A recent trend in the technology industry involves a push on quantifying and qualifying data pertaining to personal fitness levels in efforts to motivate consumers by making exercise, which typically involves abstract and delayed gratification, more desirable an activity by contriving concrete goals to be reached and rewarded.
My feeling is that the devices and apps being put out are an effective way to pull newbies into the fitness fold, but increase their risk of injury (or worse). The issue isn’t so much the technology, but the glorification of arbitrary data, ranging from miles run to weight lifted. This in my opinion has long been an issue of fitness folklore, and is now much more forefront and widespread with the adaptation of these tools.
After several years experimentation (and much wear and tear), I’ve found fitness far more attainable and sustainable when numbers are thrown out and feeling and intuition are instead favored to gauge the frequency and intensity required to make progress with one’s goals. Below I will detail what figures to avoid tracking (“the bad”) and what is better to rely upon (“the good”).
This discussion applies mainly to those who exercise for recreation and not competition or profession, which should entail a majority of readers.
Distances, Speeds, Times, Calories Burned, Heart Rates, etc…
Basically, any points of data a treadmill will flash back at you, or that will be tracked by fitness apps (e.g. Strava) and other devices (e.g. Fitbit), are not important. It is all too easy to form unhealthy fixations on hitting arbitrary and ultimately pointless numbers to complete a workout, which often puts oneself at risk of injury by ignoring internal body dialogue. Calories burned is an especially questionable statistic to set a one’s goal.
Free weights can be dicey as well, especially when insecurity takes over and dudes feel the need to increase their lifts by a few pounds every workout, no matter what, so they can brag about new PB’s. This increases their likelihood of getting hurt. Fixed weights (e.g. machines) are probably safer, as they usually restrict the range of motion, but not foolproof.
I believe in allowing oneself to rest for as long as needed between bouts of exertion (ideally to let one’s heart rate and respiration to return close to baseline levels). Interval training totally eschews this mantra, requiring individuals abide by an almighty clock. Aside from often being overly demanding on newbies, this type of training can put people at risk of injury because they become so determined to perform movements for the full uptime, and not properly interpret pain they may be feeling.
Planned Repetitions (and to a Lesser Extent, Sets)
If one is performing a movement for repetitions, especially any including resistance measures, I believe they would be astute to listen to their body and gauge how many reps should be performed on a per set basis. It’s precarious to tell oneself they must do for example a set of eight barbell squats, but by the sixth repetition they are gassed and try to gut out the last two reps anyway with flawed technique. It is much safer and effective to simply perform reps until fatigue has set in and before form is compromised.
Being flexible with the amount of sets one performs is wise as well for the same reasons.
The body need a distinct amount of time to recover from every individual workout, regardless of whether routines are fixed or varied. There are a multitude of contributing factors at play, aside from exercise intensity and duration, such as nutrition, stress, and sleep, which occur outside the gym, that affect recovery. These elements are not always easily controlled and homogenized from day to day, so therefore it’s unrealistic to believe one can reliably exercise on a fixed pattern and get optimal results.
When in doubt, I believe it’s better to be cautious and give oneself extra rest so that the body can fully rebuild and be less susceptible to injury. This might mean working out on average once a week or even less frequently.
Weighing oneself does not provide an accurate indicator of anything remotely meaningful, like how one feels or looks. A scale says nothing about body composition or health and wellbeing. Weight is a vastly overrated statistic for a majority of the population and many people would release a lot of anguish if they no longer tracked it.
How One Feels
This is above all the most important factor to consider when attempting to get in shape and further one’s fitness. The concept of intuition is often buried because of modern society, but one’s body will tell them all they need to know if they only listen. Being able to identify the difference between muscle fatigue and onset of injury, points of diminishing returns, and adequate recovery are all valuable skills to hone. No amount of data will be able to accurately describe those scenarios; they must be felt.
These days the only information I record about my workouts is which activities I’ve done and how I feel afterward so that I can self-reflect and make adjustments for the next time. The specifics of my routines are for the most part unplanned and I allow myself the flexibility to adjust mid-workout depending on how I’m feeling that day.
If nasal breathing is not possible, I feel that’s a telltale sign I am pushing myself too hard. I stop until I regain control of my breath (and heart rate), then continue with my routine. Read this article for further explanation.
The ability of the body to regulate its temperature is one of the most relevant and limiting factors in the exercise intensity one can safely achieve. Cool weather allows the body to dissipate heat, which is built up while working out, much more effectively than warm weather. Embrace the cold and be cautious as temperatures rise.
How One Looks
I’m hesitant to include this in “the good” because many people have issues with body dysmorphia, but I do think how one looks a better indicator of progress than say a scale, as long as one is realistic about their appearance and goals.
It has been freeing to work out without the added stress of meeting “magical” numbers. I’ve been better able to avoid injury and add muscle. (I can tell I’ve made gains because my clothes feel tighter and my muscle definition is about as good as it’s ever been.) I also now know that I don’t need to work out as often as I thought I did; I’d been sabotaging myself for years by cutting short my recovery time, thinking I needed to move around briskly at the least every three days.
In short, data-less exercise has been more rewarding in terms of time commitment, output, and enjoyability. I feel many others would also do well to get in touch with their instincts embrace this New Age wave of the future.