Of Balance and Basics: Knowing How to Listen to Your Body and Act Accordingly
Once while waiting for an exercise class at my gym, I struck up a conversation with one of the instructors. We were talking about our favorite classes, and I mentioned my newfound love for Body Flow by Les Mills, a Pilates-Yoga-Tai Chai blend routine.
Upon hearing this, the instructor started bemoaning her difficulty to balance her normal high-intensity routines with appropriate stretching, meditating, and relaxing-type workouts. She said she found it difficult to devote meaningful time to these types of classes despite the wear her vigorous routines were having on her body. And take note, this from a woman who looked very fit and took her health seriously.
What’s the moral of the story? Even the most devoted exercisers can suffer from a lopsided approach to fitness if they neglect resting their muscles and regularly push their bodies too far. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to assume that most of my readers, like me, don’t have this exact problem. However, there is something to be said for properly tuning into your body’s needs for anyone who’s regularly working out, looking to start, or jumping back into fitness.
With that in mind, here are some easy ways to ensure your workouts are effective, enjoyable (for the most part!), and balanced. After all, I believe keeping exercise in perspective is the way to keep it up for the long run, which should be everyone’s goal.
Take rest days. No matter who you are, your body needs to have 1-2 days a week of rest from formal exercise. This means no high-intensive, jarring aerobics and no strenuous weight training. However, if you really must move, you can use these off days to take a leisurely stroll or go for an easy swim. Or you might opt to work on your flexibility with a gentle bout of Yoga or deep, relaxing stretches. In fact, I highly recommend the extra stretching as it’s wonderfully therapeutic for tight muscles and stiff backs and is what allows us to keep working hard on those designated training days.
Alternate strength training among body parts. If you exercise with weights one day, you need to skip those same exercises the next day. In other words, never strength train the same muscles two days in a row. If you do, you’ll risk making gains on your strength as it’s during rest periods that the body works to rebuild the muscle you trained, making it stronger. If you skip this advice and burn out your biceps two days in a row, you’ll cancel out the work of the previous day.
Know the difference between challenging yourself and hurting yourself. This one is more subjective and very much up to you, but I can cue you in on a few red flags to look for. First, if you ever feel a tear, a sharp, sudden and piercing pain or you are experiencing dizziness, stop what you’re doing right away. This is usually a sign you’ve pushed too far or you’ve injured yourself. Nagging pains in your shoulders, knees, neck or back, even if they don’t bother you too much, also shouldn’t be ignored. These are usually a sign you’ve pulled a muscle and it needs to be rested. In fact, body-specific stretches along with a few days off of exercise are usually enough to get you back into fighting shape, but that won’t happen if you “push through it” as some say. Better to rest and treat the soreness for a few days than carry on and risk a more serious injury. On the flip side, exercise should put you through some moments of uncomfortableness if you’re going to see some gains. If oftentimes you find yourself barely breaking a sweat or not feeling challenged by your routine, then it’s likely time to break out of your comfort zone. This might mean lifting that weight two more times to completely tire it out, or increasing your walking speed to render yourself a little out of breath. Most of us know when we can do a little more, go a little farther or push a little harder. The key is to always be aware of how your body is reacting to the work - something that frequent exercise will help with - and responding appropriately. A good rule of thumb is to remember that working out will involve some amount of discomfort but an injury will mean full-out pain.
Don’t be afraid to take it back to basics. For those of us who’ve been training for years, often incorporating several different types of exercise into our routines, it’s good to remember the fundamentals of movement. For most of us that means walking. Walking is something nearly everyone can do and its benefits are numerous for both body and mind. Whenever I tire of my varied routine, I always find it refreshing to hit the treadmill or the trail for a good walk. I find the smooth and almost hypnotic rhythm of walking is often just what I need to rid my mind of complex exercise routines or proper strength training form. Sometimes I need to just forget it all and simply walk, whether that be outside solo or with a friend, or with my iPad propped up on the treadmill. It all does me good, and I bet it’ll have the same effect on you.
Remember, physical fitness is a journey; as hokey as that sounds, it’s definitely true. Exercise, in all its forms, is something we should aim to practice over the course of our life. Knowing how to balance our workouts, how to ditch them when we need to, or just how to take them down a notch is all part of making sure it’s a lifelong effort.
Carissa D. Lamkahouan is a 24-year veteran of the writing game, having published in newspapers and magazines both in her native United States and abroad. A wife and mother of three, she converted to Islam in 2005 and spent a year living in Morocco, where she published a blog of her experiences. Nowadays, she covers news, fitness, religion and anything else that pops onto her radar from her home in Houston, Texas.