People say that the hardest part of any workout routine is finding the motivation to exercise, but I respectfully beg to differ. The hardest part is definitely the actual exercise—logging mile after mile on the treadmill, doing crunches and squats until I want to drop, and exercising my willpower over dessert, so I don’t derail my hard work. You’d think that kind of effort would be enough to see big changes, right? But even though I exercise almost every day, I always feel like I’m falling short of my fitness goals—to lose that last ten pounds and run a faster mile. What gives? If you’re going above and beyond your CDC-recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, shouldn’t you see some serious results?
Unfortunately, it’s not always enough just to exercise—you have to do it right, otherwise you might be wasting your time. There are many ways in which even the most dedicated fitness junkies can undermine themselves. If you’re making small mistakes with your workout routine, you could be sabotaging all your efforts.
Don’t Run on Empty
You don’t need to eat 12,000 calories a day like an Olympic swimmer, but extreme dieting doesn’t make your workouts more effective, either. In fact, just the opposite is true. Liz Lenkeit, a personal trainer in San Francisco, says, “Women come in without eating and then they get lightheaded, have no energy, and no motivation.” Restricting your calorie intake while increasing the amount you exercise can send your body into famine mode, where it conserves fat and burns muscle. In order to keep your metabolism running correctly, it’s important to eat the right diet for your workout.
Lenkeit recommends a well-balanced and “colorful” diet, full of things like nuts, beans, vegetables, and lean protein from fish and chicken. The good news is that regular exercisers need to eat more. The bad news is that a short walk doesn’t give you carte blanche to eat a plateful of brownies. Don’t take a small amount of exercise as a license to eat or drink anything you want. And don’t forget—beverages are nutrition, too. “Any soda is unhealthy, including diet,” Lenkeit says. Even if you eat right, the sugar, carbs, and chemicals in alcohol, soda, and energy drinks will derail even the most dedicated workout regimen.
Pulling Your Weight
All those leg lifts are pointless if you’re doing them incorrectly. Every exercise has a proper form, whether it’s on a machine, with free weights, or without equipment. Even though it can be embarrassing to get a tutorial, don’t be afraid to ask a trainer or coach for help with your form. “That’s what we’re here for,” says Lenkeit. “You have to ask—it’s not self-explanatory.” Then you’ll know that you’re getting the most out of every repetition and that the results will be exactly what you bargained for. In the best-case scenario, doing an exercise the wrong way will accomplish nothing, but the worst case is that you could injure yourself.
It’s important to do some strength training to build muscle, says Lenkeit, “because muscle burns fat, and it takes more energy to maintain fat than muscle.” Many women are afraid to lift weights for fear that they’ll get bulky, but Lenkeit says that it’s almost physically impossible for that to happen. Building copious muscle requires large doses of testosterone, which women don’t have. “Our muscles just aren’t meant to be big and bulky,” she says. Assuming your fitness goals do not include being a champion bodybuilder, they best way to firm and tone is to do many repetitions with a light weight.
Cardio Training: A Necessary Evil
Even though it can be the most boring and monotonous part of your fitness routine, it’s important not to skip the cardio. Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, cardiovascular training helps build endurance and keep your heart in shape. If you are trying to shake ten stubborn pounds like I am, burning calories through aerobic exercise is the only way to take it off. No matter what workout DVDs or infomercials may tell you, there’s no such thing as “spot training.” Doing thousands of crunches alone is no way to flatten your midsection—your amazing six-pack will be hidden by love handles.
Mix It Up
Doing the same routine every day is one of the biggest workout saboteurs. Once your body gets used to twenty minutes on the Stairmaster or thirty on the elliptical, the movements become too easy to provide a challenging workout, and you won’t see any results. Changing up your workout routine not only keeps your body guessing, it also keeps things interesting, so you don’t get bored as easily. Even small changes make a big difference. Varying the resistance on an elliptical trainer or running at a slightly brisker pace are enough to shock the body into burning the maximum number of calories. For weight training, working the same muscle with a different exercise can make a big difference. Dancing, boxing, swimming, and other sports are other great ways to add variety to your workout.
Once you’ve committed to a workout routine, it’s easy to tweak some of your bad habits to ensure that you’re getting the most from every moment you spend at the gym. The best
way to continue seeing results is to keep your exercise regimen well-rounded, varied, and fun. The answer isn’t to work out more—it’s to work out more effectively.