Killer workouts come with bragging rights: can you believe you survived that? But you can get a perfectly good sweat on without doing anything labelled "high intensity" or headed by a sadistic coach. It's okay for a workout not to feel like torture, but only like work.
High intensity classes seem to be experiencing a surge in popularity: power yoga, sweat-till-you-drop Crossfit, interval classes where your name is on a leaderboard to spur competition. Ironically, we often choose classes over self-directed workouts because a class is easier: nothing to think about, just do what the instructor tells you.
If you love these killer workouts, enjoy! But if it's hard to drag yourself to class - or if you design yourself super tough workouts but chicken out when you get to the gym - give yourself permission to include lower-intensity workouts in your life.
Here are some ways to enjoy your workouts more, and want to die less:
- Think about what kind of exercise you actually find fun. Work more of that into your life. For example, if you love practicing with a team, look around for sports you can join. Do things you like.
- Beware coaches pushing you too hard. Anyone who adds exercise as punishment, as Colleen Stinchcombe notes that one of her instructors did, might understand punishment but they aren't so great with exercise. Likewise for an instructor who insists that you do the workout as written, even if it isn't working for your body or your personal fitness level.
- Believe your body. If it hurts, or if you're feeling exhausted, back the heck off. If you feel like you're going to be too sore to move tomorrow, either feign exhaustion and take a water break, or straight up tell your coach: I'm good with this many reps, thanks. Set boundaries around any injuries while you're at it, be they recent or historical. If overhead exercises tend to mess with your shoulder, you're within your rights to say "nope, not doing this one."
- Avoid the wrong kind of competition. If your gym or class has a motivational leaderboard, don't get drawn in. Competitions make sense in a fairly narrow range of ability: maybe you and your buddy both run about the same speed, so today you're going to see if you can beat him by two or three seconds. But if you're in a cycling class where everyone else is super fit while you're struggling, that leaderboard is bringing you nothing but negative feelings about yourself. Unplug, find a class without a leaderboard, or at least block it out and focus on internal goals like maintaining a certain feeling of effort.
- Ditch classes, at least sometimes. If all the options that fit your schedule are competitive and high-intensity, and the coach is mean and the other participants make you feel bad... maybe just hop off that (real or proverbial) treadmill. There are gentler classes out there, but also perhaps you should think again about what you actually find fun. Would you rather spend that time hiking? Jogging? Doing an old-school aerobics video?
Don't worry too much that you're missing out in terms of fitness. High-intensity intervals can make for a shorter exercise than good old steady state cardio, but the steady state stuff still works. Remember, your body can only do so much. If you're wiping yourself out with intervals, and then collapsing to rest before the next set comes along, you may well be doing a similar amount of work as somebody who spends the whole time jogging at a steady pace.
That's not to say interval and steady state workouts are identical - they're not - but the benefits are similar in the big picture. Both will make you stronger and give you better aerobic endurance. And both are better than staying home because you dread your workout.
This article has been updated since its original publication.