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Mirabai Holland Headshot

Working Out: Can You Gain Without The Pain?

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It's Spring again and I've been getting those emails for a month or so asking for advice on how to get on and stay on an exercise program. I get questions about commitment, pushing one's limits, pain, and quick results. I go a little crazy at this time of year because I'm at odds with a very vocal segment of my industry about how to get started on an exercise program. They're sincere, well-educated trainers, but I don't think they remember what it felt like to be de-conditioned. They expect beginners to do to much too soon. I'm beginning to think that over-vigorous exercise dulls one's sense of empathy.

I've seen it time and time again: determined beginners pushing so hard and either getting hurt and quitting or just quitting because they couldn't take it any more. If this sounds like you, don't feel bad. It's not your fault. We've heard no pain no gain all our lives. We've watched contestants push themselves to the brink of disaster on television. We're inundated with infomercial promises of big results in no time. It's enough to make anyone think " I've got to beat myself senseless immediately so I can hurry up, get fit, have the body of my dreams and live happily ever-after."

By the way, I'm not against vigorous exercise. On the contrary, I love vigorous exercise. But I wouldn't have loved it nor would I have been safe doing it as a beginner. In my experience, that approach only works for a few stoic types and sets the rest of us up to fail.

I believe in moderation, easing in, starting with a little and building up to a lot, staying in your comfort zone. You may get to super-vigorous exercise eventually, or maybe you'll like moderate exercise better. And moderate may be just as good as vigorous, maybe better. Really.
Just so you know this isn't some favorite rant of mine, there are people, scientists even, who actually agree with me. Here's study conducted at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health

I think, the best way to get fit and make exercise a part of your life forever is to keep it pleasant. If you haven't been exercising in a long time, don't start lifting weights right away. Don't try to jog or even walk for a half an hour right away. Do something easy. Do something pleasant. If you enjoy it today you'll want to get up and do it again tomorrow. It's the pleasure principal. I believe in it. This study published in the Journal of Health Psychology believes it, too

So, how do you get started? I suggest starting by standing up and doing about five minutes of gentle limbering movements. Do the same for a few days in a row. You may be surprised at how good this feels and what a wonderful state of mind these simple, natural movements put you in. You may find yourself exercising longer than five minutes after a few days because you like it. Don't question it. Simply do it. You may find the more you do it the more you'll want to do it, and the more you'll do.

You may want to go for a little walk, then a brisk walk, then a half hour brisk walk. Don't rush it. It doesn't matter if it takes a couple of weeks, or a couple of months. Listen to you body. You're on nobody's schedule but your own.

Once you're enjoying a half hour brisk walk most days of the week, try adding light weight training for your major muscle groups a couple of times a week. Increase the weight, number of reps and number of exercise days only when it feels too easy. Build up slowly to weight training about three days a week with a day off in between sessions.

Remember to keep it pleasant. If it's too intense, it ceases to be fun and there's a good chance you'll quit. This approach takes longer. But I've found it to be much more sustainable than those quick fix pump you up methods. Most of those intense immersion exercise programs remind me of the guy who beats his head against a brick wall. When asked why on earth he does that, he says: "because it feels so good when I stop"

Ease-in. Invest in your body. It will pay you back in quality of life.