Since my childhood, fitness has been a huge part of both my routine and my identity, long before I realized that what I was doing was even considered fitness.
As a child I was very active in sports, participating in soccer in the spring, swimming and tennis in the summer, and dancing and horseback riding year-round.
In high school, I was on two different cheerleading teams, which meant two to three hours a day for practice and competitions, six days a week. I never stopped moving.
When I first went to college, I admittedly wasn’t “collegiate level” for any of those aforementioned athletic endeavors, but I knew I had to find a way to stay active; after all these years of physical activity I always looked and felt strong and in shape, which was something I was proud of.
So, I quit team sports and in the name of staying sweaty, I started hitting my college gym — and I hit it hard and often.
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Running to burnout
In my twenties I was a self-proclaimed “gym rat.” I always found a way to squeeze in a sweat session between classes and on the weekends.
As a young professional, I set my alarm for 5:50 am every day. set so I could do my cardio, lifting and ab work before I had to be at my desk. Rest days were rare.
There were so many things I enjoyed about my daily workout. I loved the feeling of the endorphins that kicked in when I sprinted on the treadmill. I lived for the moment when my favorite song came on shuffle, sending me into beast mode in the middle of a pickup set.
I reveled in the “me time” and stress relief I found at the gym, having a place to show up each day and feel so gifted after each workout. And let’s be honest: I also liked the glory of having strong muscles and abs to show for my hard work.
But then I entered my 30s. And after more than a decade of this routine, I hit both a physical and mental plateau.
I put in almost 14 hours a week at the gym, but I didn’t gain more muscle, shave seconds off my mile or see better results.
I was in pain too. My muscles were constantly sore, I pinched a nerve in my shoulder swinging a kettlebell, and my joints hurt from too much treadmill pounding.
It got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying my workouts anymore; they became more of a chore than a release. My morning gym alarm would be met with a groan, and I would think to myself, I’d rather get a root canal than get on the elliptical right now.
I knew that something had to change.
My first attempt at getting out of my workout (and giving my knees a break from running), I’m ashamed to admit…involved more exercise.
I traded one day a week of machine cardio for a kickboxing class. One day after the class, I asked the trainer for advice and insight about my stagnant physical results, aching joints and waning motivation.
He verbally walked me through my typical weekly exercise routine and immediately stopped me mid-sentence and replied, “Brooke, you need to work out less.”
More pain is less gain
As it turns out, this “less is more” approach to fitness is rooted in science. Cortisol, our stress hormone that comes into play during a fight-or-flight response, is also increased for a short period of time during a workout, but decreases soon after. This is one of the most important benefits of exercise.
However, studies show that excessive and intense exercise can have the opposite effect, causing you to store more fat, get injured and stop seeing results.
The experts agree. “If you get into a phase of rigorous overtraining, it will increase your cortisol levels in the long term,” echoes Holly Roser, certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness studios in San Francisco, California. “Additionally, overtraining causes injury as your muscles are not given time to repair the microfiber tears created during exercise.”
I thought back to my youth, when I was actively having fun: nailing my cheer routine, running down the football field, winning the blue ribbon for my show jumping at a horse show.
While my 33-year-old self no longer had the springy joints of my former adolescent athlete self, I realized there was still a chance for me to rediscover my childhood love of keeping moving.
For the sake of both my body and mind, I knew I had to rethink my fitness routine before I got hurt and burned myself out for good.
Less is more (effective and enjoyable)
I started by following my kickboxing coach’s advice and scaled back. I cut my daily workouts down to 30 or 45 minutes and added much needed rest days.
Admittedly, this transition was not easy for me out of the gate – I felt “lazy” and guilty after regularly pushing myself to the limit.
But almost immediately my sore joints and muscles felt sweet relief, which I quickly realized was worth it if I wanted to keep moving and avoid injury in the long run.
I also shook up my routine with new types of fitness classes and I finally started looking forward to my workouts again. Instead of hopping on cardio machines, I added barre, Pilates, cycling, HIIT, and hot yoga to the rotation to target different muscles in new ways and keep things fresh.
Plus, the community aspect of classes reminded me of everything I loved about playing on sports teams as a kid.
I’ve also since retired my vigorous running schedule, as I’ve found that walking my dog around my neighborhood with a podcast is a more effective stress relief method (not to mention, a great form of low-impact cardio ).
Now in my mid-thirties, I both look and feel better than I did in my twenties.
I attribute this to listening more to my body and mind.
When I’m stressed, I do yoga or go for a walk instead of sprints to decompress; if my body hurts, I rest or stretch; if I’m in the mood for a solid sweat session, I keep it short and leave the guilt at home.
Every practice I try to channel that inner child who is all smiles, panting on the football field and cheer mat. My fitness “routine,” I realized, is now much more effective and enjoyable because it really isn’t a routine at all.