Whilst more and more of us are making positive choices around health and fitness, it is probably true to say that many of us are not getting the results that we want from our fitness regime, or perhaps more accurately, the results that we would expect, given the time and effort that we put in to getting in shape. This lack of results can be very frustrating, and, together with lack of time, is actually the most common reason that people cite for not exercising.
It is very common for many of us to do really well for the first week weeks and then all of a sudden, and for no apparent reason, progress grinds to a halt. This could be after a few weeks, maybe even months if we are fortunate, but eventually we hit a plateau, which leads to frustration and over time, apathy towards our once much loved fitness regime. But what are the reasons for this and what can we do about it? Here are five common reasons and some practical steps to fix it.
1. You live a 5:2 lifestyle
Many of us adopt an exercise and nutrition approach that involves us staying on the straight and narrow Monday to Friday, where we diligently exercise and eat our greens, but is then a bit more relaxed at the weekend, where we eat and drink most of the things that we have resisted for the previous five days. Whilst on one hand this might work for some of us when it comes to maintenance, it is highly unlikely to be a successful approach if our goals is to progress, especially if we are already in reasonable shape.
The reason is that most of us simply do not realise how many extra calories we take on board when we are not making conscious food choices. Couple that with late nights and excess alcohol, and you can almost guarantee that results will be limited. This is especially true for those of us who are super-strict during the week, as come Friday evening, the shackles are off, and we indulge in all of the things that we have been craving all week, as we have earned it, right? The problem is that it just does not work like that for most of us, not if we want to see results.
Most of us would do far better if we were a bit more moderate across the board and were not so extreme at either end. It might be as simple as allowing ourselves the odd indulgence during the week, so that we do not crave them at the weekends, or perhaps saving one of our exercise sessions for Saturday morning, so that we make better food choices throughout the day, both of which will likely have a huge impact. Whatever it is, consistency and moderation will always trump a 5:2 approach.
2. You exercise too often
I appreciate that it might seem strange for somebody who supposed to be a proponent of regular exercise to suggest that you go to the gym less, but for some of us, doing less structured exercise could actually lead to better results. It is important to recognise that exercise is a stress, which, as with all forms of stress, is good, just so long as we are not exposed to too much of it, for too long. We need periods of stress, in this case exercise, punctuated with periods of rest, which in this case includes good nutrition, sleep, hydration and relaxation, but if we keep pushing the exercise boundaries, without mirroring this with our rest and regeneration strategies, we will almost certainly hit the wall at some point.
For most of us, it is not an issue of over-training, rather under-recovering. Our bodies are capable of more than we think, but our early mornings, late nights, lack of quality sleep, inconsistent nutrition, and overall stress levels, will only allow us to push ourselves so far. If we ignore this, we will become physically and mentally drained, the quality of our training will drop, and we will not get the results that our time spent in the gym deserves.
Most of us would do far better to limit our tough gym sessions to two our three per week, coupling this with daily walks, or less intense forms of movement. This is particularly true for those of us who are older, as our ability to recover declines, and for those of us who do not live the life of a part-time athlete, which we would need to adopt of we were serious about pushing our exercise boundaries. We must remember that if we want the best overall results, we should only exercise to the degree to which we can recover.
3. You don't challenge yourself
The most effective exercise, especially if you are a more experienced gym-goer, is often the most challenging. In order to change, we need to force the body to adapt, which means posing questions of it that it has not ben asked before - that is, pushing it a little bit harder. I am certainly not suggesting that anything other than nausea inducing exercise is not worthwhile, far from it, but if you are after maximum results, in minimum time, you need to challenge yourself.
The 'train like you mean it' message has permeated the mainstream, with the rise in popularity of things such us high intensity interval training and metabolic resistance training, but the truth is that many of us do not push ourselves hard enough. The main reason for this is that, as mentioned previously, is that we train too often. What this means for many of us is that we are always slightly fatigued, meaning that we do not have the mentally or physically capacity to really test our limits.
Effective exercise is about quality, not quantity, and most of us would likely do better if we were to train less, but harder. Ambling through our workouts, uninspired and unmotivated, and going through the motions will not yield results in the long-term, and will eventually lead to frustration. Don't fall into the trap of doing five or six mediocre gym sessions, with inadequate rest. Do less, better. Push yourself two or three times per week, move daily, and listen to your body, and you will almost certainly see better results.
4. You always do the same thing
If you want to see results you need to provide the body with a reason to adapt and change. What this means in practical terms, is that we need to change things up. The reality is that any programme will work for a six weeks, especially if you are new to exercise, or it is something that is very different to what you have done previously, but doing the same thing over and over again, is very unlikely to yield a return that is different. Once we have adapted to the stimulus we need to give the body something new, something more challenging, so that it is forced to keep adapting and changing, which is the basic stress adaptation principle.
The trick is not to go crazy here though, because, as with most things, the key is to find the right balance. We need to stick to a programme for long enough so that we can get better and improve, but not for so long that we stagnate and our progress stalls. A change every four to six weeks is a good guide for most people, although it is worth noting that different people and personality types will fare better and respond differently to changes - some of us need more of it, some of us fare better with slightly less.
A good programme is actually a series of progressive programmes that build on each other. We should not make changes for the sake of it, but we do need to factor it in. Whatever the right timeline for you personally, remember that if your workouts are stagnant, so will your progress be - you need to make structured and progressive changes, particularly with resistance training.
5. Your nutrition is off
Unless you are a full-time athlete, or exercise like it, it is very difficult to out-train a bad diet. Expressed rather more crudely, exercising a couple of times per week does not buy you a free pass at the eat-all-you-like buffet. Sure, you have burned a few calories, and you need to fuel and re-fuel for your exercise sessions, but you probably have not earned the leeway that you think you, or wished that you had, nutritionally.
We probably know this already, but it is worth repeating, as it is something that we all rather conveniently choose to forgot, and yet is the primary reason that many of us do not see results. It is also worth noting that some of us respond better to exercise than others, and we may have more wiggle room with nutrition, but the non-responders amongst us, maybe less so. Exercise is hugely important, but nutrition equally so, the key is to find the combination of both that work best for you.
As a side note, it is generally not beneficial to make huge changes to both nutrition and training at the same time. A common mistake that we all make is increasing our level of activity, whilst simultaneously reducing our calorie intake. This might work initially for fat loss, but you will soon suffer from fatigue, food cravings and reduced gym performance, as mentioned in the points above. Introducing change more gradually allows us to be more consistent, and consistency equals better long-term results.