Working Out Doesn’t Have To Be Exhausting To Be Worth It

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the best way to get fit (or exercise at all) is to exhaust yourself. Phrases like 'no pain, no gain', 'grind now, glory later' and the particularly derogatory 'sweat is just your fat crying' are testament to the idea. This belief could even be based on experience. Maybe you associate running with being forced around the school field when you have a stitch. Maybe you signed up to a HIIT class on a whim (or as part of a new year's resolution) after a very rested few months and found yourself drenched in sweat and unable to move 50 minutes later. Maybe both of those examples come from my personal experience. Who’s to say.
But if you pose 'exhaustion = good' as a question to fitness professionals and sports psychologists, is it actually true? Does exercise have to be exhausting to be good for you? When I asked experts that question, everyone I spoke to said no, emphatically. But with caveats.
Tim Hart, a personal trainer at the gym Third Space explains: "It's tough to answer these questions because there's nuance in the answers but the short answer is no. That doesn't mean exhausting exercise isn't also good for you. But it doesn't have to be exhausting to be effective."
The idea that exhaustion is key to exercise can be traced back to how society looked at sport as a means to train people for battle, says Andrew Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. "You go back centuries and [sport] is a means of developing mental toughness that is deeply rooted in history. And it's correctly connected to the idea that that's how hard serious athletes are training from time to time." Unsurprisingly, elite performers do have to learn to cope with fatigue and perform at their highest intensity under intense psychological load.
As for the rest of us, the benefits of pushing yourself to the edge, Tim says, depend on your 'training age' aka the length of time you have been building a core base of whatever exercise you're partial to. If you have a very low training age then you'll get the most benefit from low intensity, moderate work. "And then the more advanced you get, the harder you train; the longer you've trained for, the more intense the workouts probably need to be. But even that in itself is a bit of a generalisation."
Basically, a bit of high intensity for your level of fitness is good a bit of the time. But it should be an addition, not the norm.
Many fitness professionals know this but it doesn't stop this exhausting idea being particularly prevalent right now. Lotti McKenna, head of movement at fitness studio BLOK, theorises that it’s not just because it’s January; it's because it’s January 2023. "Because we haven't had a January with workout classes in three years, it feels like everyone's just going full throttle."
"There can be and has been a mentality across the fitness industry that it's totally the right thing to completely smash it out in January," she adds. "To an extent, that can't be helped – I think for many of us psychologically it feels like a fresh start and a little bit of that is no bad thing. But thinking long term is completely ignored."
Tally Rye, a personal trainer who specialises in intuitive movement, adds that this is peak time for what she calls the 'all or nothing cycle'.
"A lot of people will feel a lot of discomfort and guilt around Christmas because they may have – in their minds – overindulged. So people feel like January is the opportunity to redeem themselves and cleanse themselves of their sins."
"Often they are choosing workouts that they're told are the 'most effective' or 'best fat-burning' workouts. But none of this has taken into consideration a) what they enjoy doing, b) what their realistic schedule is and c) what their fitness levels really are." As a result, people will either burn out or stop when they've reached their goal; in stopping they'll then likely gain weight, feel guilty and the discomfort will return. And so the cycle continues.
So how can you avoid falling into the 'all or nothing' trap?
First up, remember that different people will have different fitness levels, even if they are starting from the same training age. One person's low intensity circuit is another person's high intensity workout. Trust your body's read on what is high or low intensity, not what the workout is described as, and prioritise making workouts feel sustainable to you. That means going for the high intensity far less frequently than low to moderate intensity. Not everything needs to be HIIT.
In fact, if you hate HIIT, just don't do it. Find movement that you truly enjoy, whether that's modifying a conventional exercise like running to suit you (by going leisurely but regularly) or taking up something more esoteric like tap dancing. As Tally puts it: "The best workout for you isn't the one that burns most calories, it's the one you enjoy."
And if you're struggling to feel good about exercising in a way that doesn't wring you out, Tally suggests this exercise. Identify along a zero to 10 scale what each effort feels like to you physically, with zero being a baseline and 10 your absolute maximum effort. She finds that most people feel that the most effective exercise is in the eight to 10 region, without realising there are other notches on the scale. This will show you how you perceive exercise and give you a base from which you can shift that perception.
From here she advises neutralising and celebrating effort on the zero to five end of the scale too, while letting go of any shame about not being able to reach that perceived 'effective' level.
"Just because you felt like you constantly had to operate at that eight to 10 level doesn't mean you failed if you couldn't sustain that, because why would you? If you're working out so hard and intensely multiple times a week, every week, of course your body is going to reach a point where it can't do it anymore."

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