It’s no secret that exercise is important for overall health and fitness. We hear recommendations all the time, and the general population knows exercise is something that is part of a healthy lifestyle. But what is it exactly about exercise that is benefiting the body?
Exercise is taxing and stressful for the body. Just like any other stressor in life, our body has the ability to grow and adapt. This adaptation is what we see as progression. Our muscles, heart, and lungs will grow stronger with consistent and progressively more challenging exercise. Think about the very first time you exercised. You probably weren’t able to go for very long or lift anything very heavy and were still tired and sore by the end. If you continue to do the same exercise every day (i.e. lift the same weight or walk the same distance), eventually it will feel too easy. This is because your body adapted to the continued stress and grew stronger. Progression in your workout program is so important. If you never add more weight, resistance, or duration to your program, you will never progress and get stronger.
The combination of time and intensity is what determines how difficult your workout will be, and this is going to vary for everyone depending on fitness level. If a very fit person goes for a two-mile walk, it would not be taxing enough for this person to actually progress and get better (although going for a walk is always a great idea for anyone!). However, if someone who has never exercised and is very unfit went for a walk, this would be a lot of work for the muscles, heart, and lungs and would be a great starting point to start their progression.
Adaptation is an Individual Process.
The key is, adaptation happens on an individual level. This is why cookie-cutter exercise programs are dangerous and often ineffective. They do not take into account where the individual is starting or their overall goals. Your exercise of choice should be challenging, but not outside your physical abilities. By pushing your body past it’s comfort zone, you are forcing adaptation. However, if you are unfit, it would be very dangerous and discouraging to jump right into a high intensity exercise regimen. On the other hand, if you are very fit, you may not benefit from a certain program if it is not intense enough. If you feel you have plateaued in your fitness goals, it is likely a problem of not increasing the intensity.
Record and Recognize Adaptation.
Increase in fitness can be measured in several ways. Rating of perceived exertion, which is a self-rating of how hard you feel you are working, is a helpful tool. When starting out, walking or running a short distance may feel very challenging. Over time, it will feel much easier to go the same distance. If you are going for time, record how far you go. If you are lifting weights, record the weight you use each time. These are simple metrics to help you see how your body is growing and adapting to your exercise regimen. And remember, when things start to feel too easy and you are no longer progressing, you may need to look for other creative ways to mix up your routine and force your body to continue to adapt and grow!
If you’re stuck and not sure where to start, working with an exercise professional can help get you on the right path and make sure your exercise program is matching your current fitness level and goals for the future.