An exercise routine should be part of your day, just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. But when an exercise routine gets to be too routine, it can actually become another obstacle between you and your fitness goals.
Repeating the same routine day in and day out is a recipe for failure. When the workout that once got you out of bed starts to feel mundane, it becomes as much a task of mental endurance as it is strength and fitness. It's just plain boring.
Boredom is the fastest way to unhinge your commitment, and from there it's a slippery slope to sofa city. Your body essentially gets bored, too. It adjusts, and when it adjusts, you no longer get the same physical payoff.
"The best thing about the human body is that it adapts, and the worst thing about the human body is that it adapts," says East Jefferson General Hospital's corporate wellness facilitator Leonel Muralles. "As you exercise, it is important to change your routine to continue to receive the physiological and psychological benefits."
The body responds to the stress of exercise by building muscle, burning fat and improving cardiovascular function. If the amount of intensity remains consistent, then the body becomes accustomed to it and will only improve enough to maintain that level of activity. This is where the plateau occurs.
In most aspects of life, this is an invaluable function of the body. Just imagine if every time you ran a mile, mowed the lawn or picked up a toddler, it felt as difficult as the first time you'd done it. When you are trying to lose weight or gain strength and speed, your body's natural ability to adapt can run counter to your health goals.
To see improvement, the body must be challenged, but where is the line between exercising effectively and overdoing it?
"If you're lifting weights and trying to improve muscle strength and muscle growth, then you should only be able to do a set of 12 repetitions," Muralles says. "If you can do 15 to 20 repetitions, then you are not challenging your muscles enough to promote muscle growth or strength. If you are trying to improve your cardiovascular health, you should be working at 70 to 80 percent of your predicted max heart rate. Keeping in mind that exercise heart rate is dependent on age, level of fitness and medical history."
You know you've reached a plateau in your exercise regimen when you begin to see a decline in benefits. For example, if you are weight training and you no longer experience muscle fatigue (the point at which you cannot complete any more of a particular exercise) during your routine, then it's probably time to increase the weight or try exercising the muscle in a different way. From a weight management standpoint, you've reached a plateau when your weight loss stalls or slows down despite continuing to exercise at the same level and consume the same number of calories.
To counter plateauing, build your intensity by increasing resistance, distance, duration or volume.
"When it comes to exercise, we use what's called the F.I.T.T. principle: frequency (how often), intensity (how hard), time (how long), type (choice of exercise)," Muralles says. "What you are going to change depends on what your goals are. If you want to improve your strength, then you would change the frequency and intensity. If you are looking to improve your distance in running, then you would increase your duration, etc."
To keep boredom at bay and maintain motivation, it may help to vary the way you exercise. Instead of jogging a couple of miles on the treadmill every day, go for a jog outside or take spinning or an aerobics class. Add yoga or Pilates to your strength-training program; exercise doesn't have to be grueling to be effective.
If you want to give yourself a good shot at staying on track, keep it fun and switch it up. Muralles suggests modifying your regimen every three to four weeks to prevent adaptation and boredom.
"From a psychological standpoint, changing your routine will keep things fresh," he says. "From a physiological standpoint, changing your routine causes you to use muscles in a different way and forces your body to adapt to the change. In turn, you continue to receive the benefits from your regimen."