How to exercise right; for your body, for your health, for your motivation

Summary

Knowing the right way to exercise and stay motivated can seem like a huge mystery, can’t it? Although the answers are google search away, the struggle with exercise remains because most answers are not based on the way your body is designed.  Good detectives start by answering the questions who, what, where, when, and why. This article lets you shed weight of those ‘shoulds’ about exercise and simplifies the solution with science-based answers to your questions about exercise, results, and motivation.  

The right way to exercise

Many exercise programs say they are science-based and some even cite research to back up their claims. How do you know if it is pseudoscience or the real deal?  

Who is giving you the info? 

Because anyone can call themselves a fitness expert many exercises you see in the media are based on how we used to think the body was designed, or how we wish the body was designed. Often, a program is based on one piece of scientific information about the body but missing key information. For example, getting your heart rate up is just one change that happens in your body when you move, but it is not what makes the cardiovascular system stronger. The hyperfocus on heart rate has created programs that miss the mark but sound very science-based. Steer clear of exercises given by a ‘fitness expert’ or ‘exercise enthusiast’.  Instead, learn about exercise from someone who has a degree in exercise science so you are more likely to get the whole story about how your body works with exercise.  

What branch of exercise science?

Just like there are specialists in medicine, there are several branches of exercise science.  When you want answers about a specific medical problem, you would go to a specialist. If you want to improve sports performance, look for advice from a person who is educated in training for that specific sport. However, if you want to be healthy and well, look for a program designed for that specific purpose. If you have specific health concerns, look for a program guided by clinical exercise physiologists. There is very little crossover between exercise for athletes and exercise for health, yet they are treated as interchangeable in popular exercise programs. If the program was invented for athletes or promises you will have the body of an athlete, keep looking for a program that is right for your body and what you want for it.  

Where is the science from?

If the word research is used, get curious about what type of research. Do they mean they did an internet search or are they citing a specific clinical trial that was published in a peer-reviewed journal? A red flag is when the general terms “studies show” or “in one study” are used but no reference is given. If there is a link, click it to make sure it is not just another blog but is research published in a peer-review journal. Notice who funded the study too. Often companies will fund their own research on their program, resulting in biased results they can use as ‘scientific evidence’ in advertising.  

When was the exercise invented and studied? 

Exercise science has grown tremendously in the past few decades. Better technology has given us more details about how the body works. For example, we used to think stretching was about making muscles longer. Now we know it is more about changing the way the nervous system responds to movement and the state of the connective tissue. Stretching research is just starting to show is that what we used to think was a good stretch is actually doing the opposite of helping to improve mobility.  

Why are they giving you this information?  

Marketing is a science as well, and advertisements are designed to capture your brain’s attention. Ads can have a science-y look to imply the program is based on movement science when in reality, it is far from how the body actually works. For example, a core program shows images of core muscles and states scientific research showing the core muscles are activated 500% more during their exercise program than in typical core exercises. They want you to believe that because the muscle is activated more, it is burning more fat and because the person doing the exercise has six-pack abs, they have a strong core. However, just because someone has well-defined abdominal muscles, it does not mean their core will help them in the movements of daily life. Plus, those highly-activated muscles are not burning the fat stores next to that muscle. Spot reducing has no scientific basis yet makes millions of dollars in sales every year. 

Bottom Line: When you exercise based on the way your body was designed, you feel better and get more real and lasting results. Scientific research is a great guide as it adds to our growing knowledge about how to exercise right for health and wellbeing.  But even the best scientific research does not give you all the answers about the right way to exercise you personally. The next two parts of this series will help you solve the mystery of knowing that an exercise is right for the real results you want for your body and your life right now. 

More resources:

 

Choosing the right exercise for the real results you want. 

First, let’s clarify that this is about exercising right for improving health and well-being with lasting results, not temporary ones. 

Who is the exercise for?

Even if what you’re doing is based on movement science, there are many branches within that science. Sports and military exercise training is designed for the specific purpose of competing and winning, not for improving health and function in daily life. Athletes train for temporary results. They have to ignore pain and discomfort to get to a goal. Once the season is over or their career has ended, they don’t continue. Clearly, if you are exercising for health and well-being, sports training is not the right way to exercise. Yet, how often are these approaches used in popular exercise programs? If an exercise or program was designed for athletes, keep looking for exercises specifically designed for improving function in daily life and health long-term.   

What do I really want?

Get specific about what you want from exercise, because your body will get used to what you give it, specifically. General goals like weight loss are a perfect example. You might be exercising to lose weight, but are you sure that is what you really want? If you reach a goal weight but don’t feel better, would that be a success? If you reach a goal weight but don’t stay at that weight, would that be a success? For most people, achieving a number on the scale is not the real goal—ultimately what they want is to lose weight to feel better in some way and they want it to last. Don’t exercise to lose weight, exercise for the reasons why you want to lose weight.    

If you are exercising to help a medical condition, just like any medication, the correct type and dosing will allow that medication to help you. Clinical exercise physiologists (CEPs) are specifically trained in not only exercise, but all of the medical conditions that can be helped by exercise. Look on websites and organizations that use CEPs to guide people with exercise for the medical condition you are wanting to help. Learn as much as you can about how to exercise for that medical condition. See the links below for some resources.  

Where will I do this exercise?

The result of any exercise, no matter how great it is for you, will disappear once you stop doing that exercise. If the place you are doing this exercise is inconvenient, costly, or you do not feel good about yourself when you are there, it is not sustainable. Your brain will start making excuses why you cannot go and exercise. If you are doing an expensive program to make you exercise until you can reach a goal weight or fitness level, without a plan of what to do after you reach that goal, the results are more likely to be temporary. Consistency is the most important factor for the real results you want. Choose exercises and programs that are in a location you know you will come back to long-term. 

When will I get the results I want from this exercise?

Your brain likes you to do things that make you feel better instantly. If you are doing an exercise and feel worse but tell yourself you just need to get used to it, it is not the right type or intensity of exercise for you right now. You can convince yourself that it will be worth the soreness and fatigue when you see results, but the reality is your brain believes your body more than it believes what you are telling yourself. If an exercise does not feel good instantly, it is most likely not right for your body (or any body), and your brain is most likely to tell you to skip it at some point in the future. The real result your brain wants is for you to feel better now. That’s how you will build the confidence you will stay motivated. The right exercises for you are the ones that make you feel better now.  

Why am I interested in this exercise?

Is it because it worked for someone else? Your body and life are unique. Just because an exercise worked for someone does not mean it is right for you. Is it because it worked for you in the past? Your body and life are in constant flux. Your body is only in the present and what worked for your past body and life is not a sure thing to work now. Is it because that person doing the exercise looks the way you want to look? Getting the long lean muscles of a dancer, or the abs like your personal trainer has more to do with their genetic makeup than the exercises they are doing. If you find an exercise or program that sounds good to you, but it does not match your body or life right now, list what appeals to you about that program. That list will help you find a program that is right for you now. Eventually, that program may be right for you, but the only way to get there is to do what is right for your body and life right now.    

The right exercise for the real results you want from exercise is the one that is specifically designed for those results, leaves your body feeling better now, and you want to keep doing consistently. In the last blog of this series, we’ll look at how you know if an exercise is right for your body right now.  

 

How to know if an exercise is right for your body right now.  

Who is telling you it is right for your body?

Since we are flooded with information about how exercise is good for us, we can often think of exercise as a child eating their vegetables so they can have dessert. The problem with that ‘just do it’ approach is your brain believes what your body feels much more than what you tell yourself. Exercising because you have to in order to get to a goal is an athletic mindset. For most people, exercising because you have to will only last for so long. Eventually, your motivation will fade because something more important you have to do will come along.  

Instead, let you body tell your brain that it wants to keep coming back for more. How? By being present to how you feel when you think about exercising, are exercising, and have finished exercising. If your feelings are negative, it is time to change what you are doing or expecting of your body right now. When exercise is a positive experience in both your brain and body from the moment you think about it, you have found a way to exercise for well-being and health.    

What are you doing for exercise?

In our calorie-focused society, exercise has become just a way to burn calories.  But exercise literally means ‘to practice’. So ask yourself, what are you practicing and is that what you want.  Exercise is not to burn calories, it is to help your body and brain feel better now and function better later. If you are doing exercises to burn calories, you may be moving in ways that don’t leave you feeling better now and that will drain your motivation to keep doing it. If you are doing movements that are practicing how you want to function better in daily life, at just the right level for your body right now, you will both feel better now and function better later.  Look closely at the movements you are doing and ask yourself if those are moments you want to improve for daily life.  

Where is my attention when I exercise?

Exercises are often named by the muscles they are working, like triceps, abs, and glutes.  However, muscles do not work in isolation. Movements are a symphony of many muscles working together, orchestrated by your nervous system. The conductor is your central nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. When you focus on muscles, you are likely to miss the fact that other parts of your body are being strained, not strengthened. Consider how an exercise feels for your whole body to know if it is right for your body.  

Often our attention is not on our body at all. If you use distraction, like watching TV or talking on the phone, to get through an exercise, your nervous system cannot help your muscles coordinate the movement well and the quality of your practice has just been lowered. You are not teaching your body to function better while teaching your brain not to focus. This is the number one way we waste time with exercise.    

To exercise in the right way for your body, keep your attention on your whole body in the present moment. Only you know how your body feels and that is your best, most personalized guide. In doing this, you raise the quality of your exercise, thus making it more time-efficient.  

When do I get the results?

In our athletic-minded exercise culture, feeling good when you exercise is not valued, it is considered ‘wimping out’. This mindset is helpful when you are competing, because the reward comes in the future. But when your reasons for exercise are to be well and healthy, the reward is in feeling better now. If you are a former athlete, but now are exercising for health and well-being, pay attention to this inclination to follow athletic approaches. Remind yourself that now your reasons for exercising are different, so the way you exercise needs to be different too.  

You may have long-term goals for exercising, but if they are related to being healthy and well, the way to get there is to be right here, right now. Your body is in a constant state of change.  Every day it needs something slightly different from exercise. What felt good last week may not feel good this week. The path to your goal won’t be linear, because that is not how the body changes. The only way to know how to exercise right is to stay present. Listening to and trusting your body moment by moment is the way to make exercise work for you.  

Why is this exercise right for me right now?

Connect your Why for exercise with what you are passionate about in life because this is the way to know how to exercise the right way for your body and your life right now and sustain motivation. The stronger you make the connection, the more you will be exercising the right way to get what you really want and the more motivated you will be to stick with it. Your core Why for exercise is not to lose weight or be healthy, it is the reason why you want those things. Take the time to get to your core Why and finding the right exercise will be easier and more time-efficient.  

Bottom line: When exercise is based on how the body moves well, designed specifically for the real results you want from it, and leaves you feeling better instantly, you are exercising right. This is the most time- and energy-efficient way to exercise and the most motivating too.  When you know how to exercise right, your body and your brain will be working together to keep you well and healthy. In the next blog series, we’ll look at how to exercise so you feel better mentally, emotionally, and physically.  

 

Know-how by knowing the Real Results of Exercise

Years ago, as a ‘green’ exercise physiologist, one of my favorite posters hanging up in the cardiac rehab unit was this one:

To me, this was so convincing. Why wouldn’t someone want to exercise?

What I know now is that if you are an exerciser, these are great reminders of why you are exercising.

If you are stuck in the Shoulds with exercise, these only make you more stuck.

It is counterintuitive, but these big-time reasons to exercise are not the ones that will make you do it. These are big things that we all want, but they are oriented to a healthy future. What’s more important to your brain is how you feel right now. If exercise does not make you feel better now, your brain will find other things that will.

Your brain constantly gets messages from your body about how you feel and uses your memories and experiences to decide what to do to make you feel better now. No matter how logical it is to exercise for those very important future results, they will just not get you to exercise on a regular basis if right now you don’t have the time or energy to exercise.

If there was a fire in your home, you would not go organize your closet. You would put out the fire! This is how your brain makes decisions about exercise. If you are not feeling well in your body now, if your mind is overwhelmed with too many things to do, your brain will seek a way to put out that fire. The future results are not as important. Your brain needs you to feel better now.

Sure, you can override this and make yourself do activities with delayed rewards. The tradeoff is it takes a lot of brain energy. There are many parts of life that need that brain energy and making yourself exercise so someday you are healthy and well is low on that priority list compared to taking care of loved ones or making enough money to pay the bills. To your brain, the big-time future results from exercise are something that can be put off until later.

It’s the Real-time Results of everything, exercise included, that are most powerfully convincing for you to take action repeatedly. Yet those Real-time Results are often invisible. Instead, we focus on seeing future results like weight loss, finishing a 5K, a smaller size on the tag of your clothes, or a better report from your doctor on your next physical. We need convincing it is all worth our time.

If you want those big-time, far-off benefits from exercise, join me on a journey that reveals the Real-time Results from exercise. When they are more visible, your brain knows that exercise is a resource for being well now. In my next blog series, I’ll talk about exercise in the way that gets your brain’s attention now, so it is easier to take action now. You will Rethink Exercise from a present-moment perspective that makes your brain want to choose to exercise more often.

Should is the one word that destroys motivation more than anything else. I promise to talk about exercise in a way that helps you get out of the Shoulds and wanting to exercise now.  

Cardio: beyond your heart

In abbreviating the name used for cardiovascular exercise to just cardio, some confusion has arisen about what cardiovascular exercise is. Because the word cardio means heart, and heart rate is used during cardiovascular exercise, the common thought is that cardio is about strengthening your heart. We often refer to good cardio as ‘getting your heart rate up’.

Let’s take a little stroll through what happens in your body when you do cardio and see if there is more to cardio than its name implies.

The start of movement: When you start moving, your brain initiates the action by sending messages to your muscles to move. Therefore, cardio starts in, depends on, and changes your brain and nervous system.

The fuels: As your muscles start to move, they need fuel. There are two main systems for producing fuel for muscles: a long-acting, with-oxygen (aerobic) system and a short-acting, without-oxygen (anaerobic) system.

Since oxygen is carried by the blood, and at rest, only about 20% of your blood flow goes to your muscles,  when you start to move your body has to shift your blood flow to those muscles. It takes a few minutes for your muscles to get enough oxygen to use the longer-lasting system for fuel production. So for about the first three minutes of movement, your muscles get their fuel from carbohydrates stored right in the muscles.

Once your body redirects more blood to your muscles, your body can use the longer-lasting, with-oxygen system to keep you moving. This system uses mainly a combination of fats and carbohydrates to fuel muscles. But to do that, it needs the oxygen sent to it from the lungs, pumped through the heart, and transported through your blood vessels.

The equipment: Once your muscles are using the aerobic system for fueling your muscles, you are able to sustain that movement as long as that system has the equipment and fuels it needs. The equipment includes enzymes, mitochondria in cells, glucose, and blood supply, just to name just a few.

Use it to keep it: This equipment is kept sharp by use. If it is not used regularly, it starts to fade. In fact, this starts to happen after just three days of not doing a cardiovascular-type exercise. (If you are on bedrest, it happens even sooner.) This is why cardiovascular exercise is recommended at least three days a week to keep this equipment sharp and working well.

The heart: When the muscles are moving, they are contracting and pressing against your veins. This continuous, rhythmic movement helps the blood travel back to your heart after your muscles have used the oxygen and nutrients they need for that activity. When that blood comes back to the heart, it causes a little stretch in the heart muscle. Think about a balloon filled up with air without tying it. If that balloon has a little bit of air and you let it go, it does not go very far. But if that balloon is filled with a lot of air, and you let it go, it has power to go all over the room. When your heart fills with more blood, that stretch causes it to contract harder. Just like the balloon filled with air, the more blood that returns to your heart, the stronger that contraction.

A stronger heart: This stronger contraction is what is making your heart muscle stronger. The more muscles that are moving, the more blood gets sent back to your heart for that little stretch and stronger contraction. Moving your fingers continuously would send just a very small amount of blood back to your heart. Dancing using your arms and legs sends a much greater volume of blood to strengthen your heart.

Way beyond heart rate: Many things get your heart rate up—stress, caffeine, medications, even just thinking about exercise—but that does not make your heart and cardiovascular system stronger. What makes something good cardio is this challenge to your whole cardiovascular system. Every part of that system gets stronger when you do continuous movement using a large amount of muscles at a level you can sustain.

 

The fine bottom line of cardio intensity

With all the advice about the intensity of cardiovascular exercise lately, let’s take a look at what happens when you exercise at different intensities so you can make a choice about the right level for your body.

Oxygen: Remember that when your body has the equipment to use oxygen, it can fuel your muscles in a more sustainable way. The more equipment, the wider the range of exercise intensities your body can handle without getting tired and needing to stop. If the equipment that uses oxygen to produce energy is lacking, your body will have to go back to using the short-acting, non-oxygen-requiring system for producing energy. So, when you reach a level of exercise where your body cannot keep up with the demand for more oxygen to produce energy, your body will shift to the energy-producing system that runs out quickly.

What you practice gets stronger: This is why someone who does not move for extended periods of time will very often get tired faster, whereas a regular exerciser who has built up the equipment needed to use that aerobic system can last for a long time. Your body is a use it to keep it system.  Like any good system, when one part is not working well, another part will pick up the slack in order to keep the system working. When it comes to the cardiovascular system, even if you have a disease that limits one part of that system, other parts will adapt—as long as they get the signals to do so. Cardiovascular exercise signals the whole system to get stronger in any way it can. This is why someone with lung disease or heart disease is especially in need of cardiovascular exercise, to signal the rest of the system to pick up the slack. When the heart or lungs don’t work as well, the muscles will compensate by building more equipment so they can use oxygen more effectively.

Carbon dioxide: If, during a cardiovascular exercise, you kick it up to a higher intensity, your breathing will reach an uncomfortable level. This is not your body wanting more oxygen—it is your body trying to get rid of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of the non-oxygen-using fuel system. That uncomfortable shortness of breath is called the ‘anaerobic threshold’. It is a sure sign your body won’t last much longer unless you lower the intensity.

Breathing vs. heart rate: This is why your breathing gives you a better idea about the function of your cardiovascular system than heart rate does. You can sense it, without having to measure it.  Plus, without taking a special test to measure your maximal heart rate, your exercise heart rate range can only be predicted (and not very accurately).  Your breathing level, however, is a real-time measure of what is happening in your body. The ‘comfort’ of your breathing lets you know if you have the equipment needed keep fueling muscles. When you are breathing uncomfortably, it is a sign the system is not prepared to keep up and your body is relying more on the non-oxygen, short-lasting fuel system.

Building stamina is possible for any body: For someone who is very fit, this happens at a much higher intensity. For someone who has not built up the oxygen-using system equipment, this happens at a much lower level. For anyone, though, when you exercise regularly, your body adapts by building more equipment for the oxygen-using fuel system, because it is a much more efficient way to fuel your muscles.

“Cardio” or “weight loss”: If you are looking to burn more calories and fat because you want to lose weight, don’t get side-tracked by trying to decide if you should do the cardio program or the weight loss program on your treadmill. Yes, your body uses more carbs at high intensity and fats at lower intensity, but in the end it really does not matter. Your body will break down fats to replace the carbohydrate (glucose) stores when you are resting after exercise. You don’t need to choose between getting more cardio or burning more fat. It’s all good.

The fine bottom line: What is more important for weight loss as well as overall fitness and health is how consistently you do cardio. Remember, after about three days of not doing cardio, the ‘equipment’ starts to get rusty. That’s why it’s important to consider how your brain perceives the exercise too.  Your brain is hardwired to avoid what is uncomfortable.  If you push the intensity to ‘get a better workout’ and are wishing every minute away, your brain is much less likely to want to go back and do that again—and there goes consistency.

That, my friends, is the fine bottom line of cardio. Do cardio at a moderate to motivating challenge for your breathing. Each time be sure it is the intensity level that feels good physically and mentally, so your brain wants to exercise again. Some days the motivating challenge is just getting started and enjoying a moderate intensity. Some days it could be a higher intensity because it feels good to push a bit harder. But on all days, if you are going to get the health and well-being benefits, it needs to feel motivating, not uncomfortable.     

What are the most important benefits of cardio?

As we have seen, there are two distinct factors that make movement a cardiovascular exercise (cardio):

  1. Moving a large amount of your muscles circulates more blood through your cardiovascular system causing your heart to beat stronger (not just faster).  
  2. Moving continuously for longer than two minutes so your body starts relying on your oxygen-using, longer-lasting system for fueling muscles.

That continuous, large-muscle type of movement creates a cascade of events in your body with instant or, in other words, Real-time Results such as:

  • De-stressing. The hormones and chemicals produced when your muscles contract in this way shift your nervous system out of the stress response and into the relaxation response (as long as the way you are doing cardio is not more stress-producing for you).
  • Lowering blood pressure. To help your blood vessels handle the increased pressure of the stronger heart contraction, your body releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels. This stays in your system for up to 22 hours after one bout of moderate intensity cardio, helping to keep blood pressure at a healthier level.
  • Better blood sugar levels. Because your muscles are using the sugars (glucose) in your blood to help fuel muscles, cardio helps you manage elevated blood sugar levels. Cardio also send signals to the receptors in muscles to be more sensitive to your own insulin. This helps lower blood sugar instantly and for a few hours after you stop exercising.
  • Boost sleep quality. Cardio during the day means that night you have a better chance of falling asleep easily and sleeping more soundly through the night. As we all know, a good night’s sleep means a better tomorrow.
  • Better digestion. The repetitive, continuous movement of cardio helps your digestive system improve its mobility, making it work more ‘smoothly’ from top to bottom.
  • Lifts mood. After about ten minutes of cardio, your brain releases a dose of various brain chemicals that improves mood, calms your nerves, and boosts your ability to hands life’s stressors. These are the same chemicals that are in many mental health medications. They are also the ones released when you eat comfort food. The difference is that cardio releases them in the balanced way that they were designed to elevate your mood naturally.
  • Immune protection.  is boosted for up to several hours. One way is by increasing natural killer cell activity—the first line of defense against colds and flu as well as most forms of cancer.
  • Improves focus. As little as ten minutes of cardio increases the ability of your brain to focus. Cardio can be used as an immediate and effective part of treatment for people with ADD or anyone living in this fast-paced, distracted culture.
  • Strengthens memory. Each bout of cardio stimulates the growth of new brain cells like nothing else does. Your brain releases BDNF, a chemical that has been called Miracle Grow for the brain. Even better, it boosts the parts of the brain that stores memories. Exercising before an exam has been shown to help students improve grades and exercise has helped people concerned about memory loss with aging get more out of brain-training exercises.  

Take a moment to ask yourself, Which of those Real-time Results of cardio really got my attention? These are the results of cardio that are most important. Why? Because they matter most to your brain.  

Even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, your brain is hardwired to take care of your body in every moment. When you use the long-term benefits of cardio, like weight loss or health protection, to get motivated to do cardio, it just does not work. Your brain is most motivated by what will make you feel and function better now.  

There are, however, a few Real-time Results of cardio that are not helpful because they are based on misconceptions and marketing.  The top three Empty Results to watch out for are:

  • Sweat: All that large muscle, continuous movement produces heat. That increases your body temperature, possibly causing you to sweat. Whether you sweat depends on many factors including genetics, hydration level, your clothing, the type of activity you are doing, the temperature of the air, the humidity of the air. The fact is that sweat does not mean you ‘got a good workout’. It only means you need to drink more water to rehydrate.  
  • Muscle burn: Feeling the burn may be an outdated saying, but the connection between muscles burning and the benefit of exercise is still alive and well in the minds of many.   You might be told you are ‘working’ certain parts of the body, implying that the burning sensations means you are burning more fat in those areas. The reality is that the burn is just the sensation of muscles fatiguing, not fat melting.  
  • Burning calories:  Although it appears to be pretty easy to find out how many calories you burn with cardio, it really isn’t. The calories your body burns, even for the same exact level of exercise, vary too much to be predictable and the numbers flashing in front of you are only a rough estimate. Burning calories is not as important as we have made it out to be.  More important for weight loss is doing cardio to feel better now, so you are less likely to reach for food to do that.

Take a moment to create your own list of Real-time Results from cardio to help you stay naturally and easily motivated to use this incredible resource for feeling and functioning your best every day.  

Strength, beyond your muscles. 

As we discussed with cardio, we often talk about strength training in terms of the long-term benefits. Yet your brain really cares about the instant rewards of doing something. But what if the instant ‘reward’ you get from lifting weights is muscle soreness and fatigue? Sure, you could tell yourself ‘no pain, no gain’ and convince yourself that it is a ‘good sore’ and all that discomfort means you got a ‘good workout’. Your brain, though, is most concerned with you feeling good now and it’s designed to avoid things that are painful or uncomfortable. When your willpower to endure the discomfort runs out, your brain will start to plant excuses in your head about why you need to skip strength training today (and the next day, and the next).

Eighty percent of people are not doing strength training. Like you, they probably know the benefits—stronger bones, better aging, stronger metabolism—but the brain has some concerns—injury, weight gain, getting ‘too muscular’, or looking like a weakling at the gym. This keeps many people living in the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training.

Are you ready to get out of the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training? Ready to reassure your brain that it is all good, because you are going to work with how your body is designed to be strong? Let’s cut through the marketing- and myth-based ‘facts’ and clear the path to your strongest possible muscles, bones, and metabolism now and every decade going forward.

What is strength training? Strength training is also known as weight training, weight lifting, and resistance training. Basically, it’s when you challenge your body to be able to move your body or objects more easily against gravity. If you are thinking the things you do in your daily life like housework, child care, and yard work mean you don’t need strength training, click here to see why these physical activities are different than exercise.

Making your brain want to strength train. From the very first time you do a strength exercise, you set into motion a cascade of events that produce unique and powerful events in your whole body. Yet, most of the effects of doing or not doing strength training are not noticeable right away, so it’s easy to forget why it is so important. In the next few blogs, I’ll show you the Real-time Results of each strength training session, and why pain and discomfort are not necessary. This way, your brain will be more confident that doing strength training will help you feel and function better now, without having to first endure pain, discomfort, or embarrassment.

Why strength is not from your muscles. Although we most equate strength with big muscles, that is not where strength comes from. Before you even move, something very important happens. Your brain is activated and ‘plans’ what muscles will be needed to create the intended movement. It estimates how many muscle fibers are needed to create the force you need to move against gravity. Then your brain sends a signal through your spinal cord to the muscles you need to do that movement. Without this nervous system signal, muscles can’t move. This pre-planning of movement makes it much smoother and more efficient.

The pathway to strength: Just like the first time you take a trip somewhere, the first time you perform a movement, your brain has to work harder to find the most efficient pathway. Over time, it becomes easier as your brain remembers the pathway. Think about how your body learned to walk, ride a bike, tie your shoes, swim, or play sports. All of these are examples of this process we call muscle memory. This building of muscle memory is what makes movements more automatic, so you can gain coordination, balance, agility, and strength.

Confusion about muscle memory: There is some talk that muscle memory is bad, because you burn fewer calories as your body gets used to an exercise and that you need muscle confusion to keep your body burning more calories. Honestly, the calorie-burning difference is minimal and probably won’t add up to any change on the scale. Muscle memory is what allows you to function. If you are exercising to lose weight so you can feel and function better, muscle memory is your friend.

The strength of your brain. Since the brain and nerves are what tell your muscles how to move, strength originates in your brain and nervous system, not in your muscles. That means you need your brain for building strength. You can see why present moment awareness is so important to get the most from strength training. It ensures you are creating the nerve pathways you want, the ones that allow you to access your strength by positioning your body in the right way, and creating nerve pathways so that strong movement becomes more automatic (more on that later). If your brain is distracted by a TV show, or other people around you, it won’t have as much ability to put into building your strength.  If finding the time for strength training is a concern, choose high-quality strength training by focusing your attention on your body rather than trying to save time by multitasking and doing it while watching TV

Keep in mind: Your full mindful attention is your best strength training tool!

How strength training activates your well-being

Ive highlighted how your strength is not from your muscles, but from your brain and nerves that connect it to your muscles.  It turns out, that ‘waking up’ of nerve fibers activates your whole body and your well-being in very unique ways.   Let’s take a look.

Your muscles. Your muscles are made up of lots of muscle fibers. Imagine each of those fibers like rowers on a boat; the more people rowing, the more strength and power the boat has. If the exercise is with light resistance, only a small amount of muscle fibers is activated. If the weight is heavy, more muscle fibers are called into action. As your muscles get fatigued during an exercise, your nervous system will call upon more muscle fibers to help out.

Your bones. Every day your body is both making and losing bone cells. Around age thirty we seem to start losing more bone cells than we are making. The rate at which that happens depends on how often you are telling your bones to make new cells. When muscles contract, they tug on your bones. When that tug happens, it’s like your muscles are tapping on the shoulder of your bones, saying, ‘hey, stay strong, I need you!’ This sets in motion the immediate signal to your bones telling them to make new cells. Your muscle contraction is what slows the loss of bone. The stronger the contraction, the greater the trigger for new bone cells.

The catalyst:  How often do you hear advice to get enough calcium for your bones and protein for muscles? Well, if you put all the ingredients for a cake into a bowl, but never put it into the oven, would you end up with a cake? No. Those ingredients need a catalyst, heat, to make them work together to produce a cake. Getting enough of the right nutrients is only part of building strong muscles and bones. Strength training is the catalyst that makes the nutrients work for your bones and muscles! 

Your metabolism. When you challenge your muscle fibers, they go through changes like tiny tears in the fibers and use of the fuel stored right in muscles. It takes them about 24-48 hours to repair and refuel after that use. As they repair from those small tears, they gain strength. While they are refueling and repairing, they are more ‘metabolically active’. That means they are burning more calories for a day or two after you do strength training—up to about 15% more!

Your blood sugars. When your muscles contract, they use fuel stored in your muscle fibers and in your blood system. The fuel is glucose (sugar) and fats from your blood system. Each time you contract your muscles, they are ‘soaking up’ blood sugar and using it. That means that sugar is not hanging out in your blood, affecting every other cell in your body. Because strength training causes the longer-term repairs I mentioned, it also causes longer-term use of blood sugars for hours after you finish. This is why strength training is one of the best ways to manage high blood sugar levels.

And more… There are many more cascades of real-time changes that happen each time you perform strength-training exercises that are similar to those that happen with cardio. For example, brain chemicals are released that improve a sense of optimism, focus, and calm. Nitric oxide is released which helps keep blood vessels relaxed, regulating blood pressure and reducing strain on blood vessel walls that could lead to cardiovascular disease.

Unique benefits, unique barriers. These are just the highlights of the unique and powerful Real-time Results of strength training. So why are 80% of people not doing it regularly? If you are one of them, stay tuned.  Next week we will look at the specific road blocks to motivation to strength train.

Bottom Line: Your brain signals your muscles to contract, pulling on bones, and creating movement.  This simple progression of events, when done in a way that is challenging for each one of the steps in the process, creates the catalyst for strengthening and maintaining your bone, muscle, and metabolism.

Three reasons you are not motivated for strength training

What makes you eat breakfast? Have a cup of coffee? Phone a friend? It’s the same instinct that makes a bird build a nest and a beaver build a dam. What makes us take action on something is the desire to be well. This is where the word motivation comes from: “motive: a need or desire that causes one to act”.   

You’ve probably heard that strength training has many great benefits for bones, balance, and metabolism. Who wouldn’t want to stay healthy and age well and keep weight in check?  From the statistics, though, it looks like 80% of us don’t really care about those things. But if you ask anyone, they would say, “Yes, of course I want to keep my bones and body and metabolism strong!” What gives? Why is it so difficult to motivate for strength training?  

Here are three main reasons:

1) It doesn’t ‘work’. Let’s say you see an exercise on social media that promises to slim your thighs or tone your arms or flatten your stomach. You start doing it diligently every day for a month. But nothing seems to happen. Your body, no matter how much you do, just does not look like the body of the person doing that exercise. You decide it’s not working and continue your search for an exercise that will ‘fix your body’. The problem is not that strength training doesn’t work, it is that your body doesn’t work that way. Targeting, toning, slimming, sculpting—all are terms invented by marketing science, not exercise science. Strength exercises do not cause you to lose more fat in a specific area. Maybe your muscles will tighten (or just feel tighter), but you cannot target fat loss in certain areas.

The fact is strength training, done correctly, will work. Really! It instantly activates your metabolism in your whole body, helping you with weight loss and more importantly, maintaining weight loss. But the promise that exercise works like Michelangelo creating the statue of David is honestly just there to make you buy an exercise program. When there is a mismatch between what your brain expects from exercise and how your body responds to exercise, staying motivated for strength training is very challenging.

2) It’s painful. The no pain, no gain phrase is so catchy and believable. Yet your brain is hardwired to AVOID what is painful. Suffering through pain and telling yourself it is a ‘good sore’ might work for a while, but over time, it comes up against your brain’s instinct to avoid pain. Eventually it will create all kinds of excuses why you can’t do strength training today, and the next day, and the next day.  

The fact is there is no gain in pain when exercising for health and well-being. Really! There is no such thing as a good sore. If you are an athlete, pain is part of the package. It’s the consequence of pushing your body to gain a competitive edge. But if you are strength training for the great health benefits, pain is a sign something needs to change. It means you did too much too soon and your body is letting you know it cannot adapt that quickly. When you learn to work with the natural rate of growth for your body, it will thank you by staying strong because your brain will stay motivated to strength train this week and each week going forward.  

3) It’s complicated. Walk into most  gyms and you will see a gazillion weight machines, racks of dumbbells, and people looking like they are being tortured. If you get past that intimidation, then there are all the choices of what to do for strength training. Is it better to use machines or free weights? Is it better to do lower weight and higher reps or the opposite (and what is a set and a rep, again? I always get them confused)?  Let’s face it, even if you want to strength train, figuring out how to do it is enough to make you turn around and just go for a walk instead. Cardio is so much simpler, which is why 80% of people skip strength training.   

The fact is the way your body moves to be strong, and keep your metabolism strong, is not all that complicated. Really! What makes it complicated are programs that are offshoots from bodybuilding or sports training. For feeling and functioning better, aging well, and activating metabolism, it can be simple. When you strip away all the marketing-based exercises and focus on exercises that keep you functioning the way you want to now, and each day going forward, it is not only simple, it is motivating.  Your body feels good right away, strong because it is moving well, and your brain sees the value in what you are doing. Strength training becomes time-efficient, energizing, and motivating.

Why not do strength training in the way that works with your body and brain?

It starts with giving strength training an upgrade for those of us who just want to feel better now and be confident we can move to keep feeling better in the future.   

 

Free your motivation to stretch

Stretching is one of those forms of exercise that many of us aren’t sure about. All the conflicting information and changing recommendations about stretching, and the fact that it doesn’t burn a lot of calories, can make it seem not worth putting in the time and effort to stretch. Even if you know stretching would help your stiff body, it’s not easy to do when it’s uncomfortable or even painful. Getting up and down off the floor can be a challenge and those old stretches we did in high school are not as easy as they once were.

Motivation for stretching can get tangled up on all the conflicting information and challenges with actually doing stretching.  Let’s free your motivation to stretch with an updated look at stretching.  

With all we don’t know about stretching, we do know it’s not:

  • weakening or damaging muscles (when you do it right)
  • about being able to touch your toes
  • making your muscles longer
  • only for the super flexible
  • a waste of time

Interestingly, yoga has gained in popularity over the past decade. When people are asked why they do yoga, the biggest reason is flexibility. Why do so many people want to be more flexible? 

Flexibility is defined by the range of motion of a joint or in other words, how much a joint can move. While this is important, I often hear people wanting to be flexible because they think it will make their stiff muscles feel better. But does being super bendy mean you feel and function better in daily life? Dancers may look beautiful, but they live with daily pain.

Flexibility does not guarantee comfort in your body. A person could be very flexible but still feel stiff and sore. They could even have a greater risk of injury because a very flexible joint is not a stable joint.

When flexibility leads to mobility, which is defined as freedom of movement, it does make you feel and function better. Mobility means your body can move in a wide variety of ways without resisting or fatiguing.   So how can stretching make you more mobile?

Trying to answer that by looking at the research on stretching is tricky. There is not as much research on this type of exercise as on other types like cardio. Most of the stretching research is about improving sports performance and as we know, training for sports performance and training for well-being are quite different. We need to consider carefully where we get our advice about stretching; is it geared toward athletes or fitness for health and well-being? The handful of research studies that show stretching leads to injury are talking about athletes, and even then, the research is not conclusive, the injury risk is low and specific for certain sports.

What actually happens in the body with stretching has not been possible to document until only a decade ago. Before then, stretching studies measured how stretching improved range of motion of individual joints. Fortunately, recent technology allows researchers to understand stretching on a cellular level so future research will tell us more. One thing we have learned is that stretching is about much more than muscles. (more about that in the next blog)

The truth about stretching is we just don’t have a lot of definite answers about why it’s good for us, but stretching does appear to be a greatly untapped way to feel comfortable in your body now, as well healthy in the future.   

Stretching: Beyond your Muscles

In the last blog, I highlighted some of the mindsets about stretching that tend to get in the way of motivation to stretch. Today, let’s update your thinking about stretching so it leads to motivation to stretch and more comfort and freedom in your body.  

The (new) Real-time Results of stretching

We used to think of stretching as a way to warm up or cool down from exercise. Then research put a big question mark on that belief, and we started wondering if stretching was helping or hurting. Now scientists have a better way to understand what is actually happening in the body with stretching. What we have assumed happens in the body when we stretch in the past is being replaced with a better understanding about what is actually happening. Scientists are realizing that tight muscles are, in part, a sign of muscle weakness, so flexibility and strength go hand in hand. They are also discovering there are many instant health and well-being benefits to stretching. Instead of thinking that stretching is only about lengthening muscles, we know stretching is doing much more.

The circulatory system is responsible for transporting blood to and from cells. Blood carries oxygen and fuel to muscles as well as fluids that support cell function and health. While strength training and cardio mainly use your larger muscles, stretching can increase blood flow to even the smallest vessels in the body.    

The lymph system’s job is to maintain a healthy immune system by absorbing fluid from the blood so it can be transported to the spleen. The spleen acts as a filter, helping your body fight infection and detecting potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses. Your spleen and your lymph nodes create white blood cells to defend your body against these ‘invaders’. However, this important system in the body needs you to move for all that to happen. Unlike the circulatory system, your lymph system does not have its own pump. It relies on movement to move the lymph fluid through the body. Stretching can provide that movement instantly, even in the smallest vessels in the body. For more information, including a great video with images to help you visualize this system as you move, click here.  

The fascia system is a network of connective tissue. It used to be thought that it just held the body together. However, as our understanding of the role of this tissue in our body has increased, it is now considered a system (like your cardiovascular system) because its cells communicate with other cells in other systems. Fascia has been described as a three-dimensional web-like body stocking that surrounds every structure of the body. It wraps us like Saran Wrap about 2mm beneath the skin. Fascia changes with how you hold your body during the day, especially when you are still.   It also changes with injuries and with emotions that are held in your body.

Check out this youtube video that shows what this connective tissue looks like and how it changes with movement (this is a two minute clip of a longer video also available for viewing). The image of what this tissue looks like and acts like below your skin is fascinating and can be very motivating. 

The important point is that fascia is always changing and adapting to what is happening in your body and brain moment by moment. Studies are showing that stretching helps the fascia stay more elastic, which could be a main reason why it reduces stiffness and improves mobility. The effects of stretching on the fascia seem to last for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, which is another reason why stretching is best done as movement breaks sprinkled through your day.  

In addition, we are just beginning to understand the importance of the cells in the fascia system for our health, immune system function, and our well-being. 

The nervous system is what controls muscles. When you stretch, especially mindfully, you are calming the stress response in your body and brain, which in turn helps relax muscles.   When a muscle is tight, it is your nervous system trying to protect your muscles from tearing. When you stretch regularly, you are helping your nervous system build up tolerance of movements, so it is less ‘protective’ of the muscles.  

A muscle spasm is when your nervous system has to take extreme measures to protect a muscle that is holding a lot of tension. The spasm happens to prevent it from tearing. That spasm is not the result of that one movement, but rather the accumulation of tightness over time. The movement that resulted in a spasm was the final straw, so to speak. Regular stretching helps to keep that tightness from accumulating.  

Your present moment attention when you stretch is what makes it most effective. When you push a stretch to an uncomfortable or painful level, however, the nervous system has already started protecting the muscles, creating more tension rather than less. That’s why mindfulness is so important when stretching—you can find that just-right level and not overstretch, causing the opposite result to what you want from stretching.

Bottom Line of stretching your whole person

Your whole body, as well as your mind, benefits from stretching by improving fluid flow to your body and building tolerance of movements, especially in areas that do not get moved that often. I think of stretching as cleaning those little corners of a room that you might miss in a quick cleaning job. It also helps maintain elasticity by ‘reorganizing’ the fibers of connective tissue that surround muscles and holds us together. Clearly, the Real-time Results of stretching go way beyond your muscles!

Three steps to Real-time exercise Results

The Real-time Results of exercise, the ones that will make your brain want to exercise are key part of having the know-how for sustainable motivation to exercise  

The big-time reasons to exercise are not the ones that will make you do it. What’s more important to your brain is how you feel right now. If exercise does not make you feel better now, your brain will find other things that will.

This is why we have been looking at the Real-time Results of exercise. Let’s sum it up into three steps for using the Real-time Results from exercise to keep you motivated in Real-time too.   

Clarify Your Real-time Why. 

If your Why for exercise is too far off, your brain will put it off. When you are exercising for some future results but exercise does not make you feel better now, your brain is much more likely to choose something else that will make you feel better in the present. Instead of using future results to get you motivated, get clear about what exercise can do for you right now. Do you want more energy, a better mood, more confidence, more comfort in your body? The only way you will know this is by checking in with yourself each time you exercise to keep the results in Real-time.  

Visualize how the Real-time Results lead to long term results. All of the future benefits of exercise are actually the accumulation of the real-time results of each exercise session. When you are exercising, visualize how you are setting in motion a cascade of events in the present that lead to the long-term results you want.  

Realtime Stamina

When doing cardio, visualize the release of chemicals in your nervous system that keep your brain sharp, your mood more positive, and relaxes blood vessels. Visualize how your cells are using the extra sugar and fats in your blood. Visualize how you are powering up your immune system.  When repeated, each of these leads to health and disease protection.  

Real time strength 

When doing strength training, visualize how you are signaling your muscles to be more metabolically active for the next day or so, your bones to make new cells, and your nervous system to keep the muscle memory for ease of  movements in daily life. When repeated, these lead to more strength, stronger bones, and a more active metabolism.  

Real time mobility

When stretching, visualize your nervous system releasing muscle tension, your connective tissues becoming more elastic, and your lymph system clearing unwanted items from your body. When repeated, these lead to less stiffness, a stronger immune system, and a more comfortable body and mind. 

Real time motivation

After exercise, notice the Real-time Results. This pausing helps your brain make that connection between exercise and your innate desire to be well now. The stronger that connection, the more automatically you will want to exercise, without needing to trick yourself into doing it or rely on others to make you do it.

Even if you follow these three steps, they won’t work without knowing HOW to exercise so you feel better now and get the results you want later. Knowledge is the key to being in the driver’s seat of getting those Real-time Results you want from exercise now. Doing 100 sit-ups won’t do it. Completing a fitness challenge won’t do it. Exercises for ‘toning and sculpting’ won’t do it. Burning more calories won’t do it. Lifting weights while watching TV won’t do it. Why? Because all of these approaches are based on marketing or myths and miss the mark for creating lasting exercise motivation. They are not based on how your body and brain work, so they don’t stand a chance of  leaving you with the Real-time Results your brain wants. Sacrificing the instant results for the possible long-term results is a surefire way to lower your ability to get what you want and stay motivated.

What will do it? High-quality exercise. Moving your body in the way it was designed to function best for the reasons that are most important to you now. Doing quality exercise means your time investment is less and the instant return on your investment is greater.  The key is staying away from all the marketing-based exercises that make you feel like you are “getting a good workout” because you are sore or you sweat. (neither of these are needed for any real results from exercise).  Quality exercise does not need ‘tricks’ to get you motivated. 

The best part of doing quality exercise is that there is no need for a suffering period. You don’t need to be in pain until your body ‘gets used to it’. Exercising for the Real-time Results means you feel better each time and are much more likely to keep that cascade of events going that leads to results in the long term.  

The Real-time Results of exercise are the ones your brain cares most about.   When you know how to do quality exercise, it leaves you feeling and functioning better now, and your brain knows it so exercise motivation is much easier. It starts with knowing your Why, choosing what to do for that Why, and exercising in a way that makes you feel better now.