Although I typically write about exercise issues that affect mainly women, this piece speaks to anyone trying to stay fit and stick to a work out routine. Recently, I stumbled upon new and exciting research* about exercise intensity and its implications for sticking with a fitness routine. (I’m a Ph.D., we tend to find new studies fascinating). These curious researchers wanted to know why people who start to exercise, and often say that exercising makes them feel better, still drop out within only a few months.
They questioned if people’s long-term exercise behavior is based on how intensely they exercise, and whether this intensity is associated with increased displeasure during exercise? College-aged individuals who were not overweight and were regular exercisers were chosen to participate in the research.
In general, research has shown that people reported improved mood and increased pleasure AFTER an exercise session. Logically, someone who feels better as a result of exercising should want to continue, right? Ekkekakis, et al., suggest that the good feelings people experience AFTER working out might be undermined by less than fun experiences that people have DURING a hard work out.
These researchers hypothesized that when people exercise at higher intensities compared to lower intensities (as measured by something called their “ventilatory threshold” or in regular speak, the point at which exercise gets “hard”), the physiological changes that result (i.e., increased lactate and acidity in muscles) would lead to increased wellbeing AFTER the exercise was completed, BUT increased displeasure DURING exercise.
Research participants were required to exercise at different intensities and have their levels of pleasure/displeasure measured, before, during, and after the exercise sessions.
The central finding from this study is that it only took about six minutes of working out intensely (past participants’ ventilatory threshold), before most of the participants experienced displeasure, distress, and tension. Importantly, regardless of how intensely study participants exercised which, more often than not, resulted in a decrease in pleasure, the participants still reported an improvement in pleasure after the exercise session ended. These interesting findings offer support for the author’s hypothesis that the positive feelings that people speak of having AFTER an exercise session might be undermined by negative experiences that they have WHILE exercising intensely. This finding further supports my belief thatprescribing intense exercise and/or undervaluing lower intensity exercise may have detrimental effects.
It is critical to note that these results were based on research conducted using young, active and normal weight individuals. My guess (and the study author’s) is that the relationship between high intensity and increased displeasure during exercise would be even more extreme for individuals who are overweight and/or not used to regular exercise (i.e. most of the American adult population).
For over 20 years, Americans have been socialized to believe that exercise has to be hard and vigorous “to count” and to produce positive health and well-being benefits. In addition, we do know that more intense exercise has greater cardiovascular benefits than lower intensity exercise. However, if we are concerned about helping people develop sustainable behavior, and not just interested in the physiology and benefits of exercise, this new research by Ekkekakis, et al., challenges the notion that vigorous exercise is necessarily better than low intensity exercise. These findings are important for the public and fitness professionals to understand (healthcare practitioners, personal trainers, therapists, etc).
As humans, in general, we are motivated to do the things that give us pleasure and that we enjoy and avoid those that bring us displeasure or pain. Given these findings, people who exercise at higher intensities and don’t like doing vigorous exercise, WILL NOT LIKELY MAINTAIN a consistent exercise regimen for very long.
Bottom Line:People are different in how intensely they like to exercise. To develop an fitness strategy that will more likely lead to long-term exercise participation, everyone needs to know their personal preferences regarding their exercise intensity. Here are some helpful tips you may want to consider:
1.If you exercise intensely and like it, keep doing what you are doing - just be cautious about injuring yourself.
2.If you don’t like exercising intensely, but are a regular exerciser, consider sometimes alternating between a lower intensity workout. This will help you enjoy your workouts more and give you greater variety, making it less likely that you’ll drop out.
3.If you don’t like to exercise intensely and exercise inconsistently, give yourself permission to exercise at the level of intensity that is comfortable for you. Try walking leisurely in places you can enjoy, such as the park or urban center. Then, look for ways that you can fit more walks into your daily routine.
4.If you hate to exercise and have given up on it, toss out whatever you think “exercise” means, and experiment with taking a five-minute leisurely walk every day (in your office, at home, or outside). Feel proud of these important foundational efforts. Do this for one month. Put a cue in your calendar/PDA to increase your daily walk to 10 minutes (at once or distributed as you prefer). See how this feels. Stay at this level for another month or until you feel ready to increase your work-out time. (Remember to cue yourself in some way so you don’t forget to evaluate where you are and where you want to go at some point in the future).
* Ekkekakis, Hall, and Petruzzello (2008) as published in the April Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
I think it's all a matter of finding your stride in what you are doing. Even the term "working out" sounds like the opposite of fun. I discovered soon after frequenting the gym that it just wasn't for me; after that, I started to explore dance classes and other activities that didn't feel as linear and goal-oriented and that were just simply more fun.