Finding Balance with Exercise in the New Year

When our little family first started to expand, my husband and I briefly (*very* briefly) considered building a new home. A realtor-friend of ours advised us at the time, “If you want to build, you can have it GOOD, you can have it FAST, or you can have it CHEAP. Pick any two, but you can’t have all three.” It’s closing in on 10 years since I heard this advice, and having found it so simple and insightful and true, I’ve never forgotten it.

So it was ironic when I came across a similar saying about exercise recently. In a presentation about stress and cravings, Whole 30 c0-founder, Melissa Hartwig, had this to say: In terms of exercise, you can GO HARD (intensity), GO LONG (endurance), or GO OFTEN (frequency). On a given day, you can pick any two, but not all three.” Take a minute and play those scenarios out in your mind. Feeling the need for a long, hard run? Awesome – knock yourself out! Just don’t do it every day, or even every other day, and maybe not more than 2x/week. Are you one of those people who feels incomplete if you don’t break a sweat every single day of the week? Okay, fine. Hit the gym daily if you want, but alter your workouts in terms of intensity and length. Get it?

But wait – there’s more, and this is really important. If you are experiencing a season of chronic stress in your life (illness, injury, work drama, family dysfunction, relational upset…), INTENSITY immediately comes off the table. It’s no longer a healthy or beneficial option. I bet some of you are saying, “What?! If I followed this advice, I’d never get an intense workout on the calendar! I’m always stressed about something!” Exactly the point. You try to negotiate all the stress in your life by adding MORE stress with an all-out workout or run or ride that leaves you feeling even more depleted. It might provide a temporary mental high, which feels awesome (thanks to a hit of endorphins and adrenalin), but your elevated cortisol level (when sustained day after day, workout after workout) leaves your body in a chronic state of stress. Remember that “fight or flight” response you learned about in high school? Exercise, when not applied sensibly, has exactly the same effect as if you turned a corner and found yourself face to face with an angry, hungry, rabid wild animal. Yikes, right? And I know people who do this to themselves on a regular basis, thinking they are so healthy and so dedicated. I’m not here to say you can’t or shouldn’t exercise however you please – those decisions are yours to make. But I feel obligated to share what consequences you invite when you don’t recognize the carefully-designed limitations of the human machine. Our bodies need to move – absolutely! But they also need to rest. And sometimes sustained rest – even if it means days, weeks, or maybe even months. We only get one physical body in this lifetime. Treat it well.