Why Vary Your Fitness Routine As You Would Your Diet
Have you ever thought you were in great shape because you run 10 miles a day on the regular, only to go a yoga class to find yourself struggling with downward dog? Or maybe you’re a regular gym rat, who hardly breaks a sweat squatting twice your bodyweight but then your friend drags you to spin class and you wonder whether you’re going to vomit three songs in. Or perhaps you’re one of those hippy-dippy outdoorsy types, who has mastered the best of yoga with the best of nature to produce a dozen Insta-worthy snaps, but when it comes down to doing a traditional push-up, you activate the wrong muscles and end up doing chaturanga. (Note: the two are very different!)
Or perhaps you’ve gone to a couple of spin classes and wondered how the hell those people in the front row can keep up with the instructor and hit the rhythm with every pedal while hardly breaking a sweat. Or how certain people in Crossfit can complete the same circuit in under five minutes when it takes you twelve.
Most people who exercise tend to be very loyal to one type of workout, whether it’s running, going to the gym, spinning, dancing or yoga. But just as you wouldn’t subsist on an apple-only diet (unless you’re trying to be like Steve Jobs), why would you limit yourself to only one type of workout for your fitness routine? Our bodies need a varied diet to meet all of their nutritional needs; it also needs a varied workout routine if optimal fitness is the goal.
If your workouts aren’t challenging you the way they used to, if you’ve hit something of a plateau, if you’re the best in your class, it might be time to change up your routine. Our bodies are designed to adapt, and our neuromuscular and other physiological systems can adapt to a workout routine in less than two weeks time. If you life weights, a small variation would be to continuously increase your weights. If you spin, you might consider upping your resistance on the bike. If you run, you could increase your speed per mile. Or, you might consider diversifying your workout routine altogether.
When it comes to our physical well-being, variation is important. Our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors varied their diets according to the seasons and what they could forage at any given time of year. They didn’t eat multi-grain cereal at the same time every morning week after week, month after month, year after year. They didn’t eat a vegan-only diet for life (though they may have for days or weeks at a time). They didn’t only run five miles at the same time every evening, or only lift heavy weights at the same time every afternoon. If danger was looming, they’d sprint. If there was an animal to track, they’d walk or jog. If there was an animal to deceive and kill, they’d climb. If there was a dead animal to carry back to camp, they’d push, pull or lift. If it was the season for root vegetables, they’d dig. Their movements were just as varied as their diet.
Our physical bodies haven’t changed much since those days, but our lifestyle, habits and available resources have. Where once our biggest hurdle to overcome was scarcity, now, it is abundance and the paradox of choice. The average American eats too much and too often, while moving too little and too infrequently. Fortunately, there are as many options these days for movement and exercise as there are diets, and similar to food, putting all your eggs in one exercise (and dietary) basket may limit you from achieving optimal fitness (and health).
There are three types of movement our body needs in order to perform at its best and thrive. From an evolutionary perspective, the lifestyle of our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors integrated all three on a regular basis:
Mobility―how freely a joint can move throughout its full range of motion.
Our ancestors didn’t necessarily set time aside to stretch, practice yoga or roll out on a foam roller the way we do today, but they also weren’t sedentary for most of the day, every day. They walked as often as they stood still, squatted as often as they sat and were constantly moving around throughout the day. Whereas the ability to sit still, concentrate and leverage our cognition is the way of the modern world, our physical bodies haven’t yet adapted to this shift. Our bodies need to regularly exercise their full range of motion in order to stay lubricated, or it becomes stiff, weak, achy, and loses its mobility.
Strength―using resistance to induce muscular contraction to build strength, anaerobic endurance and skeletal muscle size.
Our ancestors did this organically by carrying their babies around everywhere they went, fetching and transporting water, building huts and houses, moving boulders, cutting firewood, carrying bushels of fruits, digging for root vegetables, lugging a dead animal back to camp, etc.
Aerobic―cardiovascular conditioning of low or high intensity that requires pumping of oxygenated blood by the heart to deliver oxygen to working muscles.
Our ancestors were likely in phenomenal cardiovascular shape as their only mode of transportation was walking, jogging, running and sprinting. They would’ve had to walk to get water, to forage for food, and jog or run or sprint during a hunt or to run from danger.
In a somewhat recent study of a modern hunter-and-gatherer tribe in Tanzania, the Hadza tribe, a few researchers and anthropologists strapped GPS units with heart rate monitors on a group of adults to track their average level of physical activity. They found that on average, the Hadza people spent approx. 135 minutes on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. The US government currently recommends at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise plus two bouts of strength training, per week, and of that, only 22.9% of the population is meeting said recommendation, the CDC finds.
While the ideal scenario is to incorporate activity and movement into everything we do―much like how the Hadza people have no separation between work, life and exercise because their life’s work is to forage for food―it’s tough to synthesize when our days are spent in a fluorescently lit office taking call after call, meeting after meeting, responding to email after email. Stand-up desks, treadmill desks, Apple Watches and Fitbits are all helping to push the movement forward, but in addition to these supplementary gadgets, a circuit training of workouts covering all three types of movement is my secret sauce to optimal, well-rounded fitness.
Where mobility training improves one’s range of motion, strength training aids muscular strength and aerobic training increases efficiency in the heart and lungs as well as endurance capacity in muscles, our bodies adapt accordingly to the type of workouts we choose. These three type of movements come together, much like a tripod, to support a healthy, fit human. A weak or missing leg compromises the whole.
I’m always searching for ways to work out smarter, not harder, and if optimal fitness is what you’re seeking, then varying your workouts between aerobic (low and high intensity), strength and mobility in your weekly routine is a great place to start. (Keep in mind this may not be the best way if you’re looking to quickly lose weight, gain weight, gain strength or improved performance in one specific area.)
For me, this may include one yoga class per week (for mobility), two low-intensity walks or jogs per week where my heart rate stays between 50-60% of my maximum heart rate, one spin class where my heart rate alternates between short bursts of 70-90% my max and short rests of 60-65% (for low-and-high intensity aerobic), plus two to three weight or resistance training sessions at the gym. But our bodies are all different, so experimenting with your mobility-strength-aerobic training ratio is crucial. Just as some people swear by a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet, it’s not a one-size-fits-all, and what works for me may not work for you.
The diversity in workouts ensures I never get bored, allows me to be a part of many different communities, and challenges different muscles and physiological functions within my body. In the likely event that I don’t want to run one day, it gives me flexibility to choose to go to a yoga class or hit the gym instead. But the biggest value add of diversifying movement is how much each type of workout benefits and buttresses the other―practicing yoga once a week has improved my form and technique as a runner, running has improved my endurance in weightlifting, and weightlifting has made me stronger in my asanas. The combination of mobility, strength and aerobic training also allowed me to better enjoy a 10-day backpacking trip through the backcountry of Patagonia while carrying a 40 pound pack.
Every few months or so, I rotate out one to two of my workouts for something different―for example, if I tire of running, I could swap it out for dance, martial arts or cycling. I may swap high-intensity spin or sprints for at-home plyometrics, boxing or a bootcamp style class. If I can’t seem to get into yoga, I’ll work on my mobility at home by putting together a few preferred movements, and if my gym membership expires, then I may take up pilates or barre as an alternative. I rotate through half a dozen or more different workouts over the course of a year.
Ultimately, what matters most is moving, so the best workout will be relative―it’s the one that gets you to show up everyday (or the most amount of times per week). But if you’re one of those people who are blessed with a lot of discipline and will power, who already spins or yogas or weight-trains or runs several times a week, then it might benefit you to add a little variation into your weekly workout routine, so that the next time someone asks you to do a traditional push-up or pull-up, you can execute it with perfect form.
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