Are you doing the right workout?

Depending who you talk to, the best exercise option is one of the following[1]:

Aquatic exercises
Cross-country skiing
Free weights
Functional training
Olympic lifting
Playing my favourite sport
Power lifting
Strength training

Did I miss any? I was about to add aerobics, but I’m pretty sure that’s one 1980s fad that hasn’t come back. Or has it?

The point being – it’s a pretty long list. And each one has staunch supporters who are eager to tell you that their favourite is the best option. Who is right? Are you doing the right or workout? How can you tell?

In truth – it’s really quite simple. Answer the following 3 questions to find out if you’re doing the right workout for you:
1. Do you do it?
2. Are you staying healthy (or not losing health)?
3. Are you reaching your goals, or on track to do so?

If you answered yes to all three questions, then you’re doing it right. Period. And yes, for some of you that means crossfit is the right option for you. Daily yoga might be it for others. Or running. Or going for walks with your best friend, spouse, or kids.

What about those of you who can’t answer yes to one or more of those three important questions? For you, there’s clearly something missing. “I do it”, “it isn’t hurting me”, and “it’s helping me reach my goals” shouldn’t be too much to ask of your exercise regime.

This leads to the question: if you answer no to at least one of those questions, what do you need to change?

1. “I don’t do it”. If you’re not doing it, then you don’t enjoy it enough. Try something else until you find something you enjoy. This is the single most important determinant in what you should do, because if you’re not doing it, the details are irrelevant. Not sure how to find out? Find a friend who’s willing to experiment with you. You might be surprised to hear this, but you may find that you will actually enjoy lifting weights. Seriously – some of my clients actually look forward to their sessions. Others look forward to their yoga classes, or their running group. Personally, I feel this way about skiing and ultimate. Try to find that thing that you will look forward to, and do that. It may be about the activity, or it may be about the people involved. Either or both is fine. Whatever it takes to get you to enjoy moving!

2. If you love what you’re doing but your body doesn’t, that’s a problem. Sorry for bursting your bubble, but exercise should enhance your ability to move, not reduce it. If it makes your knee, or back, or shoulder hurt, it’s doing the opposite of that. A little secret: this applies to the more “gentle” exercise types like yoga and pilates. Some yoga poses will cause problems for some people. I’m not saying yoga is bad; it’s not. But I am saying that if your body responds poorly to yoga, then some part of it is bad for you.

Similarly, I think we all know runners who run for hours blocking out the pain from their knees, hips, or shins. Or weight lifters who have a constantly sore back. And soccer players who wear as many braces as they have joints. They’re doing it wrong.

I believe there is one exception to the rule that your exercise choice should make your body should feel good: if you are someone with a chronic, degenerative joint problem who has pain 24/7; it’s highly unlikely that your joints will magically stop hurting during exercise. But the initial question still holds true for you: “Are you staying healthy (or not losing health)?” What this means for you, is that the exercise you do shouldn’t make this problem worse. If it does, that’s a problem. If it is the same or a bit better, then awesome. You’re doing it right.

If your exercise approach is hurting your body, what can you do about it? Try something different. I don’t necessarily mean you should completely stop doing your thing; but it may be time to cut back and add in something that complements it. For most people who only do one type of exercise, this typically means adding in something else that works your body differently. For instance, I believe most people do either too much or too little yoga. I think those who do yoga as their sole source of exercise should add in strength training; and conversely, those who do strength training as their sole source of exercise should add in yoga. Most runners will also benefit from strength training and/or yoga (depending on how they move), and/or swimming. Take a look at what you’re doing and think about whether you’re missing anything. If you are, add or substitute it in. Personally I workout at the gym with strength and mobility exercises as a means to keep my arthritic hip happy enough that I can keep enjoying skiing and ultimate.

Last word on this: if you are finding yourself injured or sore all the time from your exercise, you may be due for some massage, or a visit to an athletic therapist, chiropractor, or physical therapist. The health benefits of exercise are so vast it’s almost ridiculous, but if you use your body, some maintenance of the muscular system is advised. You wouldn’t drive your car for years at a time without changing the oil, filters, and spark plugs, would you? Then why are you doing that to your body? You’re probably not going to have the same car 30 years from now, but hopefully you will have the same body. If car maintenance takes a higher priority for you than body maintenance, you’re definitely doing it wrong.

3. Let’s talk goals, shall we? Do you have fitness or performance goals? If you do and you aren’t meeting them with your current exercise approach, then your current approach isn’t working for you. Simple. You can really fix this in one of two ways: change what you’re doing, or change your goals. That latter part was not meant to be cheeky, but rather is a reality for many of us.

Sometimes our goals don’t fit any more. It may be a factor of the time we have available to commit to exercise, or it may be that our goals are more appropriate for a younger version of ourselves. That’s not meant to be defeatist! Appropriate training can work wonders in terms of preparing the body to take on great feats, regardless of age (just ask these 80, 90 and 100 year olds). But there are two realities to consider in regards to how our bodies perform at 50 versus at 25:
1. A 50 year old body has 25 more years of wear and tear on it. If you’ve spent those 25 years playing a sport at a high level, odds are you have a joint or two that has suffered as a result.
2. while a 50 year old body has the physical potential to accomplish a lot, it has some physiological limitations like stiffer connective tissue, and slower recovery.

If the reason your exercise approach isn’t helping you meet your goals is that your goals don’t match you or your life, then work out some new goals, and start working toward them.

If your goals are appropriate, then the problem is your exercise choice. This is where you will need to get into more details, and you may find you need some help figuring it out. If your goals are weight loss related and you’re not meeting them, it may be a factor of your choice of exercise, or the amount you’re doing; but more likely it is a factor of nutrition choices. If you’re not sure how to address that, consider getting help from a nutritionist. You may also find my Get Lean program will be a good start to helping you address some habits that are slowing your progress.

If your goals are performance related, then what is the deficit? Most athletes know their shortcomings if they really reflect: is it speed? Endurance? Strength? Flexibility? Power? Are your opponents getting away from you on the ice because they sneak around you, because their first step is better, or they eventually overtake you? Or is the limitation related to question 2 – is there an injury problem limiting you? Often some self-evaluation can help you to recognize what you need.

Maybe your goals are about life-performance? Want to be able to play with your grandkids in the park? Or be the coach of your kid’s soccer team? But maybe you’re worried you’ll be huffing and puffing after demonstrating one drill? Or that you’ll throw your back out with one kick? For most people, reaching these goals will be best achieved with some combination of strength, flexibility, and endurance training. Unfortunately there isn’t a book or website I can point you to that will find the answer for you. What I can suggest is that you find a health care professional that you trust and ask them for guidance. Odds are they know who the good fitness professionals are who can help you figure this out. And of course if you’re in the Ottawa area and you think this all makes soooo much sense, then you may be interested in getting some help from me or one of the personal trainers who works with me at Custom Strength. We’re all about helping people find the right exercise for them.

How do you fare against the three questions? Are you doing it right? If so, what are you doing? And well done! If you answered no to one or more questions, has this been helpful to steer you to a better path?

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa Canada who loves that she gets paid to help people reach their goals.

[1] I recognize some of the “exercise types I listed are really tools (TRX, kettlebell) or protocols (Tabata), but I often hear people speak about them as though they were types, and following the perception is reality philosophy, it made sense to me to include them. In a similar vein, some are overlapping or flat out redundant, for the same reason as above.

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