The Problem with Chronic Cardio

Guestblog by Ian Starr, Owner of Balance Athletics

We are sold a concept of conventional/cultural “wisdom” that the path to health and wellness lies in substantially elevating our heart rate for a sustained period of time at least several days per week. Chronic subscribers of this idea often over-train their bodies (five to seven days per week) and deprive themselves of the benefits of exercise. For the vast majority of folks, this also means some type of repetitive motion activity like running, elliptical, or cycling. If you tend to repeat the same workouts day to day, week to week, year to year and feel like you are always chasing an unobtainable goal through exercise, this article is for you.

Let’s start with some of the insidious problems and catch 22’s of chronic, repetitive aerobic exercise:

1. Cortisol. An over-reliance on aerobic exercise may jack up your hormones, contribute to excessive systemic and acute inflammation, and depress your immune system. Basically, it becomes a cumulative stressor and not the good kind of stressor (think minimal dose, maximum benefit). The kind that slowly beats you down week after week, month after month, year after year. There truly is a concept as “too much exercise.”

Life is full of cumulative stressors: Occupational stress, marital stress, financial stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, unhealthy relationships with alcohol and other drugs, and reliance on medications to account for unhealthy life balance. Think about the compounding effect of adding all that intensity and volume from some form of repetitive exercise on top of a system that is already highly stressed. Overloading your body with exercise does not lead to improved health.

2. Reliance on repetitive movement. Using repetitive movement as your primary source of exercise creates problems and deficiencies. Running is easy to pick on. We see a lot of clients who have been running for years with little change in their body composition, a lack of progress in performance, and a host of structural problems as a direct result of the constant pounding. Sure they have maintained some sort of aerobic base by running but they also tend to be very imbalanced. These clients are typically weak, lack core strength, are front side dominant, have postural issues, and struggle with weakened tendons, ligaments and other supporting structures.

Again there is an unfortunate irony that plays out here. People are diligently pursuing health through “exercise” but simultaneously beating their bodies up, inevitably falling short of a sustainable and holistic model of fitness and wellness.

Ideas for a more balanced approach to fitness and health include:

1. Introduce a variety of activities and intensity to your routine. Try two or three days per week of varied, less intense (think 65-70% output) sustained movement or activity. One day it’s a hike, another day it’s a bike ride, another day it’s snow shoeing, another day it’s a swim.

You can pair this variety with some short intense sprints with big rest periods one to two days per week. Sprint on the bike, rower, trail, pool, or skis. Again this helps keep the stimulus varied and engaging as well as train a part of your energy system that many neglect, the anaerobic system. For some this is best delayed until a baseline level of health and fitness are achieved.

2. Chip away at the stressors in your life. Rather than accept that your life is chronically stressful and your body is evidence of an unbalanced lifestyle, set goals and intentions to manage stress levels and improve your overall health. This may mean cutting back on obligations, reducing your overall training load, or packing lunches ahead of time.

3. Find yourself a good strength and fitness coach (who values balance and healthy lifestyles) to build core strength. This will help teach you good bio-mechanics and motor recruitment patterns, balance out your physical structure (front to back, right to left, push vs. pull), strengthen your muscles tendons and ligaments, maintain bone density, key up your metabolism, and prevent injury.

4. Find a way to be active in your body that also puts a smile on your face. Many people equate exercise with obligation and a host of negative emotions. Some people may love to be in the gym or riding a bike, others may find trails or intramural leagues more enjoyable. Find something that supports your mind and body rather than punishes them.

Remember, health and wellness do not result from too much exercise and more is not always better. Instead they are obtained through a balance of physical activity, a healthy relationship with food, and lifestyle choices.

Give up New Year's Resolutions to Thrive in 2015

By Kate Bennett, PsyD and Corrie Van Horne, RDN

With the new year comes a natural instinct to reflect, look back on the year that passed, and prepare for the year ahead. Often times, this process leads to new year’s resolutions: Lists of things that people want to accomplish to improve or change their lives. We would like to challenge the tradition of resolutions by making 2015 the year of new year’s intentions.

Resolutions are problematic because they focus on what people do not want in their lives (i.e. stop eating certain foods or get out of debt) and absolutes (i.e. lose a specific amount of weight or give up smoking instantly). The problem with focusing on you do not want in your life is that your brain hears what you do not want versus the negation of it. For example, if you think to yourself, I do not want to eat that chocolate cake at the party tonight, your brain is solely focused on the chocolate cake. As a result you cannot stop thinking about it, likely end up eating the cake, and ultimately feel bad about your “failure.” Absolutes, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, leave little room for flexibility or adaptability as life happens. Inevitably, when people create an absolute resolution, life happens (interferes with the rigidity of the desired change) and people give up. For example, if you decide to follow a certain diet in 2015 but then find yourself driving through New Mexico desert land, you are certain to feel anxious and defeated as you stop to order "bad" food. Why bother trying to improve your life if situations continue to interfere with the perfect pursuit of that new resolution?

Given that resolutions set people up for failure, we propose that you start 2015 off with intentions: Positive changes that you would like to pursue over the coming year. By focusing on what you want to happen, you are more likely to achieve it. Furthermore, intentions allow you to work towards a goal in small increments versus expect overnight success. This creates room for flexibility and adaptability while life happens and circumstances change.

Here are a few ideas for New Year’s Intentions that will help improve your happiness:

1. Make 2015 a year of gratitude. Over the past couple of years, gratitude has become an increasingly more popular topic of conversation in mainstream media and individual lives. There is good reason for it. Science links gratitude to happiness and well-being. If you want to improve your overall happiness, consider starting a daily gratitude journal. Commit to recording a few things that you are thankful for at some point each day. Remember, no matter how rotten the day, there is always something to be grateful for. Consider using this five year journal so that you can reflect back on past years as you maintain your journal over time.

2. Create time to connect authentically with others. As technology advances and social media increases in popularity, many people rely on texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to feel connected to others. While it is convenient to text a friend, enjoyable to peruse online pictures, and effortless to scroll through a Twitter feed, these activities tend to create more distance between friends than closeness. Set an intention to check-in weekly with friends or family members in-person or on the phone. You will be amazed by how much more satisfied you feel after spending an hour talking with a good friend compared to spending that same hour scrolling through Facebook.

3. Take up the practice of self-compassion. We live in a society that focuses on comparison and achievements to build respect and self-worth. The reality is that comparisons lead to negative self-talk and ultimately interfere with individual happiness, values, goals, and relationships. Rather than criticize yourself for another 365 days, commit to practicing self-compassion instead. Take time to engage in self-care (i.e. take a warm bath or go to bed early) when you are tired rather than force yourself to work late because a co-worker always seems one step ahead of you.

4. Look back to move ahead. Somewhere along the way, many of us learned that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and, worse, labels you as a failure. The reality is that nobody and nothing is perfect. In fact, the word imperfect spells “I’m Perfect.” Let 2015 become the year that you embrace both your strengths and weaknesses. Rather than constantly evaluate your flaws and search for areas of improvement, focus on your strengths and learn from your mistakes. Embrace mistakes as a learning opportunity. Great things come from those who are brave enough to identify what went wrong and use that information to try a second time (or third or fourth or fifth). Ask yourself, "What worked and what can I improve upon?"

5. Practice mindfulness daily. The eastern tradition of mindfulness and meditation is becoming an increasingly more mainstream practice and for a good reason: Too much distraction, comparison, criticism, and productivity takes away from the simple pleasures in life. When you slow your mind down, your awareness of the things right in front of you intensifies, the mind quiets, and contentment increases. Next time you notice yourself worrying, take a deep breath, figure out when you have time to address the problem (if you have not already done so), and let it go. Worrying every minute of the coming day will not solve the problem but it will interfere with happiness and satisfaction. Instead, focus on the friends and family right in front of you, enjoy the beautiful blue sky, or simply fall asleep. Let go and cherish the present moment.

If changing your relationship with food is the top priority for 2015, we encourage you to not focus on weight loss or restricting food intake but, rather, set intentions based on balance, variety, and moderation.

6. Slow down. While this can be difficult, it is important to slow down when it comes to planning, preparing, and eating food. When planning and preparing food, focus on what sounds good. Take time to plan meals and prepare the food while contemplating the gratitude that you feel for the food itself or other aspects of the food like nourishment, satisfaction, and possibly pleasure. When eating, take time to engage in all five senses, slowing down to enjoy and savor the textures, aromas, tastes, and visual aesthetic of your food.   

7. Trust. We all have an inner wisdom, that with practice and perseverance, we can become attuned to. Our bodies are designed to regulate themselves, let us know when they need nourishment, and indicate what type of nourishment they need. Take time to listen to your intuition in order to grow and develop trust in your body and to develop a more balanced relationship with food. Note: Slowing down will enhance your ability to respond intuitively to hunger and fullness cues and trust your body.

8. Engage. Meal time can be a time to be still, to rest, and also a time to connect. When sitting down for a meal or a snack, whether it is with others or alone, fully engage in the process. If the meal is shared with others try to focus on the conversation and connection. If you are eating alone, bring awareness to your senses and the feelings and thoughts that come up for you while eating. 

9. Nourish. Remember, food is a source of nourishment for the body and the connection that often happens at meal time is nourishment for the soul. Rather than focus on good or bad or right or wrong, take time to experience the nourishment of your body and soul, expressing the gratitude you may feel. 

Finally, remember that while the start of a new year is a convenient time to implement positive changes in your life, you can set intentions and bring them into practice any day of the year. The most important thing to do is to identify where you want to head and then create daily steps for leading you in that direction.

May 2015 bring you joy and happiness as you learn from the past and move towards the future.