Why the tortoise normally wins over the hare...…..
Challenges - they're everywhere!!!!! The fitness industry loves a fad and right now challenges are red hot! Whether it be be 6 week or 8 week challenges, a promotion to "lose weight" or "tone up" - the marketing is quite bedazzling and the lure very tempting...….. But does all this marketing extrapolate to fitness gains?
Here is a brief synopsis of the pros and cons of fitness challenges:
The call to action: Beginning a fitness regime and incorporating it into your lifestyle can be daunting. We're all good at putting things off and finding reasons not to commit. Starting a fitness challenge can bring a sudden surge of motivation which can hopefully be sustained well past the completion of the challenge.
Teach you long-term strategies: When done correctly a fitness challenge should inspire you to make long term changes to your lifestyle. It should educate on not only fitness, but mindfulness, nutrition and injury/disease prevention.
Tap into your competitive side: Let’s face it, we all have a little competitive streak in us somewhere. Fitness challenges can be great for a little competition either with yourself or by tracking results and trying to be 'the biggest loser'.
Sense of community: Fitness challenges are often done in a group environment. These are usually encouraging, social and creates a sense of belonging within a community.
Give you goals to work towards: Challenges can give a clear direction to work towards. It should enable you to set a goal and a time frame to achieve it in an individualised manner.
Some programs can encourage over training: This is a very common issue with challenges - it encourages you to go from zero to hero in a very short time frame. Anything that encourages excessive over training is nor physically or mentally beneficial. After all, the idea of a challenge is to give you more energy, not make you exhausted!
Give unrealistic expectations: The before and after shots are inspiring but don’t forget every body is different. No two individuals will react to a specific exercise regime or new diet in the same way. Make sure that when you are setting a goal with your trainer that it is realistic and attainable.
Unbalanced: Balance is key! The most effective and sustainable training programs have heavy and light days. All training challenges should promote adequate rest and recovery to ensure participants aren’t going to burn out.
Ends abruptly: Once finished the challenge you may be left thinking…'What next?' A successful challenge should always provide you with pathways to ongoing success and long term fitness goals. Look for these in these programs and the group you’re training with.
People enter challenges for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest mistakes people can make however is expecting "fast results" in a short amount of time. When it comes to weight loss, it is widely accepted that for long term sustainability, weight loss of about 0.5-1kg per week is more successful than rapid weight loss. So what happens with rapid weight loss?
A study that looked in to 14 contestants of 'The Biggest Loser" followed their journey 6 years after the show had finished. They found that all of them bar one had put almost all of the weight back on. The study showed that when contestants lost weight, their basal metabolic rate (resting metabolism) decreased. Now this is a normal process when we lose weight - our bodies undergo metabolic adaptation whereby metabolism slows in accordance with weight lost. Interestingly though, this study showed that when contestants re-gained weight, their metabolism never went back up to where it was previously. This meant at rest, they were burning fewer calories than they were before they lost all the weight. They also found the hormone leptin which regulates a feeling of fullness and prompts us to stop eating, drastically dropped off. Once again, this is a normal adaptation as when we lose weight, we lose leptin. What they did find though was that like metabolism, leptin levels didn't increase as much with weight gain so participants now had lower levels of leptin despite putting most of the weight back on! See graph below on metabolic rates pre and post weight gain. (source www.precisionnutrition.com)
So what about rapid fitness gains?
Now when it comes to rapid fitness gains, we need to consider the "training effect." "The training effect can only occur when adequate stimulus (exercise stress) is applied to the body, and sufficient recovery is allowed." Progressively increasing load and adding variety are very important strategies in helping to ensure fitness gains are realised. "Progressive overload refers to frequent yet small increases in stress. If stress is increased too rapidly or with insufficient rest, you can risk overtraining and injury." (source www.abc.net.au) People need to be mindful that sleep, good nutrition, flexibility, and recovery days are just as important for progressing your fitness as the most challenging session you do in the gym! As we progressively overload, we cause micro tearing of muscle fibers. If we don't have sufficient rest, muscle fibers have no time to repair and regenerate and will not be able to cope with increased resistance in the future.
Another fact to consider is can you realistically keep the pace of a challenge long term? During a challenge, you may or pay a large sum of money to get to as many classes as possible. In doing so, some people are suddenly attending 6+ sessions per week! Now does this fit in with your lifestyle long term? Can you continue getting up early or hitting the gym regularly after work 3, 6, 12 months down the track?
Challenges are great because they often involve drastic changes through either calorie restriction via diet or drastically increasing energy output through more exercise. But with drastic changes come drastic holts as generally, you cannot maintain either the frequency of exercise or the strictness of a diet. Then what happens???????
PT Tanya Poppett states "If you’re needing that extra little bit of motivation and structure to fire up your fitness regime then short term fitness challenges may be the thing for you! Before jumping into one, do your research, keep a healthy attitude and be realistic." (source www.bodyandsoul.com.au)
From our perspective, we prefer not to run challenges. We want our clients to make wholesale changes in a positive manner towards health and fitness that are enjoyable and long lasting. We prefer you to set your goals and achieve them in a manner that fits in with your lifestyle, not a 'one approach fits all.'
So what can you do to aim towards long - term health and fitness?
Do it for yourself. Studies show that people who are "externally motivated" -- that is, they hit the gym just to look good -- don't stick with it. Those who are "internally motivated" -- meaning they exercise because they love it -- are the ones who stay in it for the long run.
Take baby steps. When you do too much too soon, you’ll end up sore, injured, and discouraged. Take it easy as you get started. When that becomes easy, you can make it more challenging.
Hang tough. No one has perfect form the first day of strength training. Every workout takes practice. You'll get the hang of it if you keep making an effort.
Mix it up. Do different types of workouts to keep things interesting and to exercise different muscle groups. You don't have to reinvent your entire routine every week, but you do want to shift it around a little.
Don’t be your own drill sergeant. Half of all people who start a new exercise program ditch it within the first year. It often happens because they can't keep up the boot-camp pace they've forced on themselves. It’s better to work within your limits, and gradually get stronger.
Bring a friend. It's easier to bail out on the gym than on the friend who waits for you there. Studies show you'll also work out longer when you have a pal along.
Show the clock who’s boss. Health experts say you should aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise a week (30 minutes a day, five times a week, for example), plus weight training at least twice a week. Can’t find room in your crazy schedule? If you can't do 30 minutes at once, break exercise sessions up into 10- or 15-minute bursts.
Get used to it. Your workout should be just as much a habit as brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. When it’s part of your routine, you won't even have to think about it. In a few months, fitness can be a regular feature in your day.
Live in the present. So what if you missed a week at the gym and polished off a pint of ice cream over the weekend? Leave the guilt in the past. You have a chance to get back into your routine today.
For me Aesop's fable rings true - slow and steady wins the race!