This time, you are going to GET FIT. This is it, this is the Monday where it all really begins. You open up Facebook, and voilà! One of your friends is inviting you to take part in a 30-day “crunch challenge” to get the Abs of Envy, Buns to Die For, and Toned Shoulders to Make a Strong Man Weep.
It’s “challenge” season as everyone tries to get their “bikini bod.” Here’s a hint: you get a bikini bod when you put a bikini on your bod. Voilà!
We talked to our awesome Docs of Physical Therapy, Dr. Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Dr. Brianna Droessler-Aschliman, about the perils of the 30-day (or 60 or 3-month or 1-year) challenge. Turns out, such challenges can be pretty hard on your body.
Not only are challenges hard on you physically, they can also take an emotional toll.
Part of the concern our DPTs have with challenges is they really aren’t a healthy approach to exercise.
Problem: Challenges can become compulsive
According to Meagan, “The psychology of the challenge is it gives you permission to be compulsive, which is not a healthy operating platform. ‘Healthy’ is listening to your body; when you default to a compulsive program, you’ve detached your head from your body – which is what you’re encouraged to do.”
Following a program means someone else is doing the thinking for you. Which, if you’re working with a qualified trainer or coach or PT, isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re not fluent in the language of your body yet, and you don’t have oversight from an expert, compulsively following a schedule can be dangerous.
Solution: Don’t turn off your brain when you turn on your body
We need to distinguished “disciplined” from “obsessive,” says Meagan, and that includes being disciplined about listening to your body. “Being truly tuned in as an athlete is the opposite of mindlessly following a challenge schedule. You should be so tuned in that ideally, you could guess your resting heart rate, guess your pace; tuning out isn’t helpful or healthy. Understand and respect what your body is telling you.”
Problem: Challenges fuel unrealistic expectations
Truthfully, most of us won’t have rock-hard abs in 30 days even if we follow these challenges to the letter. And instead of getting us the results we want, says Bri, these challenges “set you up for failure and burnout, because you’re so hurt and tired, you can’t do it again tomorrow.”
Solution: Focus on getting fit. You’re already fabulous.
“Before you think about starting a challenge, take stock – and be honest – of where you are now,” Bri says. “What level are you truly able to perform at? Don’t compare yourself with a friend who’s further along. Start at step 1 if that’s where you are, not at step 11 where your buddy is. Do a body inventory first, then pick a program that’s healthy for you.”
Challenges are one-size-fits-all when physiology is different from body to body. Some of us will never develop those amazing ab muscles no matter what; our bodies just aren’t built that way. But those challenges lead us to believe if we don’t have those abs, it’s some sort of failing on our part – if only we were more disciplined, we could be there too. But now we know better and can concentrate on getting healthier instead of more "ripped."
Problem: Challenges encourage unhealthy comparisons
Social media can be a wonderful tool for sharing our joys and sorrows and what we had for breakfast. It can also be utterly crap when it makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Don’t let social media dictate your exercise, says Bri. Facebook is very good at creating positive experiences (everyone on this challenge is doing so well, you should too) or negative ones (you’re not keeping up because you took a rest day). Apps can make us so competitive against one another, and that isn’t necessarily healthy or helpful.
Feeling badly about yourself isn’t a great mindset or motivation for getting fit, our DPTs tell us, because you’re going to want results really quickly in order to feel better. But seeing the results of your work on the outside takes time.
Solution: Celebrate the milestones
In the end, the only true comparison is “you now” versus “you before.” And that doesn’t mean the numbers on your scale. It may mean your lower resting heart rate, your faster recovery after exercise, your ability to run a quarter-mile further or lift a few more pounds today than last week.
And don’t forget all the things going on inside you, invisible to the human eye, our DPTs remind us: the advantage to your bones, your better balance, your ability to open a pickle jar without asking for help, your healthier heart and lungs, your better mood, your healthier brain, and probably your reduced menopause symptoms.
OK, challenges may not be the answer, but what if you really need some sort of external motivation, especially at a time in your life when time and energy and low?
Modify the challenge
If there’s a challenge that beckons, says Meagan, do it, but modify it to fit your body, your goals, and your starting point. Do the 30 days, just not in a row – do Monday/Wednesday/Friday instead.
Find kindred spirits
Brianna agrees and adds, “Take on a fitness challenge with people you really enjoy, who’ll push you, but not too far. Who are like-minded and encouraging and maybe starting from where you are. Have fun with it, and you’ll stick with it a whole lot longer.”
Go DIY (with help from our DPTs)
Or create your own challenge, perhaps with the help of a PT or trainer.
“An ideal challenge for me is a 3-day rotation,” Meagan says, “of cardio/strength/flexibility. That way you have two days to recover from each. Flexibility helps you recover from strength training by lengthening out the muscles, for example.
“Muscles operate best from optimal length and tension. If muscles are knotted and short from strength training, they don’t have the flexibility. If they’re overstretched from too much flexibility work, they also don’t work as well. By doing all the exercises, your muscles can be strong through their full range of motion.”
“A truly balanced challenge incorporates all the healthy habits,” says Bri. “It should emphasize activity, but also good sleep hygiene, optimal nutrition, hydration, and rest as well. Listen to your body; if you’re not sleeping well, that’s an indication that you’re over-training.”
Ideally, say our DPTs, the challenge would be tailored for you specifically: your age, fitness level, any injuries or risk of injury, even where you carry excess weight. And it would include using all the planes of motion, not a single, repetitive pattern like a crunch or pull up.
About those bones…. “Bones respond according to the lines of stress we put through them, so varying those forces and lines of stress helps with bone density as well,” says Meagan. “So varying your activity maximizes bone density as compared to the repetitive nature of single-point-targeting challenges.”
And women’s bodies are different from men’s, especially during midlife and menopause, so “unisex” challenges really … ain’t.
As Bri says, “Pay attention during menstrual cycles; hormones affect energy levels, cause you to retain extra fluid. Estrogen helps with blood flow, so if you’re in an estrogen-deficit state, you may need extra recovery time.”
Be all-over healthy
In the end, true fitness is about a whole lot of choices you make in your day, not just the 30 minutes you spend doing crunches.
As Meagan says, “There are so many decisions you make in a day that have much more impact on your health and well-being. Choose fruit over a cookie. Stand up and move every 30 minutes. Watch your posture. Breathe better.”
“If you really want a challenge, challenge yourself to develop healthy habits!” Bri says. “How about 30 days of not drinking sugary soda? You’ll probably have a better outcome than 30 days of crunches. Plus you’ll have that virtuous cycle of feeling better, so you want to do even more healthy stuff, so you feel even better."
Are you working on getting fit or fitter? What plan or program are you following, if any? Is it working? If you've discovered the magic bullet for fitness, you really need to share... 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.