It’s common knowledge that regular exercise is an important part of promoting goodhealth. However, many people shortchange themselves by following an exercise program without putting much thought into what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. This typically results in the benefits of the program being poorly aligned with the individual’s needs and goals, and in some cases, this can do more harm than good.
It goes without saying that most of us make important decisions through a process of specific and deliberate reasoning. Because exercise has a significant influence on health, and because this influence can sometimes be negative, choices relating to exercise deserve the same level of discretion. However, it’s common for people to invest their time, effort, and health into an exercise program without evaluating how appropriate it is for their needs. This greatly reduces the value they’ll gain from their effort.
Why it’s Important to Exercise Intelligently
Many people run mile after mile or spend hour after hour pounding away on a cardio machine each week simply to burn calories or satisfy the general recommendation to exercise regularly. Likewise, it’s become nearly as common for people to lift weights or use resistance training machines to develop or tone muscle. In each of these cases, it’s usually appearance based goals that provide the motivation to exercise, and it’s generally assumed that health and function related benefits will automatically follow. However, because the reasoning behind this assumption is completely backwards, such benefits are far from automatic.
Exercise has a significant influence on physiological function long before changes in appearance can be easily noticed. For example, improvements in the strength and endurance of a muscle must occur prior to a noticeable increase in its size, and improvements in cardiovascular function will begin to occur weeks before exercise alone will have a noticeable impact on weight loss. As such, it’s impossible to alter appearance through exercise without causing physiological adaptations in the process, and it would be unwise to assume that these adaptations are always desirable. Furthermore, it would be wasteful and potentially harmful to endure the physical burden of strenuous training when the adaptations that result are of little value. The average person wanting to lose weight or improve cardiovascular health certainly doesn’t need to develop the aerobic capacity of an endurance athlete to achieve such goals, but many people exercise as if they do.
Those who exercise to alter their appearance or achieve other secondary benefits tend to neglect the more important exercise principles that promote good health and function. Unfortunately, doing so can often have more of a negative impact on quality of life than a positive one, and when this is the case, the secondary benefits that are gained rarely justify the pain and dysfunction that may accompany them. While there’s nothing wrong with exercising to improve appearance, it makes much more sense to pursue such a goal with an approach that emphasizes good health and function as higher priorities.
The Dark Side of Exercise
There’s no doubt that it can be very beneficial to exercise on a regular basis. Doing so has been shown to improve mood and cognitive function, reduce fatigue, improve physical function, and help prevent disease.1 In general, exercise has a tremendous potential to improve quality of life, but when appearance and other secondary benefits are a higher priority than health and function, exercise can have the opposite effect. In many cases, this is because the desire for rapid and dramatic results overshadows sound exercise principles.
Weight loss is an excellent example. The excessive amount of higher intensity aerobic exercise that people commonly do just to burn calories puts a considerable amount of physiological burden on the body. Anyone who exercises like this on a regular basis is likely to compromise their health by consistently exceeding their capacity to recover, especially if they’re under stress, not eating well, or not getting enough sleep, all of which are common characteristics of modern life. Over time, this often leads to chronic symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and irritability that can take months to recover from.2,3 Any other form of moderate to high intensity exercise, especially resistance training, can also have this effect when done too frequently.
Training to improve appearance through an increase in muscle size is another great example. People who do this tend to focus most of their effort on the muscles that they think will have the greatest impact on their appearance. In the process, they usually train the opposing muscles much less frequently or don’t train them at all. This creates imbalances in strength and flexibility that can cause pain, limit function, and increase the risk of injury.4 Other forms of exercise that repetitively work opposing muscle groups in an uneven manner can also cause imbalances. This is especially the case with aerobic exercise because of it’s repetitive nature.
Most forms of exercise cause low level tissue damage5-7 as well as other forms of physiological stress such as oxidative and free radical damage,8,9 and the more strenuously and frequently one exercises, the more this applies. Although this damage and stress is much of what provokes the body to repair itself and become more resilient and fit, it can also accelerate the aging process10 and increase the risk of injury.5Therefore, there’s a fine line between exercising to improve health, function, and general wellness and overexercising to the extent of accelerating the aging process and inviting chronic pain. If you’re going to burden your body with strenuous exercise, you should be sure that there’s a justifiable purpose behind it, and it would be in your best interest to structure your training and lifestyle in a way that minimizes the potential for undesirable effects.
Burning Calories or Burning Out?
Burning calories to lose weight is one of the most common reasons why people overexercise. As I just explained, this approach can be unhealthy, and the extent of direct fitness improvements that result are generally of little use or value to the average person. Diet is a much more important factor for weight loss,11 and based on this, exercising excessively to burn calories is nothing more than a compensation for poor dietary choices. This is a case of one health compromising habit being compensated for by another. It increases the potential for undesirable effects and makes it a questionable approach, especially since it doesn’t address the primary cause of the problem. Based on this, I think weight loss alone is very poor justification for a high volume of intense exercise. This is one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of programs like the P90X that prescribe an arguably excessive volume of exercise primarily to increase energy expenditure.
In my opinion, those who doubt the effectiveness of proper diet as the primary focus of a weight loss program either don’t understand what a truly healthy diet is or simply aren’t dedicated enough to make the necessary changes. Contrary to what most people tend to think, following a healthy diet with an intent to lose weight doesn’t imply the need to obsessively count calories. In fact, I think calorie counting is a flawed approach that’s used as another way to compensate for poor food choices. What I consider to be a truly healthy diet is one that’s well rounded and based primarily on whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Following such a diet provides the nutrients needed to support optimal health, makes it much more difficult to overeat, and therefore eliminates the need to obsess over daily calorie intake. This is the natural and healthy way to lose weight and keep it off. Exercise, ideally for other more important purposes than simply burning calories, is merely a bonus that will facilitate the process.
Misconceptions About Metabolism
Metabolism is commonly discussed in association with exercise and weight loss, but it often seems to be poorly understood. Although it’s defined as the sum of all chemical reactions that occur in the body,12 most people perceive it as more of a calorie burning potential, and as such, consider a “fast” metabolism to be desirable.
Given the energy demands imposed by exercise, metabolic rate can increase dramatically during an exercise session. Depending on the intensity and type of exercise, metabolic rate can even remain elevated long after activity has ended. This is due to the tissue repair, energy replenishment, and other physiological adaptations that often occur in response to strenuous physical activity.13-16 Metabolic rate can even be increased on a more permanent basis by any type of exercise that increases lean body mass.17,18 However, although these alterations in metabolic rate result in more energy expenditure at rest, this may not be as desirable as it seems. Despite some exceptions for certain species, an increased rate of metabolism has been associated with a shorter lifespan.19,20 Much of this association is believed to be a result of an increase in free radical and oxidative damage, both of which can be caused by exercise and other forms of strenuous physical activity.19,10
Use It or Lose It but Don’t Overdo It
Based on the potential for excessive exercise to increase metabolism and cause free radical and oxidative damage, it can be argued that the more one exercises, the more likely it is that they’ll age more rapidly. However, not exercising enough can be a serious problem as well. It’s been clearly established that insufficient exercise can lead to an accelerated decline in health and even result in premature death.21,22 As such, it’s clearly important to exercise regularly, but if you choose to follow a strenuous exercise program that exceeds the demands of what’s necessary to promote optimal health, the decision should be supported by a meaningful purpose that justifies the additional physiological burden. In addition, training should be planned intelligently to minimize unnecessary burden, and excellent lifestyle habits should be followed closely to improve capacity and recovery.
A Healthful and Intelligent Approach to Exercise
The most intelligent, effective, and healthful approach to exercise is to focus on specific benefits relating to health and function that are closely related to your needs and goals. Beyond the common goals of burning calories, building muscle, and improving general health, few people consider how they can benefit from exercise more specifically. It’s worth investing some thought into this because proper planning can make an exercise program much more effective, and in turn, lead to much greater improvements in quality of life. For example, someone who suffers from joint pain and limited function would be much better served by a strength and mobility program that’s focused on solving their problems than general aerobic exercise. This is not to say that aerobic exercise wouldn’t have a place in their program, but rather that it shouldn’t necessarily be the primary focus. In contrast, more of a focus on aerobic exercise would be a better choice for someone who easily becomes winded from walking a flight of stairs or performing basic daily tasks.
With proper planning, the body is spared from excessive burden, time is saved, and the invested effort delivers results that are more meaningful. Planning also makes it easier to address multiple aspects of fitness, and in turn, promote a well rounded state of physical wellness that includes the strength, range of motion, and endurance needed to perform daily activities with minimal discomfort and risk of injury. This is particularly important for both serious and recreational athletes due to the additional demands put on their bodies, and it’s even more important for older individuals who are losing the ability to perform basic functions such as climbing stairs or getting out of a chair.
A Greater Quality of Life
The key thing to remember about exercise is that regardless of one’s specific goals, the ultimate goal is to improve quality of life, or to at least prevent it from declining.
Avoidable degeneration prevent people from participating in activities they enjoy and can even make it excessively difficult to perform basic functions such as walking. This can clearly have a significantly negative impact on quality of life. Exercising in a random and unplanned fashion is unlikely to prevent such problems or promote desired improvements nearly as well as a fitness program designed with a specific purpose in mind.
Also remember that in conjunction with a truly healthy diet and lifestyle, the guidelines discussed here are more than adequate to support and facilitate weight loss. The wear and tear of following a high volume exercise program with the primary intention of burning calories can actually accelerate the physical limitations just described, and in turn, lessen one’s quality of life instead of improving it.
Next time you exercise, ask yourself how the particular activity that you’re doing relates to your goals and needs and if it’s the most appropriate and effective way to pursue such improvements. If you’re not sure how exercise can improve your life, then maybe it’s time to give this some thought. By putting more effort into identifying the benefits of exercise that specifically relate to your goals and needs, and by planning your exercise routine accordingly, your quality of life is likely to improve by a much larger margin.