Being “in shape” doesn’t just mean looking tight and having big muscles. It also means your joints are resilient and healthy. I can’t tell you how many physical therapy clients I’ve seen that look amazing, but are in constant pain. They could run a marathon, but they can’t sit on a plane for more than 2 hours without agonizing back pain. They can squat twice their body weight, but they can’t pick up their kids. They have toned arms, but their shoulder pain won’t let them reach the top cabinet. They look strong, but they are unstable.
I believe the “no pain, no gain” methodology brought us to a place where destroying our bodies during workouts is the norm. It’s my career mission to reverse that mindset through education and empowerment. We need to re-evaluate how we are exercising and what it means to be fit. Exercise should build you UP. It should elevate the physical ability of your body. Creating healthy goals and outcomes for each workout can be a great way for you to monitor whether your workout is breaking you down or building you up.
#1: Get that hour in!
This absolutely depends on what your hour looks like. If you are moving mindfully, your body might love that hour. If you are being destructive to your body, an hour could do you more harm than good. An effective workout can easily be 20 minutes.
#2: The more you sweat, the better workout you got.
You can sit in a sauna and sweat for 10 minutes without moving a single bone in your body. Although sweating is a metabolic output from your body, it doesn’t necessarily mean you worked hard. I’ve had extremely effective workouts that don’t produce a single drop of sweat.
#3: I need to torch a bunch of calories in my workout.
Although tempting (I’ve been there with my fitness watches!), calories burned in a workout should not be a measure of its quality. I love the saying, “you can’t out-run your fork.” The safest way to burn fat is to focus on nutrition (not my expertise, but check out my friend Dr. Harriet Hansell’s Well Body Reset) and build muscle. The more muscle you have, the more fat you burn throughout the day, sleeping, driving, etc. This is a much more effective, sustainable, and safe way to lose fat.
#4: The sorer the better.
Soreness is a sign of inflammation. If you can’t walk the next day, you may have caused damage to your body that resulted in inflammation and soreness. Light muscle soreness is ideal and means you got the appropriate amount of work without putting your body in harm’s way.
Let’s change the metrics that we use to judge a workout. It might take time to shift your mindset, but if you focus on achieving these outcomes, your body will thank you in the long run.
#1 Improved mobility immediately after.
This is one of the most significant indicators of a good workout. If you feel looser, it means you improved stability. Tightness or joint pain immediately after (or the next day) are signals from your nervous system that something went wrong. The nervous system sends tightness to tissues when it feels threatened, which is not a goal for your workouts.
Try one (or both) of these simple range of motion assessments before you begin your workout, immediately after, and 1 hour after your workout. Notice the ease of movement (you can rank it 1-10 to make it more tangible), if you have to use any momentum, and if you can easily balance. These markers should improve after a workout, and 1 hour later.
#2 Light muscle soreness.
We want to give the muscles enough stimulus to cause slight damage so your body can lay down new tissue (i.e. increasing muscle mass). However, this process is SLOW; many make the mistake of going too hard. This can leave tissues like bones, cartilage, and ligaments vulnerable when the muscular system wasn’t equipped to handle the amount of stress endured. Ideally, you feel your muscles when you repeat a joint motion you performed in your workout, but you’re still able to move easily and fluidly through your day.
#3 Move with more ease immediately after.
A sign of muscular stability is ease of movement. It means your nervous system is connected to your muscles, and inflammation is low. As you walk out of the gym, you should feel light and connected to your body. If your legs feel like bricks, your workout probably was too much.