The Intensity Conundrum

Step one to step 10? Or step one to step two? Could this be the difference between setting lofty goals versus living a consistent, healthy life? Trust me, we live in a world that fetishizes quick, big gains. But – I’ve seen it time and time again – betting big on a high-flying stock can plummet your portfolio. Being comfortable with slow, modest returns is often the way to achieve that long-standing success. It’s not sexy, but living a longer and happier life isn’t (just) about sexy.

This morning I finished up with my first client and had half an hour to do what I wished. Stop and grab a coffee, do a quick grocery shop, scroll through Instagram (the clear winner in my head this morning) or go use the excessively tall set of stairs near my next client’s house.

Instagram is just not a productive use of time. Plus, it eats up my data like crazy. I already had a coffee this morning, so if I felt like another one later, that’s fine. But I don’t need that much buzzing through my head early in the morning. I forgot to take a picture of our whiteboard grocery list, so the grocery store was out. Being that this is an article that eventually is going to talk about health and healthy lifestyles, you can guess that doing the stairs one out as the sun was rising today.

Note: this article probably came up because it’s actually quite a pleasant morning here in the early spring in Calgary. Thus I was able to comfortably be outside for more than a few minutes.

Recently, a gentleman procured a new stationary bike. I am assuming this was a new piece of machinery to use as a tool to increase his health and fitness. Obviously, I am a big fan of that idea. Being that this has been my career for quite some time. Every year, that quite some time just keeps getting longer. Funny how time works. We will do a comparison of two different methodologies and mindsets, with an eventual mathematical problem and solution. His biking versus my stair climbing.

The first I had heard about this bike was a comment about having to take a day off because the days of biking before that, led to muscles so sore that he couldn’t get on the bike that day. For arguments sake let’s say this is a 5-day period. Day one through three involved reasonably high intensity bike sessions. Day four was completely off, and day five was back on to an intensity strong enough that they were quite warm and wore shorts in a situation that I have never seen them wear shorts before.

My stair climbing would be usually seen as lacklustre in comparison. I walked, not ran. My breathing and heart rate were elevated, but not gasping or thumping. Let’s say that I could keep my hands in my pockets (it’s still not THAT nice in the mornings in early spring here) and have no fear of tripping going up or down the stairs. So that’s not as good of a workout as the aforementioned biking. Right?

I did the stairs yesterday. Two times down and back to the top. Today was three times down and back to the top. Extrapolating to five days to compare to the biking – I could do those stairs easily for three more days – even adding another one or two sets.

Welcome to my anecdote. A gentleman was explaining that he watched someone max out on pull ups. Let’s say 10. Then the next set was maybe 8. Then 5. Then 2. Total? 25. He took a more conservative approach. Yes he could max out at 10. However he stuck to sets of 5. 10 sets of 5 to be exact. Total? 50. Twice as many, but with more modest effort throughout.

Exercise science shows us that there are differences between maxed out efforts and modest efforts. However the behavioural knowledge that I’ve gleaned over my career shows that people often max out their efforts in the short term and do not keep it up. I encourage health and wellness from birth to death. In the short term I focus on taking people from step 1 to step 2. Rather than thinking about step 10. But step 10 will come as long as this person stays consistent. Consider walking the stairs daily – with some increase over time – instead of maxing out your effort and having to take days off. Maybe you’ll end up with 50 pull ups versus a meagre 25.

Final note: I am not proposing this as the right way to approach health and fitness. But I am giving you permission to do less more often.

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