It’s easy to get stuck on the roller coaster of an on-again off-again relationship with exercising. We’ll make a decision to get fit, and plan out a fab workout schedule—only to suddenly hit a wall. Because let’s be real: Life happens. Best-laid plans to hit the gym before work or squeeze in a Pilates class at lunch sometimes get waylaid. Before we realize it, we’ve gotten completely derailed for weeks, or even months.
Then, low and behold, we get back into it! But is the yo-yo exercise routine doing more harm to our bodies than we realize?
That sore feeling after a big workout is your muscle fibers tearing and rebuilding to become stronger as they repair themselves. While that’s not a bad thing (in moderation), when you stop exercising for a period of time, studies show that your once-apt muscles need a little bit more time to get back in the routine.
Bill Sukala, an exercise physiologist with PhD in exercise science, says to ignore the tired adage of “no pain, no gain.”
“While a demanding workout is clearly a good thing, even comparably gentler exercise can improve your health and reduce the risk of injury and disease,” he says. “Despite the popularity of this antiquated gym rat battle cry, it is actually a free ticket to ride the exercise roller coaster.”
So how can you break the cycle?
Schedule in rest days from the start
Rather than trying to go all-in by working out every day when you’re just getting back into your fitness groove, opt for moderate exercise two or three days a week, and be mindful of having two rest days in between.
Injury is an all-too-common reason eager exercisers fall off the wagon. That’s partly because your body is at an increased risk of injury when you’re just starting up a fitness routine. Resting gives your muscles a chance to regroup.
Give your stamina time to return
Don’t fret if you feel a bit more tired out of the gate. When you are regularly exercising, your cardiovascular system can function like a well-oiled machine when it comes to getting oxygen to your muscles. Unfortunately, when you are in the lull phase of an exercise yo-yo, you’ll likely lose some of the aerobic progress you’d made, giving you that out-of-breath feeling a little quicker than normal.
Maybe you were really cranking on five mile runs but haven’t hit the trails in a while? Don’t be afraid to start slow and let your body catch up to where you were. Even if your legs are feeling ready to go the distance or you can technically still do those high-weight bench presses, be mindful of starting slow and gradually increasing your goal, exercise time, reps, and mileage.
Let it be a physical meditation
Working out regularly boosts your brain health—and when you stop, you might notice a lack of the endorphin-driven energy you regularly felt. Dr. Sukala suggests using exercise as a form of physical meditation to clear your mind as you get back in the habit.
“Exercise is known to reduce stress and improve brain function, all of which can result in mental clarity and help you make better life decisions,” he says. He recommends going out for a long walk or get moving on a stationary bike with a pen and paper in hand. Then, write down and work through the things weighing on your mind as you get those endorphins pumping again.
Pick your workouts strategically
Choose activities that you find fun and bring joy. You’re more likely to stick to a workout routine that you actually like. Maybe that’s joining a co-ed kickball league, or taking up a new hobby like roller skating. Don’t worry too much about the details of what parts of your body you’re strengthening—just get into the habit of moving regularly.
Set SMART goals
While you can no doubt get back to your peak fitness regimen and stick with it, sometimes breaking the yo-yo cycle can be a challenge. Dr. Sukala says the key to stopping that in its tracks is to get “SMART,” an acronym he uses for setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-oriented.
“Exercise roller coaster riders often set vague goals, which sets them up for inevitable failure,” he says. “It’s like you’ve got the exercise compass, but there’s no needle to guide you.”
Instead, choose a really measurable goal like signing up for a 10K fun run with friends, or commit to spending at least half an hour in the sunshine three days a week this summer doing an activity you enjoy. Once you make it a habit, it will become second nature.
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