Because going to the gym doesn’t have to literally mean blood, sweat and tears…
I’m lying on a gym mat, my new personal trainer holding my legs above my head because I feel like I might throw up or faint. It’s the second time in half an hour that I’ve succumbed to my basic need to survive and had to lie down mid-set. It’s the millionth time I’ve reminded myself never to do another PT session.
Within minutes, he’s ordering another 30 seconds of crunches, telling me, “you clearly rest too much during your own workouts, this is what you need to do if you want quick results.”
“Hold on,” I think, “who said I want quick results?”
I finish the session and he continues to tell me everything I would need to sacrifice if I want the body he’s assumed I want because, in his words: “Having a smaller waist to accentuate the glutes is what every girl wants”. While I nod, I’m wondering what excuse I can come up with not to take up his £200 5-week ‘deal’. I tell him I can’t afford it and hastily leave, grateful I can get back to my solo-sessions, resting as much as I want and not feeling like I might keel over any second.
The gym doesn’t need to be the enemy
You see for me, the gym isn’t somewhere I go to kill myself doing cardio, dreading it all day and almost throwing up when it’s over. In fact, the gym is where I go to relax.
Since working a gazillion hours a day during my master’s degree, the gym has been my safe haven, where I could go and do something productive without feeling guilty about all the other shit I should really be doing. While I do enjoy the greater strength and toner abs it has given me, the gym does more for my mental health than it does my physical. And that’s exactly why I hate intense PT sessions, or ‘killer cardio’ classes or any other ridiculously hard work out that pushes me so far that I begin to hate what I’m doing.
While I do enjoy the greater strength and toner abs it has given me, the gym does more for my mental health than it does my physical.
Enjoying the process of a work out is, for me, essential to maintain motivation in the long term. I’m happy for improvements in my strength and fitness to take six months longer than necessary if it means I’m not crying when I’m working out. If this is going to be your lifestyle, which is a much healthier option than yo-yo exercising and dieting for summer, then it needs to be something you actually like to do, surely?
Going too hard too soon can be unhealthy
Take Jillian Michaels’ ‘Killer Cardio’ workout, or the ever popular ‘Insanity’ DVD’s. They’re feeding this popular idea that we should be dying in the gym. But why is working out to the point of insanity or killing yourself healthy? It’s not. In fact, studies have shown that newcomers to extreme cardio classes, specifically HIIT workouts, can result in rhabdomyolysis; a muscle pain that when left unchecked can lead to kidney damage.
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that the condition, normally associated with military training camps, was present in a number of patients at A&E showing symptoms following their first spin classes. The result is as if their muscles are ‘melting’, and is caused because intracellular muscle constituents break down and leak into the bloodstream. Researchers concluded that “the high-intensity exercise associated with spin class comes with significant risks to newcomers.”
The experts stress that rest is best
Jinger Gottschall, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, researched the effectiveness of HIIT workouts and found that just two 30-minute sessions per week were optimal to allow proper recovery time and ensure correct performance.
“Too much HIIT without proper recovery will prevent you from reaching the intended maximal heart rate training zones during your high-intensity training session,” she told Les Mills. “This means the workouts simply become vigorous training but without the same results.”
She also found that without taking much-needed rest time, you’re more likely to become injured: “When you are fatigued, the core cannot properly support the trunk, increasing the likelihood of injuries to the shoulder or lower back.”
Larry Koyama, a leading physiotherapist and co-owner of Fit Physio, has seen the result of this first hand. In his practice, clients with acute injuries from exercise have increased by around 30% in the last year.
“What we’ve noticed as a trend over the last year is more and more people doing high-intensity exercise, which is a really good thing to do but sometimes people aren’t conditioned enough to go straight into that intensity of exercise,” Larry tells me.
“They might start at home doing lots of jumping, squats and lunges, which are all really good exercises, but often they do it too quickly or progress too fast and, especially young ladies, tend to get anterior knee pain from all the bouncing.”
WATCH: The best time to exercise might be later than you think
Pushing yourself beyond your means can lead to injury
It’s the implication of these new, trendy, ‘killer’ workouts, that tell you to push yourself to the limit, even when your body is screaming at you to stop, that not only makes you hate your workout but also increases your chance of injury.
“Physiologically speaking, it’s really important to have appropriate rest periods, not just during that particular exercise but also in between exercise sessions,” he continued. Stressing that the principle of high-intensity workouts is to enable you to have recovery stages in between; “to maintain a high-intensity bout of exercise for a long time does increase your risk of injury absolutely, particularly if your new to that form of exercise or you’re not used to it.”
Richard Emmerson, owner of Pure Dynamic Osteopathy, agrees. According to him, suddenly pushing yourself too hard is a high-risk factor for injury.
“Poor technique, lack of physical awareness, sedentary lifestyles and most importantly the sudden speed of progression create a perfect storm for repetitive strain injuries such as stress fractures, tendon injuries and ligament strains.”
For Richard, HIIT workouts can be great for cardiovascular health, however “the issue is the speed and intensity of the movements and the lack of attention to form and technique.” He believes that they need to “be adaptable to your age, hormone levels, cardiovascular health, ability and previous history of exercise.”
Koyama also stands by this, stating that having different classes according to ability is key, along with “doing the building blocks of exercise,” which mean focusing on strength and flexibility instead of rushing straight into your nearest HIIT class.
“A lot of people don’t do their strength work before they increase the frequency and intensity of their exercise, so we know more and more that lower limb load and strength training is a really important part of injury prevention,” he tells me.
Your relationship with the gym can be way less complicated
Turns out it’s not just your physical health that’s impacted by pushing yourself too hard every time you go the gym, it’s your entire attitude towards being fit and healthy. Sapan Seghal, the owner of London Fields Fitness Studio, is a strong proponent of making the gym part of your lifestyle, not a 6-week stint in the run-up to summer.
“There’s no point going to the gym and not pushing yourself at all,” he tells me, “you need to have the mindset that this is part of your life; you’re going to the gym because you enjoy it and it takes the stress out of your daily job and improves your mindset,” he explains.
And that means also enjoying your life outside the gym too, Seghal maintains that having a social life, family life and work life should be just as important as exercise.
“If you want to have a glass of wine after work with your friends then that’s fine, but it’s like with everything in life, moderation is key,” he continues.
“Enjoying all aspects in life makes you a whole person if all you do is go the gym and kill yourself every day you’re going to become a very boring person and have very few friends.”
It’s the mindset that’s built him and his studio a huge following, with the BBC’s Best In Town series dubbing him one of London’s top three personal trainers. Talking to him I feel vindicated in my attitude towards the gym, after all, I’ve managed to stick this out for three years, and it wasn’t from making myself sick at every session.
Accepting that this is a long-term choice, and that, if you are looking for certain results, they will take time, all seems to be part of the journey. So, while my PT stands over another client, holding their legs in the air while they breathe through nausea, I’ll be by the squat rack sipping on a water taking my sweet time. After all, when it comes to getting fit, I’m here for a good time AND a long time.