You remember your first trip to the gym. You timidly stepped into the jungle of grunts and sweat, almost expecting a guru to tell you exactly what to do. You casually watched the guy with python arms do his sets, and quickly looked away the moment he caught you mirin’. You remember putting more weight on the bar than you could handle, and laughing nervously as others watched you struggle. We’ve all been there. Your first trip to the gym, even if you went with a good buddy, was rife with confusion and pain. Maybe you really put an effort in that first time, but your body protested adamantly, a hopeless bystander to your intention of self-destruction. Perhaps you almost gave it up altogether after the first few visits, and now you only go when drowning in guilt after pizza and movie night. Just as common as people not exercising at all is people going to the gym regularly and hating every minute of it. More often than not, going to the gym is viewed as an obligation rather than a hobby. Common knowledge is that it’s good for your heart and brain, and people generally have vague aspirations of not turning into an obese 50 year-old with a drawer full of prescription pills. Therefore, with frustration and dismay you fill up your Nalgene and go.
Why do people hate exercising? In a perfect world, humans would default to doing what is good for them in all situations. We know that this is not a perfect world. We make rash decisions in our personal lives that lead to hurting the ones we love. We drink too much on Friday nights, eat 1,500 calorie fast food meals, and the hazy Saturdays pass us by. Many will end up looking back with regret at the wasted years, wondering how they ever could have been so dumb in regards to basic life decisions. But even for the more prudent among us, making the right decisions in pursuing physical health can be a bitch. The most important decision you can make in this regard is to actually go to the gym time and time again, and nothing reinforces this better than adhering to a reasonable exercise program. The people who ultimately succeed in achieving a robust degree of health are those who begin to LOVE exercising, both for its health benefits and for the feeling it brings.
Here are the reasons why you, as a casual gym-goer, may hate exercising:
Training Like an Olympian
Today’s the day. You’re going to start Jerry Rice’s Touchdown Trainer workout because you want to get in the best shape of your life. First on the list: 30 minutes of stairs at the local ballpark stadium. Sheesh, that seems a little excessive… Jerry Rice does it though, and who are you to question his methods? Next up, 10 sets of 10 barbell squat. 30 seconds rest in between. Shit. “It’s Jerry Rice we’re talking here.” The voice in your head is adamant. The guy is in the NFL Hall of Fame, and could run like a cheetah. Fleeting visions of you gracing the 1988 Super Bowl podium keep you focused, and you endure the most painful 15 minutes of your life at the local gym. One hour and thousands of pushups later, you’ve collapsed on the floor of the gym. You’re done. Absolutely gassed. The attendant asks if you need help. You mumble something incoherent and stand up. What an awful two hours. The next morning your legs give out and you fall down the stairs. Is this what it takes to get in tip-top shape? Forget it, you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Of course, this program is purely hypothetical. Let’s be honest, Jerry Rice would probably laugh and point at you for following such an easy program. However, all of this is to say that as a regular working human, you shouldn’t try to be a hero in the gym, ESPECIALLY when you’re just starting out. Far too often, I see beginners at the gym pursuing over-the-top programs, either those meant for advanced exercise practitioners or programs that gain all of their popularity from celebrity endorsement. This is because people want results fast, and they think that more is always better. For the non-professionally athletic man/woman, more = better is simply not the case when it comes to exercise. You are not training to beat Michael Phelps in the next Olympic games. You are not training to beat a state record in the local marathon, where ungodly conditioning might give you the edge. If you are like most others in your shoes, you exercise because you want to look and feel good. You want to do whatever it takes to live life to its fullest. Luckily for you, even 30 minutes of focused, intense exercise a few times a week can radically change your body. For the novices out there, whether you’re just starting out or deciding to take lifting seriously for the first time, physical adaptations will take place quickly with the simplest of programs, such that you can get your feet wet before diving into the ocean head-on. In the same way that you shouldn’t be so naïve to think that 1 minute of crunches a day will get you a six pack, you shouldn’t assume that you have to train like the professionals to develop a great body. Their purposes in training are entirely different from yours, and as such you must take a different approach.
Jogging is the Best Way to Go?
Jogging is like the in-your-face spokesman of health. Every day on your commute you spot a beautiful young runner who makes it look easy, and is actually smiling in midst of pain that would instantly bring you to tears. Before you know it, you’re at Dick’s checking out the shoe rack with three pairs of neon leggings draped around your arm. You think that you need to emulate the jogger because, as the highly public spokesmen of health, they obviously know what they’re doing. Curiously, steady state, medium intensity cardio, like jogging, gives you very little in return for your investment. For 30-60 minutes of steadfast self-torture, you receive a nice headrush and the hope of things being a little easier next time. You think you are doing your body the greatest of favors, but in fact there are much better strategies for achieving fitness and better looks in limited time. Doing high intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves high-intensity bouts of exercise with interspersed periods of rest, provides substantially more benefit than steady state cardio. With HIIT, you spend less as little as 15 minutes per session, and in return your insulin control, fat metabolism, and aerobic capacity all improve substantially, a conclusion supported by multiple scientific reviews. Low-intensity cardio, like walking, is also very beneficial because it does not significantly stress the body like jogging does. Combine interval training a few times a week with a solid weight training program, and you’ll never have to jog again in your life. You’ll never again want to, as you’ll see that the results of other approaches are so much more effective. Besides, for most of us jogging is boring and painful. If you’re going to exercise, make it interesting so you want to come back for more.
Eating Towards Your Goals
Diet and exercise go together like socks and sneakers. If you always wear socks around outside, all of your socks will have holes in them. If you don’t wear socks under your sneakers, your shoes will begin to smell like the inside of a landfill. You’re hard pressed to wear one without wearing the other. With regards to diet, if you eat like shit and plan your meals poorly, you’ll get very little out of exercising. You will also make the very act of working out substantially harder for yourself. With a consistent diet of processed junk food, you’ll naturally have less motivation to go the gym. Setting aside potential effects of this habit on long-term health, have you ever eaten a hot pocket and immediately thought, “Wow, I feel great! Hey, who wants to go running with me?” Foods with poor nutritional quality are fine to enjoy in moderation, but if they define your eating habits, you’re likely to never even think of going to the gym. Your body already has enough to deal with.
Another mistake often made is eating too much right before a workout. Regardless of what nutritional goodness you’re putting into your body, feasting makes you relaxed, too relaxed for intense exercise. Intense exercise requires activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight-or-flight” machinery of your body. The opposite end of this spectrum is the parasympathetic nervous system, the activation of which promotes digestion, relaxation, and sleepiness. If you eat a 3-course meal right before working out, the food won’t be converted into usable energy until hours later, and digestion will make you too relaxed to have a good workout. Want to eat a good meal before working out? Do so 2-3 hours in advance. Your body will have already digested most of the food and converted it to usable energy. If you’re dying for a quick bite a half hour before, simple sugars are your best bet, preferably a small portion of fruit. However, like me, in time you may find that you do your best when abstaining from any sort of eating until after the workout.
Lastly, and most importantly, your meal plan has to align with your overall goal in going to the gym. No workout plan, no matter how brutally intense, can help you lose fat if you’re eating more calories than you use. In the same way, no ball-busting lifting routine means anything if you don’t stock up on calories. Unfortunately, I frequently encounter people who complain that, no matter how often they go to the gym, their bodies stay exactly the same. More often than not, these are the same people who leave the gym feeling that their work for the day is done. For example, in my own experience, whenever my progress slows it is due to poor meal planning. Especially when life gets busy, I will forget to plan ahead and skip meals out of necessity. For someone who was born skinny and is usually hell-bent on gaining muscle mass, my lifting goals are dependent on eating food whenever possible. Whether or not this is relatable to your situation, and whether or not you now hate me for complaining about my fast metabolism, eating for your goals is essential.
This is probably the primary reason why people give up on their fitness goals. Whether because of some stupid marketing scheme or because of your own lack of experience, you think that exercise will be easy and that adaptations to exercise will occur quickly. This is not usually the case, as most of us quickly realize. More often than not, exercising is challenging at first. In our modern society, most things come easy. A world of information is available at the palm of your hands. Food is a monetary transaction away. The market is filled to the brim with products that allow for increased convenience in performance of daily tasks. Naturally, we come to believe that this is just the way things work. But think about how exercise works on your body. When you lift weights, you are literally breaking down muscle fibers and mechanically stressing your bones. With any form of cardio, you are causing microtrauma on the heart and lung tissues, in essence assaulting your own body. These initial effects are not why we exercise; rather, we seek the adaptations that the body makes to prepare for further stress. Pain is an important evolutionary adaptation that tells you to stop doing something when it is hurting you. Obviously, we should be grateful that we feel pain; otherwise we would be unaware when a ligament or muscle is torn. Hell, we wouldn’t know to not touch hot stoves until our fingers had fully disintegrated. Unfortunately, even though a third degree burn and a set of bench press could not be more different, pain is indiscriminate and does not realize that you could actually be helping yourself when exercising at high intensity. Pain will manifest very strongly in your first month or so of exercising, both during and after. Your physiology is not expecting the unusual body-wide assault that exercise brings along with it, and thus adamantly protests before, during, and after. However, if you have the willpower to stick with it, in time your pain response surrenders a little bit. Your mind tunes to the task. Your heart rate increases in anticipation as you drive to the exercise facility. Literally everything becomes easier and more enjoyable over time until you become a masochistic maniac. This is the way habit development works. Your body protests at the thought of changing things up a little bit, whether it be implementing a new thought pattern, giving up a routine, or making exercise part of your lifestyle. However, as you do the new thing repeatedly, it becomes almost thoughtless. In the case of exercise, over time your body will begin to crave it. It is hard for me to take a week off, even though I know it is a good thing to do periodically, because I legitimately can’t wait to hit the weights in the course of my day. I wake up in the morning and pack my gym bag up with the rest of my stuff, and I do this almost without thinking. I never think, “Man, I should really go to the gym today.” I just prepare accordingly and do it.
Somewhere Deep Inside… You Like Going to the Gym
Perhaps you think that you simply aren’t cut out for physical activity in the way that so many others are. The pain and general anxiety of those first few trips were enough to reveal this to you. If you were destined to be “at-home” in gym shoes, the gods would have given you coordination and spatial awareness. As it stands, the last time you played sports was the grade school rec soccer team, and even then the coaches benched you during close games.
However, the fact of the matter is that exercise doesn’t have to be torture, even for someone with little natural physical ability. You need to find a realistic, time-efficient program to follow. You need to eliminate jogging from your life, unless it really gets you fired up. You need to eat for your goals.
But most importantly, you need to realize that no one with healthy habits developed them in a day. You need to stick to it for more than just a month or two. You can’t just buy a few bags of kale chips, exercise every day for one week and expect something dramatic to happen.
Somewhere deep inside, you like going to the gym. In the depths of your being, you like eating with a purpose, rather than for immediate pleasure. It is your job to make the necessary adjustments to make health a routine, rather than an occasional thought. In time, you will be very happy that you made the change and wonder how you ever could have neglected such a healthy practice.