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For years, the prevailing approach to getting fit could’ve been described as a search for a magic bullet. Magazine headlines promised quick-fix workouts, internet exercise programs focused on burning calories and toning up, and celebrity trainers played the role of drill sergeant to push clients and TV-show contestants to their ­limits while simultaneously pushing them into the ground.

But over time it’s been shown that the quick-fix, go-hard-or-go-home, shame-your-body-­into-submission approach to ­exercise doesn’t lead to long-lasting physical fitness or psychological well-being.

And although these approaches still exist, the pushback against them is strong. Exercisers are learning that feeling bad, physically or emotionally, is not required to feel good and perform well.

It is possible to enjoy — yes, enjoylife-enhancing movement through every phase of life. It is possible to stick to a long-term fitness plan, regardless of your physical assets, liabilities, age, or goals.

At Experience Life, where our fitness philosophy has always centered on individualization and sustainability, we’ve identi­fied three fundamental concepts behind every successful move­ment practice: consistency, curiosity, and compassion.

The exercise strategies may vary, but the principles remain the same: Bring these three Cs with you every time you walk into the health club, climb on your bike, or venture out onto the hiking trail, and you’ll stay healthy and engaged, make better progress, and get more out of every step of your lifelong fitness journey.

Consistency:  Taking it Slow and Steady

Many people take a boom-or-bust approach to fitness. They exercise hard, then let things drop; after months with little to no exercise, they then commit to another rigor­ous regimen without preparing their bodies.

“Sooner or later, the body pushes back, and they are unable to maintain their training,” says performance coach Joel Jamieson. Another period of inactivity follows, and the cycle starts anew.

Exercising too infrequently, of course, also undermines your efforts.

While better than not exer­cising at all, sporadic workouts won’t make you appreciably stronger, any more than practicing piano once a month will turn you into a maestro. Rather than getting fitter over time, you revert back to your previous condition — or even lose fitness — between widely spaced workouts.

Part and parcel of exercising too little or too much is a raft of negative emotions: guilt when you haven’t been exercising; an urge to punish yourself with overly intense exercise; a sense of failure when you can’t keep it up. Minimal progress, frustration, exhaustion, and burnout are the unfortunate results.

Both approaches ignore the fact that exercise is a form of stress, from which your body needs an appropriate amount of time and resources to recover fully. Too much exercise and you don’t progress; not enough and your body breaks down.

The acute stress of a workout can take you one step back, explains Jamieson, but proper recovery takes you two steps forward, with each workout building on the previous ones. Ideally, stress and recovery occur in this predictable, dancelike rhythm, with progress — increased strength, skill, and fitness — as the natural result.

You can avoid the pitfalls of the boom-or-bust approach with more-consistent baby steps: Start slow, build up gradually, and stay on schedule.

Compared with the highs and lows of an all-or-nothing approach, slow-and-steady training might feel almost boring — the gym-goer’s version of chopping wood and carrying water — but it’s unquestionably the best way to progress.

Generally, balance is best, but still, any exercise is better than none.

“The difference between someone who can get results for a few weeks and somebody who can continually improve over months and years comes down to one single thing — consistency.”

Consistency doesn’t have to mean working out daily. Neither does it mean adhering to a rigid schedule with no wiggle room for life’s pres­sures. Your schedule doesn’t have to be punishing to be effective. You just have to stick to it.

“The difference between someone who can get results for a few weeks and somebody who can continually improve over months and years comes down to one single thing — consistency,” says Jamieson.

Even if you’re not interested in beating personal athletic records or dramatically reshaping your body, consistency is still critical:

The stamina you build with a walking program, the flexibility you build with a yoga practice, and the mood and health markers you bolster with virtually any form of movement are far more likely to have a lasting effect on your physiology when you make movement a regular part of your life.

There’s another key benefit to consistent exercise, regardless of the activity you choose or the goals you set: After a while, physical activity becomes not just something you do but an essential part of who you are. That’s important. Too often, exercise is portrayed as a quick and temporary fix: “Lose 30 pounds in two weeks!”

But with consistency, movement becomes a rewarding activity that sustains you through all phases of your life. Consistency over long periods helps instill this mindset.

“Saying ‘I am a person who . . .’ is a powerful step,” says Barbara Powell, MA, NBC-HWC, holistic performance coach for Life Time Mind. “Whether it’s ‘I am a person who gets outdoors every day’ or ‘I am a person who is training for an ultramarathon’ doesn’t matter. It’s the shift in thinking that helps guide you toward habits and goals that are a better value-based fit than just looking to the latest TikTok influencer for inspiration.”

Curiosity: Changing Strategies and Goals

“Humans crave two different things at once,” says Powell. “We crave security and novelty.”

As much as our bodies need the regularity and rhythm of consistent movement, they also need the ­opposite: variety. And that’s where the second C — curiosity — comes in.

You first establish a regular movement habit. But what you do during exercise sessions can (and should) change over time. That requires curiosity about the different activities you can do and how far you can push your capabilities in each one as you move through life’s phases.

Physically, this helps ensure progress over time: “Exercise works best if it regularly places a novel demand on your body,” explains Danny King, Life Time master trainer. At the beginning of a new program, nearly anything you do can work — walking, swimming, boxing, dancing. That’s because the activity is new to you.

But if you want to keep getting better — build strength and endurance or become more skilled at your activity of choice — you need to add different challenges over time. It could be more frequency, better technique, new movements, more weight or sets, longer distances, or higher speed. The new demand forces your body to adapt again, and soon you’re better off for your efforts.

Exer­cise scientists know this as progres­sion: gradually subject­ing yourself to greater levels of stress over time. “If you lifted 10 pounds six times last week, your muscles won’t continue to get stronger unless you at least try to lift 10 pounds seven times — or 12 pounds six times — this week,” says King.

Similarly, runners might go a little faster or a little longer; martial artists might add new combinations to their repertoire; dancers might learn new steps.

Developing any new skill involves plateaus, but in general, curiosity about where your limits lie — and ways you can overcome them — can keep you moving in the right direction. Rather than sticking to the same workout and hoping for a different outcome, says Powell, “You’re asking yourself, What else might I enjoy?

Instead of regretting the loss of some abilities, staying curious can keep you on the hunt for activities that suit your goals and abilities, whatever your age, interests, and limitations.

In the long term, your curiosity may inspire you to make bigger changes, switching entirely from one discipline to another as the mood strikes, turning in your swim trunks for running shoes, golf clubs for hiking poles, climbing gear for basketball high-tops.

Done on a regular basis — seasonally, for example — this becomes a version of what trainers call periodization: planned variation over time. This keeps the challenges fresh, preventing burnout, and shields you from injury as well.

“You can only deadlift your max for so long before something goes wrong,” says King. “When your routine is too static, sooner or later things start to get tweaked.”

Staying curious about your current interests and abilities can help inform a decades-long fitness practice, too.

“As we get older, our capabilities can change,” says Powell. What’s easy and fun at 20 could feel awkward or challenging at 54 — even if you stay consistent with your workouts in the intervening years.

Instead of regretting the loss of some abilities, staying curious can keep you on the hunt for activities that suit your goals and abilities, whatever your age, interests, and limitations.

Psychologically, curiosity can protect you from the “never enough” mentality that can creep into even a well-designed workout program. “Curiosity allows us to look at our lives and goals without judgment,” Powell explains. “And to ask questions that guide us to new places.”

Ubiquitous images of perfect bodies and elite performers can cause you to focus on what others have that you may think you lack. But curiosity keeps you focused on the next unique horizon for you.

Compassion: Giving Yourself a Break

As the final element of an effec­tive workout program, compassion may seem an unusual choice. For some, exercise conjures images of intensity, willpower, and even ­fanaticism. What role can a soft skill like compassion play in a discipline like that?

Answer: an essential one.

It may not make for click-bait Instagram posts, but treating yourself gently — backing off when you need a break, being kind to yourself when you fall short of perfection, and staying sensitive to your body’s needs at all times, regardless of your fitness level — is just as important as the social-media-ready work of #killingit in the gym.

“Talking to yourself compassionately cuts to the meat of the matter: your mind,” says Powell. If you’ve missed a few workouts, for example, “you’re much more likely to get back to business — and enjoy the process — if you forgive yourself and move forward.”

This is especially true when you’re in the beginning stages of a fitness program. “When we’re trying to create new habits, it can take root more easily when we approach what we’re doing with warmth and understanding,” she explains.

We tend to think that establishing a fitness habit is a one-and-done proposition: Lock it in and you’re good for life. But that’s almost never the case.

“Talking to yourself compassionately cuts to the meat of the matter: your mind,” says Powell. If you’ve missed a few workouts, for example, “you’re much more likely to get back to business — and enjoy the process — if you forgive yourself and move forward.”

A movement practice is like a marriage — a lifetime journey filled with not just straightaways and stunning vistas but speed bumps and detours, too. “Everyone goes through phases when their motivation flags,” says lifestyle coach Cat Thompson.

There are many reasons this can happen, Thompson explains — all of them understandable. “If a client loses momentum, instead of blaming them, I always ask, ‘What else is going on?’ Often, it’s some external stress or pressure.” When the stressful period ends, it’s much easier to get back to the program.

Your body might also simply be fatigued and need a break. “Most workout classes are designed to make you sweat and get sore,” says Thompson. Few of them wax and wane in intensity in accordance with your body’s needs.

But everyone’s body needs a vacation from time to time, so adjusting your workouts — to your health, your other commitments, the time of year — is necessary. Otherwise, an injury may be the way your body shows you you’re not paying enough attention to it.

The trick is to see your need for rest not as a failure but as an essential part of the process, and to coax yourself gently back to the program — or to a new type of movement that interests you — once you’re ready to go again.

Staying com­passionate with yourself makes the process of exercising not just more pleasant but more effective in the long term. Researching the training regimens of many of the best endurance athletes in the world, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler, PhD, FACSM, found that, over years of training, 80 percent of the workouts these elite athletes performed were low intensity: long, slow sessions at what was, for them, a comfortable intensity that allowed them to talk easily.

Seiler contends that many recreational athletes erroneously believe that the best way to get the most out of their workouts is to push themselves to exhaustion every chance they get. Paradoxically, he says, this overzealous approach winds up limiting progress.

“When we slow down on most days and maybe go longer, and train hard on some days because we’ve got the motivation and energy to do it, performance gets better and the process is more enjoyable and sustainable,” explains Seiler. “‘No pain, no gain’ is wrong.”

Don’t fall for the short-term satisfaction of a killer workout — and the misguided belief that exercise has to feel like punishment to be effective.

Instead, cultivate the patience and foresight to pull back the reins 80 percent of the time so you can truly go full out the other 20 percent of the time.

Self-compassion may also play a perhaps surprising role in helping you leap hurdles. Athletes and exercisers at all levels often face situations of emotionally difficult setbacks: These may include performance failures such as “choking” during an event; harsh criticism from others like coaches, teammates, competitors, or parents; and high standards set by our own inner self-critic.

Research finds that self-compassion can be key to ­resilience, a resource that you can draw on “to help navigate setbacks experienced in sport in a healthy and positive way,” as a 2021 article from the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) states. (For more on compassionate self-talk, see “From Mean Girl to Cheerleader” on page 37 of the October 2022 issue.)

When the going gets tough, it’s the self-compassionate that get going — wisely.

Self-compassion can even help in recovering from injuries and preventing us from pushing through in damaging ways. “By reducing athletes’ anxiety, worry, and avoidance coping strategies in response to injury, self-compassion can enable athletes to focus on healthier, more proactive ways of moving forward with recovery,” the SIRC article notes.

Such strategies may include practicing self-acceptance over self-criticism, leading to a healthier kind of mental toughness.

So, to turn a popular adage on its head, when the going gets tough, it’s the self-compassionate that get going — wisely.

For all but the most elite among us, the primary purpose of an exercise program is to make the rest of your life more fulfilling:

to help you show up for your work, family, and hobbies with more presence and inspiration — and also to support you in moving well functionally for as long as possible. A workout program should feed you, not exhaust you, frustrate you, or make you feel guilty or ashamed.

Consistency, curiosity, and compassion are powerful antidotes to the perfectionism, exhaustion, and boredom that can overtake the most well-intentioned exerciser.

“Many people stare at the TV, scroll through their phones, or listen to podcasts while they work out,” says movement teacher Frank Forencich, author of Beware False Tigers: Strategies and Antidotes for an Age of Stress. “They’re disengaged from their bodies and what they’re doing.” As a consequence, their workouts feel like drudgery: arduous work done for no discernible purpose.

When you’re lit up by what you’re doing — walking the line between consistency and curiosity and remaining compassionate to your body’s needs throughout the process — motivation remains high, even after years of regular exercise. Keep exploring activities that excite you, and you’ll never want for a reason to exercise or the energy to do it.

“The motivation is in the movement,” says Forencich.

Learn More

Explore our carefully curated collection of articles that provide valuable information and tips to support you physically, mentally, and emotionally as you navigate the aging process.

Andrew Heffernan

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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