In our health and fitness endeavors, the overwhelming number of options, alternatives, and information at our fingertips can make it difficult to have confidence we are making the right choice. Therefore, it can be helpful to have a guide in this decision-making process – a flowchart or funnel that you can apply to help narrow down the selections to what is best for you.
Enter the Gatekeepers
Whether it’s an exercise, a training program, a form of training or an entire system, a good first step is to put it through the “gatekeepers” – a series of questions (in order of importance) that can help to give you some assurance that your pick is offering a good prospect for success. This is because a “no” in response to any of them means that you are attaching an additional obstacle at the outset, which has the potential to quickly derail your efforts. So, before you get started, ask yourself each of these questions and ensure you’re giving yourself the best chance possible.
Is It Safe?
First and foremost, determine whether an exercise or type of training is safe – or at least that the risk vs. reward measures out in a reasonable balance. Admittedly, there is risk in everything we do. There are plenty of examples of people hurting their backs, bending over to tie their shoes, or twisting an ankle when they miss a step on a hike, so I’m not suggesting you avoid anything that presents a chance of injury.
Rather, look at how much risk there is in the activity and decide if the payoff is worth it. This metric will differ for everyone – mountain biking can be a great form of exercise, but if you’ve only been on a stationary bike, then the risk of injury from a crash will be far higher for you and likely outweigh the possible benefits. On the other hand, if you’ve been riding the trails your whole life, then this is a great way to work on, maintain and improve your cardiovascular endurance.
Likewise, if you’ve been strength training for years and have plenty of hours of barbell experience under your belt, then jumping in on a CrossFit class might be just the thing you need to take your training to another level. But if you’re coming back to training after a long layoff or you’ve never trained for a significant amount of time, maybe hold off on joining a class until you’ve got the experience and education to help you navigate it successfully.
Is It Accessible?
Once you’ve assessed the risk/reward ratio, the next question you want to answer is whether your choice is readily available. It’s great to find something new that you think you’re really going to enjoy, but if you don’t have easy access to it, then you’re setting yourself down a path with a big obstacle squarely in the middle.
For example, suppose there’s a 45-minute drive to and from the type of facilities you need for a particular program. In that case, once the novelty has worn off, you may find that the additional 90-minutes of travel time becomes the justification you need to start missing sessions.
But travel time isn’t the only consideration in terms of accessibility. Training progress requires you to be able to incrementally increase the difficulty or strategically modify/change the exercise. Suppose you’re training at home, and all you have is a 15lb kettlebell, a couple of 8lb dumbbells leftover from your rehab, and the stability ball you got a couple of Christmases ago. In that case, you still have an accessibility problem as a result of your limited equipment.
Is It Effective?
This can be a bit of a reality check because it can shine the hard light of truth on our plans, realizing that what we WANT to do might not be what we NEED to do.
If we WANT to improve our mobility (flexibility and active ranges of motion), then we NEED to ensure a daily practice of both general and individual-specific dynamic movements. This doesn’t necessarily mean “fast” or “ballistic” but rather that they are a moving exercise versus a static stretch (since the current body of research doesn’t support static stretching – at least exclusively – as having a lasting impact on tissue length or pliability).
If we WANT to get stronger, then we NEED to progressively (and safely) increase the amount of weight we’re moving. If we WANT to improve our muscular endurance or stamina, we NEED to increase the number of times we can do a movement. While they’re related, they are not the same – doing more and more reps alone won’t get us stronger, and exclusively utilizing heavier weights won’t improve our muscular endurance. We, therefore, need to know which type of strength is our focus and ensure we’re using the correct protocols required for our goal.
If we WANT to improve our aerobic endurance, we NEED to steadily increase the distance we are moving to allow our heart, lungs, and energy systems to operate more efficiently.
And if we WANT to lose body fat, then we NEED to adjust our nutritional plan to create a caloric deficit while still getting enough of the macronutrients to support our lifestyle.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these operate in a vacuum. The human body isn’t a series of disconnected or unrelated systems, and there will certainly be a crossover of effects. But the degree to which they are impacted determines the effectiveness. In other words, yoga won’t help you lose body fat or get stronger if a consistent and progressive strength-training program does not complement it. And daily attention to proper nutrition; similarly, heavy deadlifts alone aren’t going to improve your 10km run time – you still need to be running.
The Formula for Lifelong Success
In the end, the most important aspect of any fitness, health, and wellness program is whether you stick with it or not. No matter which way you go, there will always be elements of it that aren’t your favorite – after all, no meaningful change occurs entirely within your comfort zone. But if the overall picture is not something that you can see yourself committing to long-term, then you must ask yourself if this is truly the right choice. After all, long-term success is only achievable through long-term practice.