When More Is Less

Fitness has become trendy.  It stems from celebrities and their trainers touting workouts on social media which leads to a certain segment of the population doing the same.  For better or for worse, workout and post-workout selfies are everywhere.

This phenomenon has spurred an increase in participation in endurance races and people fighting over space in group exercise classes.  These people are all in on exercise.

No coincidence, then, the noticeable increase in articles on overtraining and underfueling in nearly all of the fitness newsfeeds and blogs I subscribe to.  I read these two articles within the last couple of days: “3 Signs You May Not Be Eating Enough For Your Workout” on the Chi Blog and “How Many Rest Days Do I Really Need?”  on the Greatist Health and Fitness newsfeed.

Maybe it seems like the latest Hollywood starlet you’re following on Twitter is working out 10 hours a day while simultaneously sustaining herself on a slice of vegan pizza and kale juice but, I can assure you, she is not.  Nobody is.

Fitness isn’t just about exercise and superfood fads.  If you aren’t getting enough of the right balance of nutrients, it doesn’t matter how much juiced kale you consume.  And you can’t consider yourself fit if you don’t get enough recovery, rest and sleep.

Proper Nutrition for Exercise

I could write 10 blogs just on this topic and still not cover everything there is to cover.  But, the short of it is, the more you workout the less restrictive your diet should be.  Period.  In my professional opinion, it is foolish, if not downright dangerous, to cut out large swaths of foods or food groups if it isn’t medically necessary to do so.

If you want to cut something out, cut out what I like to call non-foods: highly processed junk.  Do cut out snacks made from white flour, sugar and soybean oil.  Do stop eating “yogurt” that has had the fat removed and replaced with starches, industrial oils and sweeteners.  Do avoid processed meats.

Yes, eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, but in their whole forms.  But do not cut out whole grains, even the ones containing gluten, and do not avoid animal proteins and fats.  Hint #1: Rice flour that has been tortured and treated with potato starches and various legume-based gums into a loaf of gluten-free “bread” isn’t a whole form of any food.  But bread made from whole wheat flour (which naturally contains gluten), water, yeast, salt and olive oil is various ingredients in their whole forms mixed together in one yummy, nutritious loaf.  Hint #2: Almond milk is not the whole form of almonds.  If you want milk in its whole, natural form, get dairy milk from cows that haven’t been treated with antibiotics or hormones.  If you want almonds, eat them, don’t drink them.

Sleep

According to recent studies, habitually sleeping less than 7 hours per night raises the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and lowers the satiety-inducing hormone leptin which, together, increase hunger and appetite.  These same studies show, collectively, we’re sleeping less while obesity rates are up compared to a decade ago.  Though a direct link between sleep deprivation and obesity has yet to be proven, studies like these seem to suggest a relationship between the two.

But obesity isn’t the only concern.  Cognitive function and immunity are known to be impaired when one is sleep deprived.  Those who don’t get enough sleep have less energy, are more sedentary and more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who achieve the recommended amount.  The bottom line is much of our body’s normal functioning depends upon a good 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Recovery

In terms of fitness, recovery is defined as pulling intensity back after a bout of high intensity to allow the cardiovascular and muscular systems to learn to adapt.  Put another way, the body can’t reach the next level – run faster, run longer, jump higher – unless it is allowed to recover from the fastest or longest run or highest jump.

Recovery can take place within a workout, as in interval training.  A person who walks for fitness and decides she would like to jog probably wouldn’t be able to do a 30 minute jog right away.  But she can do intervals.  She may begin at intervals of 1:4, where she would jog for one minute and walk for 4 minutes a total of 6 times.  Her jog intervals are her work and her walk intervals are her recovery.  This recovery time allows her body to learn how to adapt to jogging pace.  Over time, she will be able to shorten her recovery time and lengthen her work time until her body fully adapts and she is able to jog at steady-state for 30 minutes.

Recovery can take place through a weekly training regimen as well.  This is often utilized by athletes, professional and amateur alike, who are training for events such as games, matches or races.  They’ll have days when they will push to beat their best, usually measured in time or distance.  That day will be followed by a recovery day in which the same or similar activity is scaled back in intensity and duration.  Without recovery days, the body can’t adapt and the athlete won’t be able to achieve performance improvements.

Recovery is also used in traditional strength training routines when there is a pause between sets.  If one is strength training properly, she is doing the highest amount of repetitions she can to exhaustion, then pauses to recover, then repeats the set.  The recovery period allows her to repeat the set at or close to the same number of reps as the first.

Rest

Muscles and bones break down and our amazing human forms rebuild them.  Stress your cardiovascular system properly and, almost miraculously, the body can adapt to take in more oxygen and more efficiently pump blood to allow us to go faster and further than we could before.  But it can’t do any of those things without rest.  While recovery is used in close proximity to an intense bout of exercise to “teach” the systems to adapt, rest days are needed to rebuild everything that was broken down in the process.

In terms of strength training, the goal is to break down muscle tissue to force regeneration of younger, stronger and more numerous muscle cells.  It takes the body 48 hours to fully recover and regenerate after a strength training program.  Therefore, you should never strength train the same muscle groups on back-to-back days.

With cardiovascular training, rest days are just as important as recovery days for the competitive athlete.  Rest days give the body complete downtime to fully recover, regenerate and rejuvenate.  This is sometimes difficult for a competitive person to accept.  These individuals tend to be hard wired to push harder and flirt with the limits in an effort to get better and better.  Exercising hard 7 days a week, however, actually does just the opposite.  With no downtime, the body begins to breakdown and rebel.

This is called overtraining.  Overtraining can manifest itself in many ways including chronic fatigue, muscle deterioration, unexplained weight loss, regression in athletic performance and sleep disturbances.  Overtraining symptoms that go unheeded can lead to more serious problems such as injury, illness or organ damage.

But you don’t need to be a competitive athlete to experience overtraining issues.  While it’s unlikely the average fitness enthusiast would suffer serious overtraining consequences, it’s not at all uncommon for those who workout 7 days a week to fall victim to repetitive use injuries, plateaus in weight-loss or exercise performance, or achiness and fatigue replacing the usual “runner’s high” response to a workout.  If you notice you’re not getting the same benefits you’re accustomed to from your workouts, it may be time to take a day off.

If it takes fitness to be trendy to get people to exercise, I’m all for it.  As long as we all remember that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  In this case, too much food restriction and too much exercise can lead to less health and fitness.

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