Get Healthy in 2016: Brad Stulberg on how to start an effective workout plan
This is the second of the five-part series, 'Getting Healthy in 2016,' in which SI.com's in-house sports scientist Michael J. Joyner will be talking with team doctors, trainers and experts from the world of sports to help our readers learn how they can improve their lives by eating, training and living better. For Part 1, which features advice from Dr. Brenda Davy on how to eat better, click here.
One of the top New Year’s resolutions is getting in better shape and going to the gym, but by the time February rolls around good intentions have fallen by the wayside for most people. To learn more about what you can do to avoid falling off the exercise wagon, I contacted Brad Stulberg, a health and fitness columnist at Outside Magazine, to get some ideas about how to approach the task of starting, and sticking with, a new workout regimen.
Dr. Michael J. Joyner: What are your top three tips for someone who’s looking to get to the gym or start an exercise program?
Brad Stulberg: Do something you enjoy. There are so many options, from running, to cycling, to biking, to CrossFit, to power lifting, to Zumba, and the list goes on and on. Working hard is hard. There’s no doubt about it, but if you enjoy what you are doing, it is a little bit less hard.
Tip #2: “Temptation bundle.” Temptation bundling is a concept borne out of behavioral science that says you should pair guilty pleasures with hard-to-do behaviors, and restrict them (the guilty pleasures) otherwise. For example, the only time I listen to rap music is when I am doing hard intervals (be it running, or on a machine like the elliptical trainer). There are many directions you could take this. Like trashy novels? That’s fine, but only allow yourself to read them when you are doing aerobic exercise. Same goes for certain TV shows. I’ve had people tell me, “I stay on the machine longer so I can finish the show.”
Tip #3: Re-frame exercise. Exercise isn’t just good for physical health and longevity. It’s also good for psychological health and intellectual horsepower. Exercise not only makes me a better athlete. It makes me a better writer (all of my best ideas come during exercise). It makes me a better professional (I’m more comfortable with being uncomfortable). And it keeps my ADHD in check without medication. I could go on and on when it comes to the far-reaching benefits of exercise. I think when people realize the scope of these benefits, their motivation to exercise increases, and they are willing to endure more.
MJ: For old guys like me (I am 57) you see and hear that one key is exercising first thing in the morning. What have been your observations about your peer group?
BS: I think morning exercise works for most people, regardless of age. When you wake up, you’ve got a full tank not only of physical energy, but also of psychological energy. Throughout the day, both energy sources become depleted. So I think it’s easiest to push yourself in the morning.
Another big benefit to morning exercise is that you are ensuring nothing is going to get in the way. Very rarely do matters come up at 5 a.m.
Finally, exercise can really set the tone for your day. There is a growing body of research that exercise enhances acute brain power. I’ve experienced this myself and have covered it in my writing. Exercise is like a steroid for my brain I take each and every morning.
MJ: Some people can go it alone, some people need a group. Do you think folks going the New Year’s resolution route would typically do better with a group?
BS: Groups are powerful motivators for exercise. They create a sense of “we’re in this together.” With groups comes increased support and accountability. Even if your sport is an individual one (running) and you’re schedule dictates that the majority of your runs are solo, thanks to technology, you can still harness the power of a group via social media and the like.
MJ: What about accountability? Many people in my age group and older aren't into technology as much. I know you have every device known to man. Are apps and wearables a bigger deal to younger people?
BS: I think apps and wearables are good because they get people excited about exercise, and can act as a stimulus for people to get started. But I don’t think they do much to keep people going. The best fitness tracker is a friend or training buddy. You get so much more out of that than an app.
MJ: Some people do pretty much the same thing week to week or even year to year. Others mix it up. Does it matter?
BS: I think variety is good for longevity—for both physical and psychological reasons. Mixing it up helps prevent against overuse injuries and burnout. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean doing different sports (though it could). For instance, you could only use the same aerobic machine, but there are many different workouts, ranging from forty-five minutes steady state to short bursts of intervals.
For more advanced athletes, mixing it up is absolutely critical. You want your hard days to be hard and your easy days to be easy. Each and every workout should have a purpose—to stress a particular system and/or capability, or to facilitate recovery. Variety is key, perhaps the key, to growth and development.
MJ: What would you advise folks to look for in a personal trainer or group leader?
BS: They should be likable and they should keep things simple. Anyone who is throwing around big words and fancy, complicated theories makes me suspect. At its core, progression in any physical activity is very simple. The over-complication of fitness is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking/writing about. At the end of the day, a coach/trainer/group leader is really there to motivate you and look at what you are doing with objective eyes. I’ve yet to find anyone that has some new secret plan to success. If you know of this person, have him or her call me ASAP.
MJ: Are there any specific programs you are high on? CrossFit is a big deal now, but it seems to me like it is almost a recycle of what we were doing with the JFK fitness programs of the 1960s.
BS: The program I am high on is physical activity. I don’t care if people are running, doing CrossFit, dancing, etc. If you are moving your body regularly, and gradually increasing the intensity and duration of that regular movement, then you are gold. CrossFit is popular, but it also gets a lot of slack for high injury rates and cult-like behavior. I think that is kind of funny, especially because most of that slack comes from runners. And as a runner myself, I can tell you that running is also a sport with high injury rates and cult-like behavior [laughs]. I think what we can glean from this that pretty much any athletic endeavor can be healthy or unhealthy—it all depends on how you pursue it. Recklessness will get you injured no matter what sport you are being reckless in.
MJ: What are your fitness goals, and what is your favorite workout? Are there elements from your personal experience that can help people stay on the exercise wagon?
BS: My fitness goal is simple: to keep on getting better. Right now, I’m focused on running. So that just means getting faster over time. I’d love to run what for me would be a fast marathon some time later this year.
My favorite workout is one that can be executed in just about any aerobic activity: Five sets of eight minutes hard followed by four minutes easy. I much prefer the grinding pain of a slightly longer interval vs. the more intense pain of a shorter all-out burst. Plus, whether I do this workout running, biking, or on the elliptical, without fail, I always have great ideas when I let my mind wander during the recovery periods. These workouts probably do more for my brain and writing career than they do for my body.
In addition to sixty to ninety minutes of daily aerobic exercise, I do a twenty to thirty minute circuit of weight-training 2-3 times a week. It helps me fill out my T-shirts (kidding), and far more importantly, may also help thwart dementia (serious).
My only additional advice is to build an identity as someone who loves doing the work. While the result (lose weight, run faster, etc.) is a nice motivator, even more important is learning to relish in the grind of getting to that result, of doing the work. So much of middle-class life today is pretty easy. We have trunks that close with the push of a button. It’s kind of nice to have an outlet where you have to physically work for something, where you can use your body for what it evolved to do.
For more ideas from Brad, follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg. Michael Joyner, is an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, these views are his own. You can follow him on twitter @DrMJoyner.