I used to hate the saying, “go hard or go home.” But now, with much of the world stuck indoors, many women are going incredibly hard with their quarantine exercise routines because they’re home.
As a certified strength and conditioning specialist, this thoroughly freaks me out. I first noticed the trend when, early into stay-at-home orders, several of my typically not-that-into-exercise friends started inviting me to share my workout info and “compete” with them through our Apple Watch fitness trackers. I’m so glad they’re getting with exercise! I thought—never wanting to be that annoying trainer friend who harps on exercise, but also busting at the seams to encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health.
But what did I see? That they had astronomical daily calorie-burn goals, were performing hours of high-intensity workouts seven days per week, and never logged a single recovery workout.
Despite the fact that I take a pretty even-keeled approach to exercise, both for myself and the clients I train—I’m cool with pushing hard, but also prioritize recovery and think exercise should be fun and feel good—I increased my own goals to level out our virtual “competition” field. It didn’t seem fair, I thought, that I could “win” our daily and weekly competitions by exercising less than my friends were. If you’ve never competed with an Apple Watch, let me explain: In competitions, points are awarded based on what percentage of your move goals you meet, not on how much you actually move. And since I would be more likely to hit my more realistic goals than they were to hit their super-aggressive ones, I would have been able to win by doing less.)
So, I briefly upped my own calorie-burn goal to match theirs; it seemed like it was only fair to “compete” on a level digital playing field. I told myself, though, that the number on my watch wasn’t my actual goal.
My quarantine exercise goal was still to get up and move at least once every hour, engage in at least 60 minutes of exercise, go for a scenic walk, and do at least 10 daily pull-ups per day. That routine was feeling good on my body, helping my energy, making a noticeable difference in my musculature, and keeping me pretty darn calm amid the current state of the world, especially given my own relationship with depression and anxiety.
Of course, seeing myself not appease the watch gods—however fictitious they might have been—every day was a bit demoralizing, and so I gradually pushed myself harder and harder. I started to focus not on how I felt, but on what I had to do that day to burn enough calories (aka energy). Within just a couple of weeks, fatigue hit hard. One night, I slept for 15 hours straight. When I woke up, I reset my goals, went back to my old quarantine exercise routine, and started considering what was really going on. So I reached out to some fitness and mental health experts to break it all down.
Why Are We So Obsessed with Intense Quarantine Exercise Routines?
At first look, it might seem surprising that so many people are desperate to kick their own butts via exercise during an actual pandemic. But it’s just a function of human nature, our natural stress responses, and, of course, pervasive societal messages about our bodies and their worth.
On a biological level, movement is an innate reaction to stress. After all, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone) functions to mobilize the body. It stimulates your organs and muscles, releases fast-acting carbs into the bloodstream, and allows us to throw punches or run like hell, explains exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
Cooped up in our houses, under an onslaught of worry for the health and lives of ourselves and those we love, financial strain, and deprived of many of our typical outlets for dealing with stress, of course we’re going to be tempted to run around our homes in circles until our legs give out, he says. Stress primes our bodies to move; it’s like pent-up energy that we need to let off to regain a sense of calm.
Amid all of that stress, cramming our bodies into tightly regimented exercise routines can also give us a sense of control—something that’s obviously very lacking as we deal with the uncertainties of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“When all of a sudden everything about our lives becomes uncertain, it’s natural to focus on something we can control,” explains women’s fitness and life coach Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S.*D. “Even women who’ve never routinely exercised before can feel like exercise is one thing they can get a handle on.”
For both veterans and newbies, going hard can feel like the only, or only worthwhile, option, Thomas says.
Why? Because that’s what everyone’s talking about.
Although body-negative messages, spewed from various corners of the media as well as beauty and fitness industries, are nothing new, they are currently capitalizing on women’s need for control right now, explains psychologist Renee Engeln, Ph.D., director of the Body And Media Lab at Northwestern University and author of Beauty Sick.
Scroll through social media, and you’ll likely see more high-intensity, grueling workouts than ever before, with captions warning of the “quarantine 15” or encouraging us to make the most out of our newfound free time. Many of the workouts promoted in online publications and through the now-burgeoning arena of streaming and on-demand virtual fitness studios, are squarely focused on calories and “making up” for the fact we’re at home so much now. Never mind that we’re home in the interest of our health and the health of others.
What’s the Problem with Going Hard?
Intrinsically, there’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself—that’s part of any fitness journey, right? But right now, when we’re under never-before-felt-loads, pulling back on our exercise intensity can be a necessary move—for not just our physical but also mental and emotional health.
“Your workload is cumulative,” explains Jim Beitzel, clinical athletic trainer and clinical coordinator for the Northwestern Medicine Athletic Training & Sports Performance Clinic. “All of these physiological and psychological stressors add up, they blend together.”
And, as workload, or stress, increases, so does your biological need for recovery. It’s that recovery from exercise that allows the body to adapt to exercise, and grow stronger and healthier, he explains.
When you’re already in a stressed state, prioritizing long, intense workouts, max heart rates, and big caloric burns—especially when skipping on rest days—minimizes the physical returns on workouts completed and can lead to potential injury, says women’s strength coach Allison Tenney, C.S.C.S.
“Many people do not have the appropriate recovery strategies to sustain a program that’s focused on high-intensity, or longer workouts, or ones with high caloric burn,” Tenney says. “Without the appropriate recovery, this can lead to hormonal, nutritional, and physical fatigue. You dig yourself a physical hole that becomes very difficult to recover from.” Beitzel notes that while exercise can benefit the immune system, doing too much with too little rest can increase the body’s susceptibility to infection.
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And even when women succeed at sidelining any potential exercise injury, they rarely get out of the mental ramifications of “go hard” mindsets. “There’s a big danger of starting a really vicious cycle of setting yourself up for failure and then beating yourself up about it,” Thomas says. “These kinds of hard, intense, long workouts require a lot of you, and on top of everything that’s going on right now, that can be a really tough thing to add on and manage.”
This can manifest as increased mental and emotional stress, fatigue, burnout, feelings of depression, and reduced self-esteem—of which we are already particularly vulnerable to right now, explains psychologist Lisa Lewis, Ed.D., who specializes in working with athletes and fitness professionals. It also makes an unhealthy relationship with your body and exercise largely inevitable, she says. It takes exercise, something that has the power to improve our health, happiness, and help us thrive in all areas of our lives, and turns it into self-inflicted punishment.
How to Pull Back for a Healthier, More Effective Quarantine Exercise Routine
OK, so where does that leave you and your quarantine workouts? After all, shelving your workout completely—or going so light you don’t feel challenged at all—isn’t the answer, either. Here, experts share strategies for finding balance.
“Every Move Counts”
It’s more than a platitude. Even—and perhaps, especially—small bits of movement throughout the day can have a radical effect on your health, Thomas says. Studies show that even low-intensity, slow-paced activities of any duration can positively affect your physical health. And further research suggests that accumulated exercise—performing multiple mini-workouts throughout the day—may be more beneficial than spending the same amount of time exercising but in one chunk.
Consider how you can diffuse some of your workout time and intensity throughout the day. That might look like taking your regular hour-long workout and breaking it up into three 20-minute workouts spread throughout the day. Even though your total workout will be the same, spacing things out will allow for lower levels of total stress on your body.
A simple, foundational way of balancing intensity and recovery is to use the high-low approach: If you do a high-intensity workout today, follow up with a lower-intensity day tomorrow, Tenney says. If you’re a runner, for instance, that may mean you do a tempo run one day, and follow it up with a slow, easy recovery run the next.
If you strength train, you can also consider alternating muscle groups worked, especially if you work out more than three or four times per week. Common splits include going back and forth between upper- and lower-body days as well as cycling between push, pull, and lower-body days. Training the same muscle groups back-to-back doesn’t allow for adequate post-workout recovery.
If you’re into multiple types of workouts, it’s still important to vary intensity, even if you’re alternating back and forth between activities like online workout classes and cycling. So if you do a high-intensity circuit one day, the next day, your cycling workout should be on the light side.
Do Workouts You Enjoy
Sure, sometimes, it’s necessary to push yourself to exercise even when you really don’t feel like moving (more on that next). But by spending your workout time engaged in activities that you find the most enjoyable, you’re automatically more likely to approach your workouts with a feel-good rather than negate-comfort-foods mentality, Thomas says.
Unfortunately, though, with many gyms closed right now, a lot of us don’t have access to the equipment or space that we usually have for our workouts. It’s natural to feel some frustration; but try to focus on how you can get the greatest enjoyment out of what you do have available, she says. Do you prefer cardio? Strength? Plyometrics? Yoga? Circuits or long rest periods of rest between sets? Use that to guide your at-home workouts to get the greatest enjoyment.
Adjust Your Expectations
Intense, long, or otherwise challenging workouts can 100 percent have a place in your quarantine workout routine. But right now, your 100 percent is not going to be the same as it was a few months ago, Beitzel says. That may be because, yes, you’ve lost some strength or endurance. It could also just be because you’re stressed, not sleeping well, or struggling with your mental health.
Whatever the reason, it’s ok. If there’s ever been a time to practice self-compassion, this is it, Thomas says. When you notice your thoughts getting down on yourself, remind yourself that the ultimate goal in exercise is to take care of yourself, and that’s what you’re doing. The benefits you stand to gain from exercise are not dependent on your current fitness or ability levels.
Pay Attention to Malaise
On days you feel fatigued or don’t want to work out, commit to at least 10 minutes of movement—walking, stretching, doing a few sun salutations, churning out some strength reps in your living room, whatever—and see how you feel.
You might experience a perk in energy and may want to keep going. If so, cool. If you still feel tired, weak, and like you want to curl into a ball, it’s a sign that today’s best spent on recovery, Thomas says.
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Take a Break
Speaking of recovery, yes, even though we spend most of our non-workout time right now sitting on our keisters, we still need to incorporate intentional recovery into our routines, Tenney says.
Dedicate at least one day per week into pure recovery activities such as foam rolling, performing gentle mobility exercises, doing some yoga flows, or simply stretching.
Value Processes Over Outcomes
Process goals are things like “do X minutes of yoga in the morning” or “do Y push-ups every day,” while outcome goals are things like “lose Z pounds” or “master a handstand.” The former are far more conducive to a balanced relationship with your workouts and their intensity, explains L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., a Kentucky psychologist and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Take a minute to think through your current exercise goals. It’s natural to have some outcomes in mind, but if you notice they’re all focused on results, consider how you can break them down into processes, or doable actions—things that, if you give an honest effort, you can totally do.
If you’re clamoring for some control in your life, good news: Approaching your workouts with a sense of autonomy, choosing the workouts and styles that you want to do, rather than following a cookie-cutter program, can not help you better enjoy your workouts, ensure you’re working at a level that’s right for you, and help you build a sustainable, lasting relationship with exercise.
“Know you always have more options than what is presented to you,” Tenney says. For example, while online workouts can be a great place to start, know that you have free rein to customize them to your needs and likes. Maybe you want to switch out an exercise or two, alternate reps and set, or modify equipment used based on what equipment you have; go for it!
Claim the positive: Embrace your strength, satisfy your appetite, prioritize joy, get more rest, and fall in love with your body. Be more authentically, unapologetically you. Weight loss is just one (of many) life-changing effects. It starts now.