It’s 5pm and I still haven’t exercised.
On Monday I was up on the roof of my eight-story Santa Catalina building. Whilst listening to the birds and soaking up some much-needed vitamin D, I scoped out the facilities and saw an old piece of aluminium piping holding up the washing line. ‘Ideal for some pull-ups’ I thought and valiantly declared that ‘tomorrow morning I will return here and do 90’ before pumping out my bosom like a cock pigeon.
Only Tuesday came and went without me lifting a finger. ‘Not to worry’ I reassured myself, ‘tomorrow I will make up for the lost time’. To compensate for the day of rest, I decided to complement the pull-ups with an additional 90 dips on the inside corner of the wall bordering the rooftop. ‘Yes!’ that was an upper body workout worthy of my ability, physique and reputation. I imagined gazing out over the city skyline like Spiderman, the sun rising up over the Cathedral, tanning my bulging bare chest.
It would have been great… had I gone. Alas, now I’m busy writing this article for the Majorca Daily Bulletin.
I’ll do them tomorrow, won’t I?
Of the fairy tale lessons we teach our children, my favourite is that ‘to be successful you have to overachieve’. Well, it’s not a lie; overachievers are, by definition, successful. It’s just that, more often than not, aiming to overachieve ensures that we don’t achieve anything at all. It’s a bit like a virus; if it’s too deadly, it kills off its host before it can spread. But if it’s a little less ambitious, a little more lackadaisical about becoming a pandemic, it can actually get a lot more work done.
Instead of looking to overachieve, we’re better off putting our ambition, and our ego’s, to one side. As finance guru Robert Kiyosaki advises, ‘the aim isn’t to overachieve; it is to underachieve’.
1) Less is easy.
Simply put, the easier a task, the more likely we are to actually do it. During the past two days, when I considered going upstairs and doing a 90 pulls ups, I was overcome with a pitiable feeling of apathy. This is a natural response; my primitive brain fills me with this emotion to protect me from expending energy unnecessarily. My mind did a simple cost/benefit calculation: did the anticipated struggle, cost or energy expenditure of 90 pull-ups outweigh the anticipated reward? Clearly not, and my bum remained firmly planted on the sofa for another episode of raunchy television.
What if I considered doing less exercise? What if, instead of 90 pull-ups, I contemplated a measly ten? The anticipated effort would decrease, tipping the scales in favour of action.
2) Less is more.
The arithmetic is fairly simple: had I done just 30 dips and 30 pull-ups yesterday, and then achieved that same unimpressive amount again today, and manage to do them tomorrow, then I’ll have done just as much exercise in as many days (assuming that I actually go up the roof tomorrow, which, as history has proven, is unlikely).
By spreading out the workload, I’m also more likely to exercise the day after tomorrow because I won’t be suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness or ‘the DOMS’.
Workouts need to be easy enough to do them in the now. But they should also be easy enough that we don’t tax our system, preventing us from exercising again the following day. In this sense, being fit is a bit like being an alcoholic. The tipple of choice for a functional alcoholic is a drink that can be drunk today, but also tomorrow and the day after that. A can of beer is to alcoholism as ten push-ups are to fitness.
The irony is that through consistent drinking, our tolerance increases. The same goes for exercise. Firas Zahabi, renowned martial arts coach of the famous Tristar Gym preaches, ‘consistency over intensity’. When the focus remains solely on consistency, fitness levels increase and the barrier of intensity moves further away.
3) Consistency means repetition.
Easy workouts allow for consistency. Consistency leads to repetition and repetition hardwires motor skills, allowing them to be performed unconsciously and effortlessly.
Whenever we take up a new sport or exercise, performing the relevant motor skills takes a lot of concentration and effort. Luckily, improvement is fast. Some of this is down to increased fitness- like better cardiovascular endurance or greater muscle mass- but most of the steep learning curve is due to the strengthening of neural pathways speeding up the transmission of commands from brain to body. Olympic coaches don’t drill their athletes to make them stronger. They make their athletes repeat movements like factory workers on a production line so that the skills become automatic, second nature and effortless.
It isn’t just the exercises themselves that become easier through repetition. It is also true of the behaviours preceding exercise. If I repeat the action of picking up the roof door keys from the glass cabinet three days in a row, I’d be on my way to hardwiring that behaviour. Forget the actual exercise. If I just hardwire the behaviour of walking into the living room, seeing the cabinet and picking up the keys, I’ll be halfway to the rooftop, not through conscious effort, but through an unconscious default behaviour hardwired into my automatic nervous system.
What is more, repetition supresses our instinctive drive to conserve energy. To explain that idea, let’s replace laziness with fear. Instead of dreading exercise, suppose I was afraid of heights and just the thought of being eight stories up gave me vertigo and wobbly feet. How would I overcome that fear? By continually exposing myself to the discomfort I would desensitize. Likewise, if we have a fear or an aversion to exercising, then simply doing a few repetitions of that exercise every day will desensitise us.
Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston, Robert Eisenberger found that the sensation of effort could even become a reward in itself. By continually overcoming the lethargic emotion we feel towards exercise, we develop what Eisenberger calls ‘learned industriousness’. A bonus of getting good at exercising is that we’re likely to become industrious at other activities, too.
4) Repetition is addictive.
Through his studies with dogs and pork cutlets, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov taught us that automation of new behaviours is accelerated with reward. But we must be careful how we interpret the correlation; a more intense workout might release more reward-giving neurochemicals- such as dopamine, anandamine, endorphin and adrenaline- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be more addictive.
I’ve heard that the flood of dopamine from injecting heroin into ones arm is a lot more pleasurable than a drag from a cigarette. Unfortunately, a heroin high isn’t a behaviour that can be repeated several times a day without fatal results. Conversely, it is the non-fatal character of smoking that allows one to repeat the behaviour often without death or debilitating side effects. It is the repetition, and frequency of dopamine release, that makes smoking far more addictive than ‘shooting up’.
Remember, reward can drive a new behaviour but it is the repetition itself that allows the brain to hardwire and automate that behaviour. Accordingly, it is the habits that continually provide a small dopamine release that create the strongest addictions. The same can be said for exercise. Intensity is great but if it means sacrificing consistency, it means sacrificing addiction and the beneficial cravings that come with it.
So there you have it: less exercise is easier, increasing the likelihood that we’ll actually get up off of our backside and do it in the first place. If we do it with any consistency, that behaviour will be hardwired into our autonomic nervous system making it more unconscious and effortless. Exercise won’t just be easier, but we’ll actually start to crave it, too.
Less really is more. Instead of contemplating 90 pull-ups on the roof, I’m going to stop what I’m doing, put my ego to one side and do just ten measly push-ups.
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