.
Remember that physical results are only one tiny piece of the exercise and health pie. Sure, it’s fun to see our muscles and to fit into our clothes comfortably, but this isn’t the sole reason for adopting a more efficient exercise strategy. The following two points played a bigger role in the positive life changes that I saw than my defined arms did!
The Mental Energy Piece
This is probably the least talked about benefit from following a ‘less is more’ exercise protocol. Long exercise sessions can be relaxing, but when we need to get hours and hours of exercise in each week to simply maintain our results, it can be anything but calming.
When our workouts are creating mental and physical exhaustion for hours after our training sessions, it is absolutely time to re-assess how we are moving.
Our mental energy can be thought of like a battery. Certain tasks drain our batteries, and other tasks recharge our batteries. Energy drains are not bad, they are often necessary and enjoyable tasks including our work, taking care of kids or loved ones, making food decisions, coordinating schedules and communicating with friends and family. But these tasks often drain our energy and we need ways of recharging or we snap at others, lose willpower, and make less than optimal food decisions.
Exercise can be a mental energy recharge if we enjoy it, if it is restorative, and if it doesn’t take all of our effort to complete. This is also very individual. It takes me little to no mental energy to get a strength workout in (go to basement, put on music, warm-up, lift). But hitting up the elliptical for 45 minutes? That would NEVER happen in my life. For me, less exercise duration means more mental energy for other tasks like cooking, working, socializing and relaxing.
The Consistency Factor
We know that the consistency of our workouts is super important. It does not matter if you rock a 30 day strength training challenge, if the next month includes 4 workouts, you won’t keep your results.
In my life 30 minute workouts are hard to skip. They are short. I can fit them in during the morning, afternoon or night. I don’t have to mentally ramp myself up for an hour long workout. This makes my consistency factor high. I am more likely to do 4 or 5, 30 minute workouts each week than I am to do 1 or 2 one hour workouts.
I am constantly asking my clients (and myself) how we can be more consistent. Can we shorten up our workouts? Can we make them simpler in terms of exercises or equipment? Can we do them on our lunch hour? Can our kids come along?
Every barrier we remove or make easier to overcome, our levels of consistency improve. For me, the biggest factor there is workout session duration. Shorter = More likely to be completed.
It’s really important to remember that changing your exercise strategy drastically will often result in big changes. This can be good or bad. If we go from tons of lifting and intervals to sitting on the couch, we are also going to see big changes.
I had been exercising for hours each week for years on end, so shifting my strategy to more intensity and less duration allowed me to be able to make better food choices because I wasn’t so damn hungry all the time. Then I saw big physical and mental changes. Our bodies react to the demands we place on them and we often get the best results when we can find that ideal balance of intensity and recovery rather than more, more, more exercise.
Until next time, keep those workouts short and your motivation stoked up!
This is exactly the type of strategy we use in the 8 Week Muscle Makeover, my 8 week total body strength training program. The workouts, schedule, and accountability tools included in the program are designed to create maximum impact for the amount of time we spend exercising. If you want to be in the gym for hours and hours each week, that is fine, but if you’re looking for physical results (you’d like to be able to see your muscles!) and a more motivated approach to exercise, then the 8 Week Muscle Makeover is for you.