Wanting to get fit or get more fit is a worthy and admirable goal. But if your goal is truly to be healthier, the average Facebook-fueled “30 days to your best bikini bod” challenge may not be the best way to reach it, especially for women in midlife and menopause.
“Do 30 crunches for 30 days” for rock hard abs, a chiseled physique, buns of steel, etc. We’ve all seen them, maybe thought about joining, maybe even tried one. And they can work. They can also be really physically and emotionally destructive.
In this blog, we’ll tackle the physical issues and how to address them; in part 2 we tackle the emotional concerns and detail the much healthier challenge our DPTs recommend.
They’re not all bad. But some can be problematic for your body and your emotional health. To learn more, we talked with those fabulous Docs of Physical Therapy, Dr. Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Dr. Brianna Droessler-Aschliman.
There are several things to be wary of when considering jumping into a challenge, they tell me. Here’s what to look out for:
The problem: Not enough recovery
According to Meagan, “Muscles don’t function optimally if you bring them to fatigue every single day. When you do strength training, for example, you’re shortening those muscles. They need recovery time to return to resting length. If you’re creating tension over and over and not stretching properly, not resting, then you’re at risk of developing muscular trigger points for pain, or tendonitis, or overuse injuries.”
She continues, “Exercise is cellular breakdown, it’s tearing down the muscle tissue. You need time to rebuild from that – that’s actually when your muscles get bigger and stronger. A day may not be enough time to recover to baseline and be ready to do that activity again. The goal is to make gains in strength, flexibility, and endurance, and you can’t do that if you’re only breaking down, not building up.”
The solution: Give your body time to recover properly
Challenges, unfortunately, can actively (ha ha) discourage proper rest. Often, rest isn’t built into the program. And because participants share their “progress” on social media, we can be motivated by competitiveness or embarrassment to carry on, even when our body is clearly telling us not to.
If it helps, “rest” doesn’t have to mean “do nothing,” our DPTs tell us.
You can choose “active recovery,” in which you do a different activity and reduce your overall level of intensity and exertion. Or you can choose to take a “rest day,” where you may do very little that raises your heart rate.
How do you know what rest you need?
Listen to your body, say our DPTs.
“If you wake up in pain,” says Meagan, “and it’s localized, and the pain gets worse as you do the activity, then that’s a loud, clear message from your system not to do that. If you know you’re getting sick, don’t tax your system. If you aren’t sleeping, take a recovery day.”
Brianna agrees: “If you’re really stressed, that may be a day to rest. But listening to your body is so critical. If you’re supposed to do this thing, and halfway into it, you’re just not feeling it and your strength and endurance are way down, stop. Stop now. That’s one of the problems with challenges – they encourage us to do this thing even when it’s not a good idea today. We worry about failing the challenge or the training plan by not following it perfectly, but it’s OK – it’s smarter, in fact – not to push and increase risk of injury or overuse strain.”
The problem: Too much repetition
Many challenges are single-activity: 30 days of crunches, running every day for 6 months, etc. Coupling repeated motions with insufficient rest is really asking for trouble, say our DPTs.
Says Meagan, “You can be active daily, but you need variability of motion.” That means not doing the same thing, or even similar things, day after day, she says. “Running and biking use mostly the same plane of motion, so that may not provide enough variability, but running and body weight resistance exercises or biking and yoga do. You need to offset the sheer repetition that can cause damage.”
The solution: Mix it up
According to Brianna, “Not doing the same activity every single day is better. Active recovery is fine; you don’t have to do nothing. But don’t do the same activity day after day. Don’t use the same planes of motion every single day, because you’re missing out on other components of true strength and health. Use all the planes of motion to make your whole body healthy and avoid injury.”
You need diversity of activity, but you also need diversity of intensity: harder effort some days, easier others. Challenges that have you do 100 push-ups for 100 days or whatever, don’t give you either.
The problem: Focusing too much on the activity.
One of the problems Bri notices in challenges is they focus entirely on the activity and the number of “reps.”
“But what about the rest of your day?” she asks. “Getting fit isn’t just about the time you’re active. Do you know how to refuel? If you’re not used to this level of activity, you may need to learn how to fuel properly, pre-exercise and post, so you get the nutrients you need and don’t binge eat because you’re extra hungry or feel ‘entitled.’”
And of course, because many of these challenges are focused on weight loss and appearance, people may intentionally not consume enough calories.
The solution: Make it about a healthy lifestyle
Meagan adds, “Again, it’s about listening to your body over following a schedule. If you’re dehydrated at the end of the day, or you haven’t eaten enough, or you’re tired or stressed, working out in a depleted state just so you can check off that box, is more likely to cause injury than provide benefit. Waiting until the next day when you’re fueled and rested, electrolytes are balanced, you’ve got protein on board, your glycogen is restored, is safer and smarter.”
The trick, say our DPTs, is in adopting a healthier lifestyle that takes everything into account: activity, yes, but also hydration, nutrition, stretching, recovery, and rest. If you're done thinking about your health before you get out of the shower, you won't see the results you're looking for.
The damage a poorly designed challenge can do isn’t just to your body. In tomorrow’s blog, we’ll take on the emotional toll of choosing the wrong challenge for you.
And bonus: Meagan and Bri – both athletes in addition to being DPTs – have some expert advice on how to do it right.
Have you ever done a challenge? Did it work for you? What was it like? We'd love to hear how it went, so let us know in our community forums, on our Facebook page, or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.
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