Hardcore exercise and I had a good run. For a solid year, my routine was six days a week of running plus five days a week of strength training. I ran 150 miles a month and I strength trained in thirty- to sixty-minute spurts. I didn’t deviate from this plan because I had no reason to—working out consistently gave me energy, confidence, and strength. Not only did I feel physically powerful, but putting in so many hours each week also gave me mental strength. This helped me to perform my job and manage my daily life successfully.
Exercising so much made me feel invincible. Then one day, it stopped being fun. It no longer felt effortless. Instead, it felt like a burden. After months of going all-in every day with my workouts, I was tired and bored.
As it became more difficult to motivate myself to do my regular routine, it was clear I needed to shake things up. After pushing myself physically and mentally for so long, I decided to take my biggest challenge yet: to start working out less.
Turns out that more exercise isn't always better. Whether you're a bit burned out like me or just looking to get the most bang for your exercise buck, check out the science behind really efficient workouts.
01. Calorie plateaus are real.
In a study published by Current Biology, researchers measured the total energy expenditure and physical activity of 322 adults. They found that while physical activity at low levels increased energy expenditure, higher activity levels caused a plateau. In other words, working out more did not increase calorie burn. Though we’re often told to move more to burn more, this study suggests that at a certain point, increasing your exercise level does not benefit you as much as moderate exercise. Being committed to your workout, even if it's short, is always the best bet.
02. There is such a thing as too much.
A meta-analysis published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings reviewed studies on running published since 2000 that included at least 500 runners and followed up with them for five years. Researchers were looking for the relationship between vigorous aerobic physical activity (running) and major health consequences (cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality). They found that “despite the known benefits of high levels of physical activity and exercise training, some evidence suggests that there may be a point of diminishing returns. In fact, there may be a threshold at which high doses of exercise training might detract from the remarkable health benefits of moderate exercise training or even induce cardiotoxicity.” Based on their findings, researchers recommended capping runs at 40 minutes a day for the benefit without the costs of running longer.
If you're working out because of a self-inflicted pressure to do so, you probably won't get as much out of it. As we all know, getting moving at all is a great thing! Stick to a level of activity that a.) is beneficial to you but also b.) fits your needs and lifestyle.
03. We’re not all marathon runners.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology followed 1,098 healthy joggers and 3,950 healthy non-joggers from 2001 to 2003. Researchers found that jogging 1 to 2.4 hours per week was associated with the lowest mortality. “Light and moderate joggers have lower mortality than sedentary non-joggers,” the study found, but “strenuous joggers have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group.” This again suggests that dramatically increasing the intensity of workouts, particularly runs, may not be as beneficial as we once assumed.
There's a lot of pressure out there these days to be something of a marathon runner. What's the point of working out if we can't post some pic of us crossing a finish line on social, right? But again, as research shows, you don't have to be going the distance to reap the benefits. Do you what you can, and be happy with yourself for it!
04. You don’t have to kill yourself to see results.
“Full-body functional strength training can be super effective once or twice a week,” says sports medicine physician and Running Strong author Jordan Metzl, M.D., in an article for Greatist. Tamir Systems Fitness founder Noam Tamir concurs in the same article, saying, “I have clients who only strength train once or twice per week, and they still see some significant results in strength.” The “less is more” approach is gaining traction in the fitness community and for good reason: if more isn’t necessary for results, why do more?
I think people fear working out because they see adopting a full-blown routine as the only way to see results. That "all-in" routine can feel too cumbersome to even know where to start. Sure, you should be consistent with exercise, and your health should always be a priority, but don't feel like it's all or nothing. Doing a little something, consistently, is a perfectly great place to start.
05. It should be fun.
I’m not going to link to a scientific study or research article here. I’m confirming it for myself: exercise became fun again when I scaled back the intensity and frequency of my workouts. So often we get stuck in these traps of thinking life needs to be go-go-go. By cutting back on exercise and accepting that I can approach working out without such rigidity, I learned that sometimes it’s better to stop and breathe. I move my body regularly. I still get the benefits of exercise. But I’m not going crazy in the process. I’m not cramming workouts into already-packed days for the sake of saying I did it. I’m reclaiming exercise as an enjoyable source of stress relief. I’m healthier and happier than ever for it.
Photo Credit: Britt Rene Photography