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Unlock Your Hidden Exercise Potential

Jun 30 2021
8 min read
older woman in a plank position on a pink yoga mat in front of mirror

What makes exercise harder to do? For most of us, the same two obstacles tend to crop up—namely, not enough time and motivation that waxes and wanes

So when we do get to the gym or a class, we want to make the most of it.

To do that, you might think about the type of movement you’ll do (running, swimming, dancing, bodyweight training); the time you’ll spend doing it (an hour-long group class, a 20-minute interval routine); and the gear you’ll use (kettlebells, barefoot running shoes, comfortable clothing). But there are other important factors—including some that aren’t so obvious—to consider. Knowing these will allow you to move your body efficiently and fully benefit from every workout.

These five elements can influence how energized you feel, how well you perform and how successful you are at achieving your fitness goals:

Mental Motivation

It can be tough to see results from all your hard work if you’re not in the right mindset. Setting a goal (I will walk three miles today. I will lose weight. I will run that 5K in the fall.) and focusing on it before and during your workout boosts your drive and can give you that extra push to put your all into it.

Nurturing your self-esteem and encouraging yourself—by surrounding yourself with motivating people like a workout buddy or a trainer, or repeating affirmations (You’ve got this! You’re going to feel amazing!)—keeps you in a positive frame of mind, too.

Try practicing mindfulness to help you remain in the moment, even when the going gets tough. For instance, you can follow the beat of energizing music as you run, notice the inspiring scenery during a bike ride or simply feel your heart pumping and the sweat beading on your skin. Being present reminds you that you’re intentionally moving for a reason—and in that very moment, you’re committed to making the effort.

Medical Evaluation

Understanding your body’s current state and how it operates is an important part of exercising effectively. An exercise physiologist or trainer can teach you about your body composition (body fat, lean muscle mass and bone mass), VO2 max (your body’s ability to consume oxygen) and target heart rate.

Knowing this information makes it easier to focus on the type of exercise you need most (strength training to increase muscle mass, cardio to burn more calories) and how you can perform at your best (reaching that target heart rate, increasing your VO2 max). It’s also essential to visit your doctor and discuss your family medical history and risk of disease, along with any other concerns you may have, like aches and pains, past injuries, stiffness, respiratory issues and so on.

Being more aware of your physical health helps you decide what kind of movement is best for you and achieve success based on what your body needs.

Behavior

While the effort you put in on the treadmill or at a fitness class is a major part of achieving your goals, what you do outside of exercise plays just as big a role in losing or maintaining your weight, moving with ease and feeling your best. Getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep allows your mind and body to rest and restore, giving you enough energy to face the day and push yourself to exercise with intensity.

Poor-quality sleep affects your body in ways that make it harder to control your weight; a lack of ZZZs stimulates your appetite, lowers your ability to control impulses (like eating another piece of cake) and leads to extra insulin production, causing your body to store more fat. In short, sleep deprivation too often leads to tougher—and often fewer—exercise sessions.

Unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking too much alcohol make it harder to reach your exercise potential as well. Cigarettes will obviously hurt your lung capacity and make exercise feel a lot harder, while the carbohydrates and sugar in alcohol may slow you down and contribute to weight gain, as well as headaches and nausea—all factors that fight your ability to run, swim, bike, strength-train and move with more ease. Talk to your doctor about how to begin getting on a healthier track.

Don’t discount stress, either. Feeling overwhelmed or anxious creates an imbalance in hormone levels and can distract you from your goals, making it harder to stick with healthful activities, including exercise. Sometimes being active can help reduce anxiety, but if you are too worked up to go to the gym or yoga class, speak with a friend, family member or therapist about what’s bothering you so you can begin to find ways to manage your stress.

Nutrition

You know that what you eat directly affects your weight, but the food you consume and when you eat it can also have an impact on your fitness performance. Start by evaluating your current diet, both your daily calorie intake (that will help you figure out if you’re consuming too little or too much) as well as the specific food choices you’re making. Knowing both will help you understand what’s fueling your energy level and how that translates into a great or not-so-great workout.

Eating foods that are easy to digest and packed with carbs (which the body turns into glucose to provide energy) and some fiber before your session is ideal. A slice of whole wheat toast topped with peanut butter and banana slices or Greek yogurt mixed with granola are good choices before you get moving.

Sugary drinks and foods may give you a boost when energy is flagging, but the spike is likely to be brief and not enough to keep you going, during a workout or otherwise. Avoid foods high in fat pre-workout, which are harder to digest and can cause cramping.

Consuming carbohydrates 15 to 20 minutes post-workout is important for restoring glycogen (stored glucose or energy).

Combining carbs with protein further helps your recovery; the amino acids in protein aid in rebuilding muscle tissue damaged during longer, intense exercise sessions. If you’re working out for an hour or more, aim for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein after you finish; a fruit-and-milk smoothie or slices of turkey in a whole wheat pita are good choices. Drinking water before, during and after your workout is essential to maintaining proper hydration.

Alternative Therapies

You may not have thought of integrative modalities like acupuncture and energy healing as good ways to enhance your exercise performance, but a number of these can help you feel better physically and emotionally.

Acupuncture can decrease arthritis and back pain, reduce migraines and premenstrual discomfort—all of which will lead to more enjoyable and productive workouts for those who suffer from these ailments. Magnetic therapy, a type of energy healing, can improve joint problems, while craniosacral and polarity therapies can address fatigue. Reiki can help ease muscle tension, and Zero Balancing is known to clear energy blockages throughout your body.

You may also want to try breathing techniques to release tension or give you more energy. Massage, of course, is especially soothing to muscles after a workout, and meditation and progressive relaxation can help calm your body and mind and improve your focus.

You can even integrate alternative approaches into the workout itself with qi gong, tai ch’i and yoga, all of which can help you connect with your spirit and improve balance and flexibility while strengthening and challenging your muscles.