When putting together a health & fitness program, we create an incredibly common dilemma of priorities between emotions and logic. Do you listen to your emotions and insecurities that desperately want to help your self-image by focusing on things like burning fat, building muscle, or setting new personal records? Or do you listen to your logic and reasoning that tells you to focus on things like minimizing your stress levels, risks for disease, and physical aches & pains? The answer may seem obvious, but it’s not as simple as just going with the latter and trying to suppress your emotions in favor of what you “should” be doing.
While I’ll be the first to say that your exercise program shouldn’t be built around fueling the ego, this doesn’t mean that the ego is evil and aesthetic goals should be shunned. The truth is, aesthetic goals tend to be what keep us excited about doing things that benefit our health & wellness. We are emotional creatures, and despite our best efforts, we typically make decisions based on these emotions far more often than based on logic and reasoning. We all know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and less processed and junk food, but there’s a reason that most of us continue to make decisions that we know better than.
The question is, how do we leverage our excitement toward aspects such as our appearance for the benefit of our overall wellness? And do we really even need to choose a side to focus on, or can we focus on both without sacrificing results in either area?
A New Paradigm: Can a Single Approach Yield Better Results in BOTH Areas?
The center of this dilemma, for most people, revolves around the idea that there are 2 totally different plans of action to improve either health or appearance. When people think of a plan revolving around aesthetics, they tend to think of things such as boot camp or the idea of “no pain, no gain”, whereas the perception of plans revolving around health tend to be practices such as walking or meditating. But what if I told you that there was a middle path that incorporates the best of both worlds while actually AMPLIFYING rather than COMPROMISING the results of each extreme?
Despite popular belief, attacking your body with barbaric training methods is NOT the most effective way to build a better body, and down-playing strength training altogether is detrimental to your overall health and wellness. The approach that I believe in is essentially one that combines the modern strength & fitness knowledge with Eastern mind-body principles.
How an Integrated Approach Provides Better Aesthetic Results Than The “No Pain, No Gain” Approach
The biggest problem with the “no pain, no gain” approach, aside from the fact that it can be miserable, is that it puts unnecessary stress and tension on the body. It IS necessary to break down muscle tissue so that it can build back stronger, but it is NOT necessary to do it in a violent, forceful way. When you view exercise as a battle between your mind and body, everything you do becomes tense and strained.
When this happens, bad habits follow. Two of the most common are holding the breath and inefficient muscle activity – and both of these limit your performance. Not only does holding the breath limit oxygen intake, but it also causes muscular dysfunction and stiffness. Every breath should naturally open the chest, shoulders, rib cage, and abdomen, but when the breath is held all of these areas stay closed, and over time this creates so much tension that proper breathing is no longer even possible (luckily this IS reversible).
It’s nearly impossible to hold your breath and expect to still move efficiently. Tension spreads throughout the body, and muscles that work AGAINST the intended movement of whatever exercise you are performing begin to fight against the muscles that should be doing the bulk of the work. So now you have tight, dysfunctional muscles and reduced performance. Whether the goal is to build muscle, burn fat, or perform better, minimizing tension is always vital. Less tension leads to more efficient movement, which leads to more effective exercise and muscle activation.
Tension is also closely related to stress, so when you increase one you tend to increase the other. Restricted breathing is also directly connected to higher stress levels. One of the biggest reasons that meditation helps to alleviate stress is because it promotes better breathing, which reduces tension and releases stress 24/7. Stress can potentially have even MORE limiting effects on aesthetic goals than even tension. Higher stress levels leads to hormonal responses that will majorly impact your fitness goals. Cortisol, for example, is created at much higher levels when you are under stress, and this impairs recovery between workouts, reduces energy levels, and promotes storage of fat, among plenty of other negative effects. Improvements happen BETWEEN workouts, so to get the most of your recovery, you must minimize stress placed on your body.
Why an Integrated Approach is the Most Effective for Creating Holistic Wellness
While activities such as meditation or low-intensity cardiovascular exercise are incredibly effective habits for improving health and wellness (not to mention improving aesthetic results by lowering stress and tension as covered above!), muscle has unfortunately been undervalued for its health benefits. Muscles aren’t just there for athletic performance and appearance, they actually may MANY roles in overall health that few people are aware of.
A key finding in recent years that has changed the way we view muscle is that we now know that muscle is not just affected by hormones (i.e. testosterone aiding in increasing muscle mass), but now we know that muscle tissue actually SECRETES hormones of its own. As a result of these hormones released by muscle tissue, it’s now understood that muscle plays an important role in the endocrine (hormonal) system and plays a key role in areas such as regulating blood sugar and sleeping patterns, as well as regulating inflammation responses. Increased muscle tissue has also recently been linked to reducing the likelihood of health issues such as Type II Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, and depression.
Another way that aesthetic training can improve overall wellness is through it’s psychological benefits. Mental health is a key part of overall well-being, and the health of the body tends to be a reflection of the health of the mind. While you don’t want to get caught up in an unattainable quest for physical perfection (spoiler alert: you’ll never stop finding faults no matter how good you look!), there is little doubt that improving your appearance can dramatically change your self-image and confidence, which spills into everything that you do. You don’t need to feel guilty for caring about your appearance (within reason of course!) because suppressing the natural desire to feel good about how you look can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness – neither of which is good for your health.
A Few Tips to Put This Into Action
Make strength training a regular part of your health & fitness routine, both for the health AND aesthetic results it can create. In addition to the benefits I already covered, building a little muscle also goes a long way toward ramping up your metabolism.
When exercising (whether strength, cardiovascular or both at once), always be aware of your breathing and your tension level. An easy way to monitor your tension is to pay attention to your facial expressions – a tense face is a sign of a tense body, and a relaxed face is a sign of a relaxed body. By simply relaxing your face (and perhaps even allowing a slight smile!) you will be amazed at how much easier and more enjoyable exercise becomes.
Working hard is great, but pain is not necessary! Exercise with the intention of creating an environment where your mind works WITH your body, not against it. You can begin to love and co-exist with the feeling of fatigue during exercise, but pain is your body’s way of saying STOP!
Whether it’s meditation, long walks, getting out into nature, or whatever allows YOU to feel more relaxed and less stressed, incorporate some form of stress-release into a daily routine. Activities such as watching TV, however, do NOT fulfil this purpose. In our over-stimulated modern lifestyles, taking some time to just be alone with ourselves is crucial to both our overall well-being AND our fitness goals. Remember, less stress means less tension and better recovery!